The Natarajan house in the east block of Panchsheel Park stands out completely from its neighbours. There is the museum in a tree, where odd ornaments and disjointed mechanical parts hang from the branches, affixed with an aquarium and a mini-fountain. The main gate to the house is left wide open, with the MatkaMan van parked right inside.
As soon as the doorbell is rung, and a thin, elderly man emerges from within the house, donning a faded green Che Guevara T-shirt and orange crocs. A blue scarf is tied around his nearly bald scalp. ‘Hi! I’m Alag. Come, I’ll show you around,” the famous MatkaMan graciously introduces himself.
He wastes no time and starts giving a tour of his garage and his kitchen. His passion for engineering and his efficiency in the same is evident in the nooks and corners of his home.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
Support the cause you care for. Browse All Campaigns
He shows me the fridge where he stores his lassi for the passers-by, and the space he allocated to storing cycle tyres, which he sells at highly subsidised rates to the labourers.
“One of the main issues that plague our community is that the rich always have a tendency to talk down to people who might not do so well. We’re all human beings! We all deserve dignity,” MatkaMan asserts.
The Matka Van Dissolves The Wall Between Rich & Poor
Soon he opens the door of his van and a big surprise awaits any spectator. On the top, there are three panels dotted with dozens of little defunct odometers and fuel gauges scavenged from old machines. Most of the space inside the van is taken up by the contraption he built with a water motor and tank, with a tube and a nozzle. At the back where one would expect a spare tyre, there is another contraption to support the goods he sells at lower-than-market rates to the poor and some spare Matkas (earthen water vessels).
He takes the van out, with his trusted companion Snoopy the beagle in the passenger seat, right down the alleyway in front of his house leading to the colony road that is next to the main road. What separates the two is a footpath and a wall fashioned out of thin intersecting steel rods.
“I wonder what the purpose of making such a barrier is. What invasion are they so scared about? People in the colony justify this wall saying that it’s meant to protect us from thieves walking outside. But what is this mentality? Just because someone is a pedestrian and not driving a Mercedes, that makes them a thief?” Alag expresses his deep disappointment with the mentality nursed by his neighbours, if not, most of the upper-middle-class population in India.
MatkaMan’s Omelette Stand – Free Breakfast For The Needy
He starts setting up his omelette stand, which provides a free morning meal for women, children, and anyone who can’t afford. For those who can, it’s just fifteen rupees. The stand is yet another example of his engineering expertise. It fits into a space of about four feet in length and two feet from the ground, but once unfolded it can accommodate two working stations to cook omelettes.
“I was inspired by the founders of McDonald’s, who focused on making an efficient workspace in a small area. I also make sure everyone working here wears aprons. More than hygiene, it also establishes dignity for who we serve. Rich people get served in aprons all the time, why not the working class? Or anyone else?”
At his omelette station, Natarajan doesn’t intend to serve down to people like he’s their saviour descending from some throne; he respects all the people who stop by, who deserve just as much humanity as anyone else.
Friends Who Help MatkaMan
Accompanying him every morning is Dr Poonam Sehgal, a former professor at IIM Lucknow. As she flips omelettes from the pan to the plate for two little kids headed to school, their faces light up with a smile and they say, “Thank you Daadi!”
“I used to watch Alag (Natarajan) work every morning, and I’ve been his friend for quite a long time. So, I just started working on the stand with him.” As she says this, an expensive blue sedan passes by the turn, slows down in front of the Alag’s stall, and then goes off again.
“Weird little things like this keep happening. So many people from the colony and members of the club stop by and look,” she reveals.
“And when they have nothing better to do,” Natarajan adds, “They go on the WhatsApp group and start discussing how it should be shut down because apparently, it causes a traffic jam. You tell me, how can such a small stand cause a traffic jam? These are all excuses because what they really want is for the omelette stand to shut down because of the ‘kind of people’ who come here.”
“A sense of community absolutely needs to be instilled. It should be the responsibility of the affluent to provide resources for the greater community, but all they want to do is shut themselves up in their palaces and isolate themselves by the means of pointless walls. They’re all ready to donate to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but no one is comfortable to open up to the needs of the community right outside. Charity begins in the house and just outside the house. And it needs sincerity,” MatkaMan expresses his anguish.
MatkaVan Is Also A Mini Fire Truck
Sharply at 9 AM, the omelette stand collapses back into its tiny unit, and Natarajan is now off in his van to fill-up the matkas around Delhi.
Wading through the Delhi traffic, Natarajan opens up, “I was returning back home in this van one day when I got a call from my neighbour saying that a fire broke out in her house. Without much planning, I got there as quickly as possible with the van and used the tube attached to the motor as a fire hose.”
Similar fire mishaps at another building nearby and a motorcycle accident made him realise that there is more potential to the MatkaMan van than just for transporting water. “I got this nozzle flown down from America, and also ordered a fire ladder. These small modifications have now made this a mini fire truck, capable of shooting water up-to 60 feet high, and with the 5 feet fire ladder that can easily extend to 20 feet. So, all residents of Panchsheel Park now know that I have this capability myself. Imagine such a van in every locality.”
Cleaning Footpath With Bare Hands
A couple of red lights later, the van reaches the first matka stand; placed outside a police check-post. A smiling cop greeted Natarajan. “Aaj safai karne aaye ho? (Have you come to clean today as well?)” he asks, as Natarajan bends down and immediately started picking up all the trash and muck with his bare hands.
Once he was done, he washed his hands and picked up a box of lollipops. “You see that guy over there?” he points to a makeshift tent across the road. A man sat beside the tent, with hot coals and metal rods in front of him. “This guy is a blacksmith. He does such an important service to the community. Yet look at the living conditions of his family,” MatkaMan exclaims.
Inside the tent sat his wife and three children, who all greeted Natarajan. Next to them was a water cooler, which Natarajan had gifted them. “Iske neeche se paani nikal raha hai (water is leaking from this one),” a little girl tells him.
“Hmmm. Chalo theek ho jayega. (No worries, it will be fixed)” he reassures her. He offers them lollipops and is off on the road again.
Donating A Moped To A Poor Ice-Seller
“I really want you to meet the next guy. He’s an interesting man,” MatkaMan hints about his next destination.
The van turns into a lane ahead of IIT-Delhi, stopping near another police check-point. A man with a heavy white moustache is seated. He springs up to greet Natarajan and calls, “Sahaab ke liye chai le aana. (Bring tea for sir)”
The man turns back to where he was sitting and picks up an ice pick to cut blocks out of long slabs of ice lying wrapped in brown cloth bags. “A few years ago I saw this guy delivering ice on his cycle. I asked him, “Doesn’t the ice melt by the time you reach?”
He explained to me that he can’t afford a bike. Next day I came and took him to a showroom.” The man was now proudly putting on a helmet and loading ice onto his TVS moped. “He asked me how he can pay me back, and I told him to simply offer help to whoever is in need – to pass it on,” smiles Natarajan.
Cremating Unclaimed Dead Bodies To Offer Dignity To The Dead
“This van was born as a transport for dead bodies on their way to be cremated,” Natarajan takes a walk down the memory lane, sharing his life story. Before starting his MatkaMan drive, he had spent two years volunteering at Shanti Avedna Sadan – a centre for the terminally ill – to perform last rites for the patients.
“My wife deserves a Padma Bhushan for the work she did at that time. I used to stop by the home sometimes on my way to the cremation, with a body in the van parked right outside. In many families that would be unacceptable, but she didn’t complain; and why should anyone? They were a living, breathing person once and deserve a dignified end.”
No Fear Of Death Makes Him Indomitable
He stares off into the traffic, pauses, and says, “Those days taught me a lot about death. Most importantly, to not be afraid of it. I am a cancer survivor. I don’t save money for emergency operations anymore. I’m 70! If my time comes, I don’t want to try to prolong anything. I’d much rather use that money for the community.”
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
Support the cause you care for. Browse All Campaigns
Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.