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
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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.”
Rahul Khera and Gautam Jindal, volunteers (aka hunger heroes) at Feeding India, were among the many Delhi NCR residents accustomed to seeing hungry children pick up half-eaten burgers or stale sandwiches from the dustbin and savour those with the brightest smiles. Like many others, they also had the will to promote equitable food distribution but was perplexed about the approach, until they learnt about the community fridge initiative which has gained unprecedented success in Saudi Arabia and few other European countries. Meanwhile, community fridges were already being installed outside restaurants or in public places in a handful of cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Coimbatore and Kochi.
Thank you for overwhelming response for the Happy Fridge concept. We need more funds from you to install more fridges like this across India. With the limited funds avaialble Feeding India was able to install three fridges only. Kindly donate here http://bit.ly/happyfridge
Needless to mention, with a shocking 103rd rank in the Global Hunger Index and a food wastage estimate of around Rs 58,000 crore – India was perhaps the best country to implement such an initiative. With Gautam’s help, an enthusiastic Rahul invested his own savings to install a ‘Happy Fridge’ outside his residence at Sun City, Sector 54 in Gurgaon. Set up in 2017 by these Feeding India volunteers, the fridge in Gurgaon has inspired the NGO to scale up the project across India.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
‘Happy Fridge’ fostered many smiles
It didn’t take long for the local residents to learn about this laudable endeavour. They welcomed it, as wastage of excess food was a recurring problem in almost every household. “Intimating the localities was no mammoth task, thanks to social media. However, it was difficult to spread the word among those who actually needed the food,” shares Rahul, who went from auto stands to slums, inviting rickshaw pullers, ragpickers or roadside vendors to avail the community fridge any time they feel hungry. “The security guards of our residential complex played a huge role in explaining how the fridge works to the beneficiaries,” he adds.
The operational and maintenance costs of the ‘ happy fridge ‘ are being maintained diligently by the community members.
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“I remember one young man who had arrived from a village looking for some menial day job. Somehow he had run out of his paltry savings and had no money to buy one decent meal a day. For about a month, our happy fridge was his solace, till he earned his first salary from a housekeeping job,” shares a jubilant Rahul.
In another incident, a truck driver returning in the wee hours of midnight was starving after a whole day’s hard work. He had run out of cooking fuel at his home, so our fridge was at his rescue.
“The residents keep all sorts of palatable dishes in the happy fridge, ranging from dry snacks, fruits to cooked meals. Sometimes, they even keep raw vegetables, to ensure not a single bit of good food ends up in their trash while other people go hungry to bed,” reveals Rahul.
On an average, each happy fridge supplies around 10-15 meals in a day. The gratitude and pure smiles of the hungry souls after a fulfilling meal are more than enough to continue to motivate Rahul and his neighbours. In fact, inspired by him, many other communities in the Delhi-NCR region set up community fridges in their areas.
Since the past few years, Feeding India has been a prominent organisation working in the forefront to solve the hunger problem in India. Primarily, they were involved in redistributing leftover food from weddings and parties among the underprivileged people in different cities of India. Their volunteers, better known as “Hunger Heroes of India”, worked actively to bridge the gap between food wastage and food crisis.
“We used to get a lot of calls from individual households to collect their excess food. However, unfortunately, we lacked the manpower and planning to launch our programme on a door to door basis. We were desperately looking for an alternative when we learnt about the community fridges,” shares Srishti Jain, co-founder of Feeding India.
After interacting with Rahul Khera and other campaigners of community fridges, Feeding India decided to amplify this extraordinary project throughout the length and breadth of India. Presently, they have launched the #FightFoodWaste campaign to install 500 community fridges – nicknamed ‘ Happy Fridge ’. So any passer-by – be it a kid going to school without a lunchbox, or a labourer returning home late at night with no promise of a dinner – can now grab a pack of biscuits or a bowl of ‘dal-chawal’ (rice & lentil soup) to satiate their hunger. Click here to contribute for ‘ Happy Fridge ‘ and ensure India never sleeps hungry again.
Feeding India also urges everyone to make a promise to stop wasting food and instead consider donating it to those in need.