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Simple solutions: Krishnan in his kitchen. Photo: G. Moorthy
Simple solutions: Krishnan in his kitchen. Photo: G. Moorthy

SOMA BASU

Krishnan's mission, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, is to feed the mentally-disabled people roaming the streets.

WHAT he saw changed his life forever. Cycling down the streets of Madurai one afternoon in 2002, Krishnan saw an elderly man. He was destitute and mentally ill but what shocked the young hotel executive, who then worked for a five-star chain in Bangalore, was that the man was eating his own waste."I was benumbed. From a nearby eatery I purchased 10 idlis, washed the man's hand with the drinking water I was carrying and gave him the food, which he polished off in no time. Sleep deserted me that night as the old man's image kept flitting in and out of my mind."

Changed life

By the following morning, Krishnan, who was about to leave for a training programme in Switzerland, had decided to walk away from his future. He quit his job and to the dismay of his parents, he spent the next two months cycling around Madurai and distributing food packets that he purchased from his savings to mentally ill destitutes. "I started by using my mother's kitchen", he recalls. Single-handedly cooking three meals a day for 40 people, packaging and distributing them was no easy task. But Krishnan was determined in the face of his parents' worries about his new found "vocation".But now, they are proud of what he did. Krishnan never stopped providing free food for people but the numbers have grown steadily. Today, about 125 people are covered by the free food scheme. They had to build a separate kitchen in the house. His father, an LIC employee, used to pitch in occasionally, chopping vegetables and packing the food items. One day, a young boy, Mani, walked in after quitting his job in a local hotel to help Krishnan in cooking.

Informal network

Every day, a red coloured van criss-crosses Madurai, covering a distance of 120 kilometres and delivering food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Maruti van is a donation from a family friend and funds that come in from friends and relatives are channelled into the Akshaya Trust, which he set up. "Since we feed 120 people now, we no longer make packets. Food is carried in the same big vessel in which it is cooked and served on disposable homemade plates of newsprint and butter paper. We collect used plastic bottles from hotels and fill it with potable water for distribution along with food," says Krishnan, who now has two more volunteers in his team, a driver and a helper. The Akshaya van stops whenever it spots someone in need. It could be on the top of a road or rail bridge, bus stops, busy market, traffic crossing or the railway junction. But the team feeds only the mentally ill destitutes. "Only if there are leftovers, we distribute it among beggars or other able-bodied poor," says Krishnan.And his menu is like a regular home menu. "I feed them what I eat myself and there is never any compromise on quality. Every meal is cooked fresh," he asserts. Breakfast is either idli, dosa, ven pongal or rava upma. Lunch and dinner vary between rice varieties like biriyani, curd rice and bissi bela bhaath.

Keeping it going

Krishnan claims that not a single meal has been missed so far. "My family or friends step in if I am ill or away," he says. "If I leave them hungry for a day, they will again return to garbage bins," fears Krishnan whose arrival is awaited by many. "Some smile when I give them food, some don't even look at me, acknowledge or recognise me. But I go to them daily. There are some who remember their names and family but those who don't, we have named them after film stars," he says.Krishnan guesstimates that there are at least 500 mentally deranged people roaming the streets of Madurai. But he is able to cover only 120, including 35 women, given the time constraint and also the cost.Word about Krishnan's good deed has begun to spread locally, helping him to get sponsors for 22 days in a month. Mostly individuals have committed to donate money for a full day's meal (Rs. 4,000 a day) every month. The remaining days are covered with donations from Krishnan's parents and from other people.

New source of income

Krishnan uses his catering training and ability to full use. He claims that he can chop one kilo of onions in five minutes flat, knows how to make 100 types of pickles and uses only homemade garam masala containing 30 ingredients for his dishes. He has also started a catering service. Launched eight months ago, he takes orders for up to 500 people and the profit meets any shortfall in feeding the hungry disabled people.Krishnan is not the type willing to rest on his achievements. Having run the feeding scheme, he now aims to have a home for the 30-odd mentally deranged women who are on the roads. He has already taken a building on rent and is seeking advice on how best to run it.The Akshaya Trust can be contacted at: 0452-4353439 and +919843319933.India Beats features stories of the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.

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