COVID-19 crisis Chennai

A Chennai volunteer offers tea, biscuits to frontline workers, and records the life stories of the broken and helpless

A resident of Mandaveli, Baskar Seshadri has been making short Facebook posts about the common people he encounters during his volunteering work

The pandemic has blurred the line between the quotidian and the sublime. Though part of the landscape, two broken lives and a ramshackle vehicle had been stubbornly ignored by habitues of Kutchery Road and Santhome High Road. It were as if they were invisible. And then, with the COVID-19 crisis stalking the streets, and the quotidian taking centre stage, these three could be ignored no longer.

Besides the current crisis, it took a “peripatetic volunteer” to unearth the three — a former mahout who had evidently seen better days, a visually-challenged woman and a forgotten tricycle — in a neat package of neglect and misfortune.

It all began end-of-March when this volunteer Baskar Seshadri decided to distribute tea and biscuits to conservancy workers and contract workers with the Corporation; police personnel standing at their post; and even migrant workers staying at a makeshift shelter, in the Mylapore, Mandaveli and Santhome areas.

He now describes it as a lockdown ritual: Offering them tea and biscuits in the morning and evening, every day, and an afternoon session thrown in “if the cash flow permits it”.

Baskar thinks the initiative would have petered out after a day or two, or at the most a week, if not for the encouragement and generosity of his friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, many of them staying connected with him on Facebook.

With contributions flowing in, he continued the work, and at the time of the article going to press, Baskar said he was on the 45th day. He would be putting out a list of contributors, with their contributions against their names, regularly, on FB.

Somewhere along the line, stories of people by the wayside way started coming. Shared on his Facebook account, some of them are riveting.

For, they don’t come from the confidence of having mastered literary devices — almost all of them are just snippets of information and are not carefully-crafted. But they sure seem to be coming from a heart that could feel the pain of being human.

Gripping stories

Here are two of the most gripping stories told so far: It was about how two elderly couple, running a dry cleaning business on East Mada Street in Mylapore, past their last rupee, looking famished and traumatised, eagerly accepting the offer of free food. Baskar shot a photo of the couple for his FB snippet, and the sorrow-stricken eyes were hauntingly painful.

“The old man looked fragile, and his wife broken. Through the FB post, a young lady discovered that this couple were her neighbours and was shocked to learn that they were going through such a difficult time and she was not even aware of it; I learnt that she offered them monetary assistance,” reveals Baskar.

The other is about a man that Baskar identifies as Thangappan, “a former mahout from Kerala, around 65 years old when he came to Chennai many years ago, and he was battling a chronic condition and homeless.” There was Jaya, partially blind, aged over 60, and just as homeless. They struck up a friendship keeping each other company, as they used an old tricycle lying abandoned on Kutchery Road, not too far from the Santhome church, for a shelter.

A tarpaulin sheet would be the roof. While Thangappam stayed well inside the triycle, Jaya would stay planted on the edge of the vehicle.

Baskar started providing them with tea and biscuits, and he recalls how Thangappan would call out, “Chai!” from inside the covered tricycle when Baskar would be within earshot, just to acknowledge the latter’s presence.

One day, Baskar learnt that Thangappan had been shifted to a hospital as his ailment had gone out of control. Discharged a few days later, Thangappan however did not last long.

“He was lying dead in the tricycle, under the tarpaulin, for 12 hours before Jaya recognised the fact,” Baskar says.

In a follow-up post on FB, Baskar reported that Jaya, now all alone, was shifted to a Corporation shelter, and posted a photo of the woman alongside the snippet.

Would the tea charity continue? Would the stories keep coming?

“For the past five days, I am running on empty, but I am continuing with the initiative. It takes at least ₹ 2,000 every day to do this work,” explains Baskar, who is battling chronic leg pain due to arthritis.

“I explain my condition, and where I would have to stand for long, I would ask for a chair,” discloses Baskar.

“The distribution is done by a tea man, who follows me on his scooter, a tea drum wedged into place, as I ride along on my motorcycle.”

Baskar states that tea-swigging has become a part of these frontline workers’ routine.

“If I am delayed even a wee bit, I would get a polite call from a Corporation worker who would say that they are all waiting. It would be young contract workers, waiting with pen and paper, and ready to go into the neighbourhoods for COVID-19 enumeration work,” says Baskar.

“There are halting points on the tea route,” he explains, “The Infinity Park in Santhome, where the Corporation staff would gather for a briefing by the sanitary inspector, at 8 a.m.; another halting point is the Corporation office on Kutchery Road, where those roped in for enumeration work would assemble. There is Luz Corner where the police would be stationed on lockdown enforcement duty. I was providing tea and biscuits, and even food, to the police till there were instructions to the personnel that they should not take any eatables from outside sources. Another stop would be a community hall in Alwarpet where migrant workers are staying — a little boy always announces my arrival, ‘Tea thatha (tea grandpa) has come!'"

He continues, “Between every two halting points, I look for blue shirts, conservancy workers of the agency employed by the Corporation.”

And of course, there are the Thangappans and Jayas out there to be waited upon, hand and foot, and their stories to be gathered.

“On an average, I serve tea and biscuits to 140 people every day,” lists Baskar, who sells “inverters and generators and takes up electrical contracts for a living.” This resident of Thiruvengadam Street in Mandaveli, where he moved in only a few months ago after having stayed at Rama Rao Road in Mylapore for nearly two decades, believes he would find the strength and resources to continue this work as long as it stays meaningful and relevant.

Baskar can be contacted at seshadribaskar@yahoo.com or 9345061767

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 6:16:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/lockdown-notes-on-lives-by-the-wayside/article31606400.ece

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