Amid total lockdowns, this pushcart offers hope for Chennai’s hungry, ailing, and needy 

Written By: Sidharth MP WION
CHENNAI Published: Jan 10, 2022, 05:36 PM(IST)

For those that aren’t well aware, gruel isn’t something that is greatly desired as a meal. Photograph:( WION )

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Men, women, young, aged, locals, and travellers were among those seen waiting for their turn to collect the wholesome and nutritious meal that was being served at a pushcart, operated by the Barter trust. 

Well into the third wave of the pandemic and resultant lockdowns, well-to-do city-dwellers have learnt to live by themselves and work remotely, while conveniently having food delivered to their doorsteps. 

The recent Sunday total lockdown (January 9) was the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu's first shutdown of the year, and it went off without a hitch.

For those that want fancy dishes delivered from a multi-cuisine or exotic restaurant, it’s easily done in a few taps and clicks. But, what if it’s the plain and humble gruel (locally known as Kanji) that you’re looking for? How do you get it amid a total lockdown? 

For those that aren’t well aware, gruel isn’t something that is greatly desired as a meal. Owing to its bland nature, it is recommended, especially when people are ill or on some kind of medication. Of course, there are also a few who enjoy the thin porridge and consume it as a favourite. 

Sadly, many don’t have the luxury and freedom to pick and choose. Gruel is a means of keeping body and soul together. 

On Sunday, a serpentine queue was seen outside Chennai’s Rajiv Gandhi Government hospital, which is right opposite the iconic Chennai Central railway station. 

Men, women, young, aged, locals, and travellers were among those seen waiting for their turn to collect the wholesome and nutritious meal that was being served at a pushcart, operated by the Barter trust. 

At noon, nearly 500 people had collected their meals from the cart, in less than an hour. While most came with vessels in hand, those that travelled from afar had none. Even they didn’t return with empty hands or an empty stomach, the volunteers manning the cart had provided them vessels as well.

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"Our snack shop is just a short walk away from the General hospital… We’ve often seen attenders of poor patients and those with severe illness request for gruel at hotels and in shops like ours.. they never used to get it as its not part of the hotel menu… most patients need it as they are intubated and can’t have solid food… In fact, it was to cater to them that we started providing gruel right outside the hospital" K.Rajeev, tells WION.

Operating three snack shops and a small hotel, Rajeev says, it’s divine intervention that he’s been able to keep the service running every single day for nearly seven years, despite various challenges. 

Owing to the total lockdown on Sunday and anticipating the plight of those arriving from other states via train, the cart supplied breakfast (pongal, vada), lunch (gruel, variety of rice, sweet) and dinner (idiyappam and coconut milk). With the government hospital canteen also closed, the cart had to feed nearly 1,000 people throughout the day. Rajiv shells out nearly Rs.7000 per day to prepare the meals and get them distributed via his volunteers. This cost may go up or down depending on how many people they serve and the dishes they provide. However, he’s hopeful that he can continue the service, with God’s grace, as his primary hotel and snack business gradually expands.

"Among those who approach us are patients undergoing post-operative care, battling cancer, undergoing dialysis, etc… Most can’t even afford to travel back to their homes... How can we let them go hungry?" Rajeev asks, filled with compassion. On about five days a month, the meal expenses are sponsored by good Samaritans, on the occasion of birthdays, death anniversaries etc. On the remaining days, the costs are borne by Rajeev himself. Struggling to describe the feeling of being able to help so many needy people, Rajeev urges those wanting to contribute to first visit his cart and understand the impact of their work. 

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