In the town of Madurai, much before the temple bell rouses people from slumber, the kitchen fires of this house in the nondescript locality of Doak Nagar Extension crackles to life.
Outside, the sky is still enveloped in a cloak of darkness and there is a fading grey line dividing the night gone and the morning waiting to drench the world in daylight. The clock chimes four times.
In between sips of hot filter kapi, Narayanan Krishnan, 30, is engrossed in cutting vegetables. The click-clack of the knife meeting the chopping board ruffles the morning’s stillness. He is unaware of the passing of time as the azure sky gets painted in strokes of orange by the rising sun.
The occasional horn of a passing auto-rickshaw reminds one of the world outside. Inside, the aroma of hot uppuma and sambar teases the nostrils.
It is a little after 6, when Krishnan is done with cooking. With his man Friday Mani’s help, Krishnan transports large containers carrying steaming uppuma (a delicacy prepared with semolina/rava) and sambar (an accompaniment to go with it, made of lentils and vegetables) into a van parked outside. Soon the vehicle hits the road.
Some distance away, 65-year-old Muthammal notices the approaching van, and when it stops by her side, you can’t help noticing her torn sari and matted hair as she looks expectantly at it. Krishnan hands her a packet of food and a bottle of water, and watches her smile.
At the next stop, an old man sitting on the roadside picking through a garbage bin, turns when he recognises the horn of the van. Krishnan steps out and opens a food packet, placing it near him. Patting the man on the back, Krishnan says: “It’s uppuma today with sambar. Do eat it.”
For the destitute, finding the next meal is a challenge, but in Madurai, within the next three hours, about 450 people living on the streets have had their first meal, thanks to this good samaritan.
As for Krishnan, he is busy buying fresh vegetables from the market for the next meal he is going to prepare. And we get chatting.
“We feed only mentally challenged people and the old who are abandoned by their family,” Krishnan says, referring to his NGO, Akshaya Trust. “We don’t feed beggars or the able-bodied.”
Since its inception in 2003, Akshaya Trust has served more than 1.7 million meals to the hungry and homeless.
In recognition of his humanitarian services, Krishnan was chosen to be among the Top Ten CNN Heroes of 2010. When he walked the red carpet at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles for the award ceremony that year, he placed the quiet temple town of Madurai on the global map.
What started as a one-man initiative to help the less-privileged has today grown into a global phenomenon, with Akshaya Trust affiliates in the United States and the Netherlands.
Also on the cards is Akshaya Home in Madurai, which will be a haven for the abandoned. Working towards this with a missionary’s zeal is Krishnan, a Hotel Management graduate who quit his career in a five-star hotel and decided to follow his heart.
In June 2002, Krishnan, then 21 and working in a star hotel in Bangalore, came to his hometown Madurai on holiday. While driving his family to a temple, he noticed an old man sitting by the road, eating his own faeces.
“I was shocked,” he remembers. “And I could not help thinking of the food that is wasted every day in the hotel where I worked.”
Krishnan bought the old man a packet of idlis and watched him eat.
“He looked at me with tears in his eyes. I think that moment ignited a spark in me,” he says.
Over the next few days, he distributed food packets to people living on the streets, and soon it was time to get back to Bangalore.
But Krishnan could not forget the look on the old man’s face, and found it hard to concentrate on work. “Guilt nagged me. It affected my work. One day, I put in my resignation and returned home. But I did not inform my parents about this — they learnt of it later when a friend called to enquire why I had not resumed work.”
Naturally Krishnan’s parents were disappointed. Hailing from a middle-class family, he was their only son and their eldest child.
“They were not able to accept it. They hoped I would get over my involvement with the homeless after a couple of days and return to work. I had quit a promising career that offered me an opportunity to work in Switzerland on a two-year contract. Obviously they were unhappy,” he says. “Some of my father’s friends even suggested taking me to a psychiatrist for counselling. Another friend advised taking me to a shrine in Kerala known for driving away spirits possessing poeple.”
“I did not want to cause my parents pain, but I also wanted to serve people with their approval. So I asked them to join me when I distributed food packets the next day,” he says.
When his parents accompanied Krishnan the following day, an old man told his mother: “Today we are able to eat, thanks to your son. Our children have abandoned us. You are blessed to have such a noble son.”
“My mother was touched,” Krishnan says. “On her return she told me: ‘As long as I am alive, I will work and feed you while you feed the hungry.”
Until then Krishnan was buying food packets with his savings and distributing them. But after that day, his father suggested that he could cook in their backyard. The hotel-management graduate could not have asked for more.
“Initially I was able to distribute only 30 packets a day, but once I started cooking, I could feed 50 people.”
By 2003, Krishnan became a familiar sight on the roads, and gradually people came forward to help. Thus Akshaya Trust was born, and people volunteered their services.
Some time in 2006, Krishnan realised that with the number of beneficiaries increasing, they required more space and larger vessels for cooking. He decided to rent a house, and in 2008 volunteers designed brochures and a website for the NGO.
Ask him about the CNN award and Krishnan says, “One Mr Rajesh Naik from Singapore nominated me. I don’t even know him, but it appears that he has been following our work.”
Subsequently, CNN got in touch with him and after rigid scrutiny, Krishnan’s Akshaya Trust was listed among 10,000 nominees from 100 countries. Next a CNN team visited Madurai to investigate his work. Eventually he was short-listed among the Top Ten heroes.
“I am happy the cause has been recognised. CNN was impressed with the excellent quality of food that we serve,” Krishnan says.
“Another factor that stood us in good stead was our transparency in maintaining accounts. We have bills for all purchases, right from Day 1, even if it includes a bill for Re1 [7 fils] paid for purchasing a bunch of coriander leaves. We keep our administrative expenses at a minimum. We also exercise great caution over how we spend the donations. That is a big responsibility.”
His team comprises of three paid staff members and four volunteers. In 2002, Mani, then 13, was working as a waiter in a hotel.
“I used to collect food packets from that hotel and was impressed with his zest for work,” Krishnan recalls. “One day I found him crying — he had been beaten by his employer. I asked Mani to join me in my work.”
Since then Mani has been like a family member of the Narayanan household. Over the years, he has also earned himself a place as a trustee of Akshaya Trust. Andrews, an engineering graduate, and Vidya manage the administrative activities of the trust.
To my question — what drives him every day on this mission — Krishnan says: “Ask a mother what drives her to feed her child every day. I feel I am responsible for these people, just the way I feel for my old parents and grandparents.”
“Why do we always expect someone else to do something for the betterment of people? Why not me?” he asks. “I decided to take up that responsibility, and I do not regret my decision. Yes, I would have earned a lot of money had I continued in my hotel-management profession. But money has its own limitations.”
“It cannot guarantee you happiness. I have realised that. But this gives me happiness. There is joy in giving to others. Most of these people are unable to talk to me, it’s the smile on their faces and the way they relish their food that gives me satisfaction.”
Krishnan does not believe in distributing left-over food.
“We have this thing of giving left-overs and used clothes in the name of charity,” he says. “Why can’t we share from our resources?”
Along with providing food for the less-privileged, Krishnan also gives them a bath and a haircut regularly.
“Barbers refused to touch these people when I approached them. So I trained in a hair-cutting saloon myself. We bring them to our office for a bath twice a week.”
Of course, a Tamil Brahmin boy from a distinguished background taking up a barber’s job for street dwellers did raise several eyebrows. He was summoned to a gathering by the Brahmin community and asked: “How can you wear the sacred thread and pollute it by doing such a menial job? Why don’t you hire barbers instead?”
Krishnan’s answer was simple and straight: Unbuttoning his shirt, he removed the sacred thread and placed it before them.
Narayanan Krishnan was certainly not going to let anyone or anything come in the way of his work.
Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.