Every day, around noon, poor and weary-looking men gather in anticipation under a flyover in one of the blighted quarters of the old city of Hyderabad, the capital of southern Indian state of Telangana. They squat in neat rows, and wait patiently. They are daily-wage workers and homeless beggars, who have sometimes gone days without eating. But for the past few years, they have eaten at least one hot meal a day, thanks to Syed Osman Azhar Maqsusi, who has become a guardian angel for them.
“I’ve experienced extreme poverty first hand,” says Maqsusi. He was just four when his father died, and his mother, he says, “struggled” to put enough food on the table. “Many days we went to to sleep hungry.”
“Strange as it may seem, some people see tragic poverty at first hand every day but remain unsympathetic,” says the 37-year old, who is the most prominent face of Hunger Without Religion, a Hyderabad-based nonprofit organisation that’s working to end hunger.
But empathy is not enough. Nor is anger. Once the heart is activated, the head must be applied, he says.
The long queue for food makes me happy and sad at the same time. Happy because I can feed them. But I wish for a day when no one comes to eat what I serve...
The daily meal he serves is boiled rice and lentils — the staple food of a third of all humanity. It’s not very Atkins, but it is good, useful food: a solid belly filler, as anyone who’s eaten Indian khichdi [a one pot rice and lentil Indian dish] will tell you. “It is immediate subsistence to any man, woman or child who comes to me, no questions asked.”
In the beginning, Maqsusi’s commitment to feeding the hungry was modest. “In 2012, I started with 40 people,” he says. Word spread, and within a year, he was churning out meals for more than 100 people a day. Now, he provides meals for over 350 hungry souls on a single afternoon in Hyderabad. “Once I started [the initiative], I couldn’t go back.”
“We cook around 55 to 60 kilos of rice daily,” adds Maqsusi, who is helped by his mother and wife, a cousin and a friend. “I have hired a driver and two cooks as well.”
His life revolves almost entirely around preparing and serving the meals.
He doesn’t have a stand-in. Being self-sustaining is key to Maqsusi’s vision. “I want to be able to prepare fresh, healthy food for poor people,” he says. “Once you start to tilt in that direction, what you see is that it’s not that hard to serve poor people meals.”
The food programme sees some men once. These are the ones who tumble into poverty and just as quickly pull themselves out. Others come for a few months, men who have lost their jobs in the volatile labour market. Then there are the regulars. “They sometimes complain about seasoning in the food,” he says, with a laugh. “They are like family.”
Since the last three years, every day, he’s also been going to the Gandhi Hospital, a government-run facility in Hyderabad from his home, in a pickup van laden with enough home-cooked fare to feed several dozen — the family attendants of poor hospital patients from villages — who congregate there.
“I know these people are waiting for me. They can’t afford food from eating houses daily. It’s expensive,” he says of the emotions that fuel his quixotic and perhaps obsessive campaign. “And I worry about them. You have to see their smile. That’s the way I get paid.”
The relationship between Maqsusi and many of the men he feeds is personal. In a way, he seems to need these men as much as they need him. His meal programme gives meaning and focus to his life, he says. He is as eager to help his motley clientele as they are to be helped.
“It’s not just about feeding the hungry,” he says. “To be able to help is a great experience.”
“Hunger is on the rise, India stands 103rd on the Global Hunger Index, and it worries me,” he says, and pauses for long. “The long queue for food makes me happy and sad at the same time. Happy because I can feed them. But I wish for a day when no one comes to eat what I serve, and everyone has enough food…”
The operation through which these downtrodden people are fed without charge is financed mainly from what he earns running a small false ceiling design business. “Initially, I sold scrap and took loan to run the food programme.”
“Now, through my passion, I have been able to take my message beyond the usual activists who care about hunger,” he adds. “The relationships I have forged with so many of people through social media is like an asset.” And all of this is documented on his Facebook feeds.
“Tackling hunger isn’t just a government issue, it is all of our issues — every single person’s responsibility,” he says.
Raising money for a good cause has become an increasingly prominent aspect of food charity, and other profoundly worthy projects, but Maqsusi doesn’t accept cash gifts. “If people donate rice, dal [lentils], or salt, I accept it.”
“Ninety per cent of the inventory of food is now made available with the help of social media friends and acquaintances,” he adds. He doesn’t have to go far. “Some order groceries online for me.”
What Maqsusi does is fill in the gap between cause and kitchen — and now he is the “watchman” of the food programme, which has extended to eight cities, including Bengaluru, Guwahati and Aurangabad. “All together, we feed around 1200-1400 people daily.”
“Hunger is so hard; the numbers are so staggering, it’s hard for someone not to be involved,” he says. “You can’t put a price tag on any of this.” So he’ll continue to hit the road and feed the poor and the destitute.
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.