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Nagpur’s one-man langar service on a moped

Jaideep Hardikar | Updated on June 30, 2021

To serve, to care: People wait for Kapoor to turn up each evening — rickshaw-pullers, labourers, security guards, and he serves khichri to anyone who asks for it   -  Jaideep Hardikar

Jamshed Singh Kapoor is on the streets every day, quietly feeding Nagpur’s poor, in his battle against hunger which has spiralled in the wake of Covid-19

* As Nagpur’s Covid-19 cases spiralled the city’s abject hunger, poverty, homelessness and distress-ridden underbelly came alive. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the hunger pandemic

* “Very well-to-do individuals are on the streets, embarrassed that they can’t even beg for food.” Every day, when he is out serving khichri, he comes across many such people and hears about their downturns

* “Khichdi is all we eat in a day. We are not lying; this pandemic has crushed us.” They bless their Sikh friend. “But for this man, so many of us would starve,” Quazi adds

***

On a hot summer evening, Jamshed Singh Kapoor stood by a deserted west Nagpur street. This was where he always met and fed Nagar. That day, though, he wasn’t waiting for Nagar; a traffic constable had told him that Nagar had died. So Kapoor stood there and prayed for him, and recorded his daily tryst with the homeless man.

“One Nagar is dead,” he said in a heavy voice on the video that he uploaded on YouTube last month. “There are many others around.”

Covid-19’s deathly second wave engulfed lives across the country, leaving people to mourn the loss of friends, relatives, neighbours or even people they’d never met.

But Nagar, Kapoor says, did not die of the virus. “He died of our original pandemic: Hunger.”

And that is what Kapoor has been fighting for the last 25 years or so. He is on the streets every day, quietly feeding Nagpur’s poor. Every day, without fail.

“If I don’t go out for a day, at least a hundred people will go hungry,” he says. He feeds them with an easy-to-cook nutritious dish of multigrain khichri.

Kapoor is a one-man ‘Langar Seva’, a service he has been a part of since he was a young boy. But he made it his unwavering daily mission from mid-2019, as if he’d foreseen the approaching tsunami. Langar is usually a kitchen in a gurdwara, or a community kitchen that serves food to all free of cost.

Tag along with this devout 40-something Sikh, as this writer did for a few hours over the past few months when Nagpur was eerily silent as Covid-19 cases spiralled, and the Orange City’s abject hunger, poverty, homelessness and distress-ridden underbelly comes alive. The Covid-19 pandemic, he says, has exacerbated the hunger pandemic.

Winter, summer or monsoon — Kapoor does not take a single day’s break. On his two-wheeler, he rides through the city, feeding nearly 300 people a day.

“There are so many around this country doing their selfless service,” he says. “I am doing what I can in my power to feed those who have no access to food.”

Stars and Signs

Kapoor is also an astrologer, or, as he puts it, “a student of planets, stars, and people’s life-journeys”. Intermittently through the day, he also attends to desperate phone calls from clients and gives them psychological succour with his prophecies.

“I believe in destiny,” he says. “I don’t mind if someone doesn’t.”

He does not believe in stones, remedies and rituals though. “No rashi, No patthar, only Langar Seva will give you lasting peace,” he says to his new clients who seek divine intervention which they hope will fix their life’s crises: Job loss, family feuds, property battles, marriage blues, and in, increasingly, health problems.

Bold black and white placards and signs adorn the walls of his cramped basement office of his house in the congested Marartoli area of Nagpur. One signboard reads: “No gem stone or puja-path can alter the life journey of a human being.”

He studies the planets and stars but urges those who consult him to feed the poor and the hungry, and see how their life changes for the good. He never runs out of donations or money for his Langar Seva, he says. “Never. Help just pours in from everywhere.”

Death, Fear and Hunger

For the last three months, Nagpur — like the country — was in the grip of a second, devastating Covid-19 wave. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Nagpur district (including the city) registered over 5.5 lakh positive cases and nearly 8,500 deaths. An overwhelming number of cases and nearly half the deaths happened over three months — from March 2021 to May 2021, according to the Maharashtra Covid dashboard data. By the end of June 2021, the active cases in the city had dipped below 5,000; daily cases were hovering below 100, a steep decline compared with the scenario exactly a month ago.

In these three months, hunger and food insecurity across India and particularly among the low-income and vulnerable populations had risen dramatically, according to a new study, with the poorest having to skip meals to starve in the absence of food or work.

Nagpur is no different, Kapoor says. “You can’t imagine how bad the situation is,” he says.

His house and office are filled with sacks of grain donated by friends and well-wishers. There is a donation box, which is never empty.

Every month, his sons — Bir Pal Singh, who’s just taken up a job in Chennai, and Rohan, who is studying law in a residential college near Mumbai — send their contribution to their father’s Langar Seva. “My father inspires us to do all we can to feed the hungry,” Rohan says over the phone. “He’s like an ocean, very profound, very deep, but you won’t know it from the surface of it.”

Barring his sons, whom he describes as his world, Kapoor has little to do with his family. His father Govind Singh Kapoor died early. Estranged from his mother and siblings, Kapoor has had a tumultuous marriage, too, and does not want to talk about family problems. “They (family members) think I am crazy,” he says once, before getting on with cooking his khichri.

Kapoor is up every morning at 3.30. He does his morning chores, takes a bath, and gets on to his study of the planets and stars. “I get phone calls from my clients based abroad; I do consultations from 4.30 am to 6.30 am, or study horoscopes.” He charges a nominal consultation fee and the amount varies — at times depending on his clients’ discretion.

Then he’s off to a gurdwara in a predominantly Sikh locality in north Nagpur. Shoes lie in a corner there, and Kapoor picks up the footwear of devotees and cleans them, sitting on a chair. He has been doing this service — an essential part of the religion’s concept of humility and penance — for 25 years now, he tells me on a recent morning, as the mellifluous chanting of the holy Sikh scriptures plays behind him inside the gurdwara hall. It’s from here that he draws his energy to serve the hungry, he says. He returns home by 9.30-10 am. He feeds his dog. And begins his astrology consultations.

Kapoor reads horoscopes and makes predictions for those who seek his counsel. More than that, it’s his moral support that the troubled individuals mostly ask for. Largely soft-spoken, he is at times blunt.

“Look madam,” he tells a client over the phone, “I can help you with how best to prepare for it; but if you ask me how to avert a storm with gem stones or mantras, I can’t.”

Of late, among the clients calling him are people hit by Covid-19 — someone’s relative is on the deathbed, someone’s got Mucormycosis, others have lost their jobs or gone bankrupt in their business, or are simply depressed.

“You can’t imagine the scale of this crisis,” he tells me during one conversation. “Very well-to-do individuals are on the streets, embarrassed that they can’t even beg for food.” Every day, when he is out serving khichri, he comes across many such people and hears about their downturns.

Hunger pangs

Kapoor starts cooking his khichri at around 3 pm. In a narrow passage along his house, he has set up his langar kitchen — his dream is to run a round-the-clock langar kitchen if the government gives him a piece of land for free. He starts with sautéing onions, greens and chillies with spices in a large vessel and then adds soaked rice and five different kinds of pulses to the pot.

“I add whatever vegetable is in season, depending upon availability and the donations I receive,” he says. He cooks 15-20 kilograms of khichri at one go, and prepares two or three more batches, depending on the number of mouths he must feed on a given day. It takes about an hour for khichri to be ready.

Around 4 pm, Kapoor — bespectacled and always in a white shirt, a pair of white trousers, white turban and a white cotton mask — sets off on his drive, a 15-kg hotpot clamped by a holder, mounted on the rear seat of his moped. He keeps disposable plates, spoons, raw mango slices and sliced onions in a cloth that hangs by the hook below the front-seat.

It’s early May, and Nagpur is burning hot. Streets are empty, barricaded at places.

The first stop is closer home, where auto-wallahs and rickshaw-pullers eagerly await him. They haven’t eaten their lunch, because hotels and restaurants are shut, and home is a long way away.

He stops his two-wheeler, pulls it on its central stand, whips out the disposable plates and serves his khichri to half a dozen men. Some more quietly turn up. They do not say a word but are happy to receive the food. They find a shaded spot under a tree, lower their masks, and sit down to eat.

A young Zomato delivery man stops by and asks him if he can get some khichri, too. Kapoor affectionately serves him. “Aaram se khao beta (eat comfortably, my son),” he says. The young man — Bhumendra Sakure — says he lost his job as a mechanical engineer in the aftermath of Covid-19. He took to the Zomato home delivery service, but barely makes any money these days. He embarrassedly eats the khichri, rarely lifting his eyes from his plate. He delivers food, but goes hungry all through his working hours. “I start early, hoping to get orders, and can’t go home, because if I do, I might miss out on any delivery orders.”

Autorickshaw drivers and friends Sarfaraz Quazi, 51, and Mohammad Latif, 64, eat their khichri in their autos. Few venture out these days, so they have no passengers and no income. “We come here just in case any patient or relative needs an auto to go to a hospital,” Quazi says. “Khichdi is all we eat in a day. We are not lying; this pandemic has crushed us.”

They bless their Sikh friend. “But for this man, so many of us would starve,” Quazi adds.

Kapoor’s next stop is at a dilapidated structure, a house opposite a police station. “An old man lives here,” he informs me. “His family has left him; he found refuge in this abandoned structure. I come here twice or thrice during my trip to give him food; he has no one to turn to,” he says.

From one point to another, he has individuals waiting for him to turn up — a rickshaw-puller, an old couple hoping to sell water pouches, destitutes, labourers, guards, just about anybody living on the streets. Along the way, he serves khichri to any individual who asks for it. A thin woman who lives on the footpath waits for him. She’s a rag picker and wants her two young children to be educated. “I serve her food every day.”

Kapoor has piercing eyes. He knows where to find the hungry. He introduces me to Suresh, who fixes punctured tyres. He has been squatting along the walls of a well-known Commerce College at the once busy Law College Square for 22 years. Today, he has no customers because the city is under lockdown, which means he has not earned a rupee yet. He has a few odd things in his shack; the street is home and life.

In four hours or so, Kapoor serves close to 400 meals. “I fill petrol worth ₹155 daily in my vehicle,” he says. “That’s how much fuel I need for my daily rounds.” How much does he spend on the food, a rough idea? This depends. An average 20 kg of rice and pulses mixed, so it would be a thousand rupees or so every day.

We meet Govind, an old man, living in a dingy shack along the footpath opposite a now-closed mall — he asks for two full plates of khichri; that’s his only food on most days. Kapoor waits until the man’s done eating and drives ahead only when Govind does not ask for more.

“This is war,” Kapoor says. He is at war with hunger, which kills more people, he says, than many illnesses do. He says he takes all precautions to protect himself in the pandemic.

Marna to hai hi, jung ka maidan mein marenge. Bhookh se jung hai. Aur yeh jung ka maidan. (Death is inevitable, but I will die on the battlefield, in this battle against hunger). The street people can’t be left hungry, when some of us can afford so much.”

Kapoor shares touching anecdotes in chaste Hindi about his trysts with hunger on his YouTube channel. He introduces to us the individuals, whom he feeds every day, and tells us their stories.

A few days ago, he met a man outside the Lata Mangeshkar Hospital at Sitabuldi, perhaps a relative of a patient recuperating in the hospital. He ate four plates of khichri, and then took out a 100-rupee note to give to Kapoor. Kapoor refused the money, and told him it was a service. “The man was in tears because he had not eaten in two day,” he says.

Several years ago, an old beggar Kapoor fed everyday handed him a small bag that he asked be opened only after his death. He died soon after that. When Kapoor opened the bag, he found that it held ₹25,000. “What to say! I used that money to feed others; the beggar had left his only belonging for others.”

The day in May when Nagar died, Kapoor was emotional. The old rag picker had fled his home in Raipur a long time ago and had never gone back. Lockdown deprived Nagar of his work and small sums of money he made from it.

He was reduced to a skeleton during this period, and Kapoor’s khichri was the only thing he would get to eat all day. The police cremated him. “Our streets are full of Nagars of all ages,” Kapoor laments. “We don’t see them,” he says. “They are oblivious to our eyes and heart, but they are out there, hungry and ostracised.”

We will have vaccines and medicines for Covid-19, he says. But will there be something ever to end hunger?

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based independent journalist

Published on June 30, 2021

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