The Telegraph
Monday , April 22 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Soup kitchens serve them hot

Food being distributed to the underprivileged by The Holy Mission of Guru Nanak Amrit Vela Mandir and (right) the Kankarias of Middleton Street. Pictures by Sayantan Ghosh and Sanat Kumar Sinha

When you drive into 5 Middleton Street, you could well have rolled into a Roman villa. The frontage. The Grecian statues. The chandelier. A single hall equivalent to three apartments combined. And a garden… well, you’ve got the idea.

Except for a curious activity transpiring in one of the mansion’s corners — more specifically at one of the three gates of this opulent showpiece. A liveried attendant ladling rice, dal and vegetables to a lengthening queue of maidservants, durwans, peons and domestic assistants walking in from the pavement, extending their stainless steel hot-packs and collecting enough for a good warm meal. Smooth. Soundless. A two-hour langar in progress in one of the most exclusive residences of this city.

The Kankarias of Middleton Street own three jute mills, business interests in many sectors and employ more than 20,000 people. Their philanthropy ethic is inherited; one of the ancestors managed a daily rasoda (kitchen) in Palitana to feed Jain monks; the matriarch Taraben became synonymous for the pan-Indian funding of colleges and hospitals, and despite all the family opulence, walking everywhere barefoot.

Today, the Kankarias have created a sustainable philanthropic model: the revenues derived from some rent-earning trusts are allocated completely to public welfare; the mid-day meal engine is kickstarted with something as rudimentary as ‘gas, vegetables, accountant and assistant’, the family manages or funds five kitchens, these feed 2,000 women and children a day (including 500 under-privileged students), work closely with the police in meal delivery and combine vocational mill training with job assurance. Their credo: “We are willing to feed any number in return for operational transparency.”

Interestingly, this is precisely the credo practised visibly within Calcutta’s 25,000-strong Sindhi community in the city today. The Holy Mission of Guru Nanak Amrit Vela Mandir ran a successful langar within the mandir for its members, most of whom could afford a good meal. Until Dada Ishwar Balani asked an awkward question: “What of those who cannot?” And so commenced the Sudder Street langar with a modest outlay of Rs 250 in the early Seventies on the long pavement outside Indian Museum.

Today, the langar is more than just a 45-minute service; it has evolved into an institution to the point that there is a board grouted into the pavement indicating its location on Sudder Street. The outlay has forty-folded in 40 years, having run without a break, heat or high water. The langar feeds more than 400 every Sunday morning (cooked meal plus Samosa, bun, Jalebi and fruit) and when there is a prospect of getting free blankets or clothes, the crowd swells to 1,200. Some years ago just when members felt that the movement was plateauing around the level of 400, the fill-the-belly ethic spread; some community members cloned this initiative in Ram Leela Park (CIT Road) and Tangra. The Sudder Street edition also provided food for 350 at the All Bengal Women’s Union (Elliott Road) every alternate Sunday.

It would be easy to assume that this is a purely Sindhi operation; it is not. Interestingly, the donor profile has widened to Parsis, Muslims, Gujaratis, Marwaris and Bangladeshi tourists. The only condition: no chequebook philanthropy please; those who contribute must serve as well. Nanik Samtani, who heads this initiative, has a word of advice for all intending meal providers: “Start small, provide paai-paai ka hisaab and there will be no dearth of funds.”

The third feed-the-poor initiative to be highlighted in this column is perhaps the city’s most enduring: from the time of the Orissa famine in 1876 to the present day. The story goes when the rains failed, Raja Rajendralal Mullick undertook the responsibility to feed nearly 20,000 people every single day (for which the angrezi hukoomat made him Raja Bahadur). The tradition could have died with him but for a timely insertion in the will: the allocation of the rent from a property towards feeding the poor. The result is that even today in Marble Palace, after the afternoon puja, the temple door creaks open to anybody seeking a meal and in doing so, feeding more than 400 every single day.

If that is not breath-stopping, then average that 400 people have been fed every single day at the Marble Palace from the time Lord Lytton was Viceroy, which alone works out to 1.99 crore meals until now.

Mudar Patherya heads Trisys and can be reached at