CHENNAI : Fifteen-year-old Banupriya Raj Thilak was walking to her school when she noticed a pale woman with unkempt hair begging near the Perambur railway station. Many pedestrians passed by without paying any heed to the woman, but Banu felt a sudden urge to help her. She went up to her and handed out her lunch box to the woman. Banu got her first taste of the joy of giving.
Eleven years since this benevolent act, Banu provides food to at least 100 homeless people on the roads daily through her NGO Aadharv Charitable Trust. Banu also conducts special grooming camps for them during festivals, with the most recent one being on Diwali. “When people saw me give my food to the homeless woman daily, they came forward and volunteered to provide money, clothes and food. That was when I realised there are so many people out there to help, you just need to be the catalyst,” shares Banu.
While pursuing her BSc in Microbiology in 2011, Banu was working part-time at a call centre. “Till then, I was doing social service independently. So, at my office, I began a 'Rs 10 per day donation scheme', where the employees would donate Rs 10 daily for a month and the amount would be used towards providing food to the homeless. Each day, on my way home I used to buy food from the donations and distribute it among the homeless,” says Banu.
Her team slowly expanded when she shifted her job in 2014 after her graduation and was able to help at least 15 to 20 people, daily. But, that was not it. “During the 2015 floods, I realised the actual magnitude of the issue. When I went out to rescue, I witnessed thousands of hungry homeless people crying for help. While I started helping them, I got a lot of contacts who joined my ‘Rs 10 per day donation’ club. By the time the floods receded, there were more than 100 members,” says the philanthropist. In 2015, she left her job and decided to devote her life to helping the homeless. She has the support of her husband and parents.
Ever since, she distributes hot meals, once a day, to at least 100 homeless people in different localities. “Some days, when I am short on money, I invest from my pocket. But every day, since the 2015 floods, my team and I have been reaching out to 100 people. We go to different localities every day so that nobody is left out,” she says.
Banu even celebrates the birthdays of homeless people. She visits them on their birthday with a cake and distributes chocolates and sweets in the locality. “Last year, I celebrated the birthday of a homeless man at Perambur. I asked for his date of birth when I went to distribute food, and when I went with a cake to greet him on his birthday, he was in tears. He said he did not remember that it was his birthday. The experience was priceless. These are moments I will cherish all my life. The smile on their faces is unforgettable,” she says.
Five years ago, she began organising grooming sessions during different festivals including Tamil New Year, New Year, Diwali, Pongal and Christmas. “We take the homeless people to a community hall, give them a warm bath, cut their hair, provide them new clothes and treat them to good food and a day full of entertainment activities. We started this five years ago when we realised that people visit orphanages and old age homes during festivals, but homeless people are often ignored,” says Banu.Last year, she registered her NGO under the name Aadharv Charitable Trust (Aadharavu means support in Tamil).
The squirrel whisperer
As I enter Hafiz Khan’s home in Kottivakkam on Tuesday at around 7 am, I see another visitor coming in...but from the window. A squirrel with small, pointed ears and a big bushy tail, hops on to Khan’s bed, runs around him and grabs a piece of coconut from his hand before leaving.
“She is my friend Teeny. I rescued her at Mahabalipuram, six months ago and ever since she visits and plays with me every day,” says Hafiz, founder of CommuniTree, as he looks at her hopping out of the house.
In February 2019, when Hafiz went to his friend’s place in Mahabalipuram, he saw and injured Teeny on the awning of a building. There was no sign of her mother. After waiting for some time, he took her home. “I had no idea how to raise squirrels. I browsed the Internet and saw hundreds of videos to find out that she was about four weeks old. I had to feed her milk every two hours. She would have it and go back to sleep. It felt like I had a baby to look after,” he recalls.
Teeny travelled with Hafiz in a small box wherever he went. Since she had to be fed every two hours, she was a part of his business and personal tours to Madurai, Bengaluru and Salem.“She gradually learned how to run and jump inside the house. Three months back, I felt it was time for her to be left in the open.
When she ventured out for the first time, she went straight to the middle of the road and sat happily while vehicles were zooming past her. I ran down to bring her home. After a few days, when I left her again, crows started hovering over her. But she was looking at them innocently, unaware about her predator. All the time, I have been watching and running to get her, as though saving a child from falling off the cycle,” Hafiz shares.
About two months back, Teeny finally left the proverbial nest to hunt food for herself. “She visits me twice a day, in the morning and evening. She hops in and sits on my shoulder as I walk to the kitchen to pick a coconut piece for her. Sometimes, when I don’t look at her, she tries to call me, sit over my shoulder and come to the front, and look at me in the eye before jumping over me. I feel a sense of motherhood with her,” he says.
Teeny has taught him life lessons. “I draw different meanings from Teeny’s activities. When she was a baby, she used to run from one corner to another, playing during the wee hours. Probably, she was teaching me to do some physical activity. She stretches often and definitely wants a playing session in the evening. She wants me to pick her up and throw her on the bed, again and again. Probably, that means you must spend time with your family. I never knew I will be able to experience all this when I rescued her,” he says.
You can contact Banupriya on 9600142089.