CHENNAI: 56-year-old N Kalyanasundaram, clad in a veshti, with a neat line of kunkumam and sandal paste on his forehead, bends down and chalks circles on the road adjacent to a powder-blue pushcart at Bakthavatsalam Street, West Mambalam. After drawing the well-spaced loops, he walks into his house and within a few minutes, he steps out with his wife Padmavathy, bearing metal trays with over 200 food packets. The trays piled with aromatic, piping hot food packets are carefully placed on the pushcart’s counter. “It’s almost time,” says Kalyanam and the duo quickly masks up and wears gloves.
By noon, under the shimmering sun’s spotlight, the couple begins distributing the parcels to the people who’ve queued. “After hours of cleaning the streets and clearing the garbage, this hot sambar rice feels like heaven,” tells a conservancy worker, one of the many beneficiaries of the duos’ free food distribution initiative. For over 10 days now, Kalyanam and his wife have been serving home-cooked food for lunch and dinner to the needy and hungry in West Mambalam from their pushcart Shri Sabari Bajji Stall and Catering Services.
“Last year, when the first lockdown was announced, we had to shut our business for around six months. However, even then, we tried serving food to those who couldn’t afford to buy it. As months passed, newspaper articles and other sources of information made me aware of the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19. I knew a similar situation will present itself. So, from September 2020, I mindfully started saving a small percentage from my earnings for such times of crisis. When the lockdown was announced in May, I withdrew portions of it and started putting it to use — to buy produce, cook, pack and feed those who were hungry, for free,” he shares.
Amplifying his good deeds
Kalyanam and Padmavathy start their day at 5 am every day, cut vegetables, roast spices and begin cooking by 6.30 am. “We have several decades of experience, making us nimble in the kitchen. We prepare the dishes for lunch (sambar rice, puliyotharai and other rice varieties) by 11.30 am and for dinner (upma, pongal and tiffin items) by 6.30 pm. The dinner distribution starts at around 7 pm. We also provide water bottles along with the packets. The feeling of knowing that people won’t be going to bed hungry cannot be described,” he shares.
A native of Mayiladuthurai, Kalyanam moved to Chennai in 1980 along with his family for a living. “I was 14 years old when I stepped into this business of selling snacks and tiffin. My sisters and mother used to prepare the delicacies, I used to pack them and head out to sell the fresh goodies on the streets, at offices and mansions. I earned around Rs 200-Rs 300 a day. Once I sold the food, I used to go home, hand the money to my mother and then head to school. Within a year, I decided to discontinue my education, bought a pushcart instead and dove into the business full-time. It took us almost a decade to build a strong clientele,” recalls Kalyanam, who now, 40 years later, is fondly known by the moniker ‘Sundal mama’ in the neighbourhood.
“Since the 80s, Kalyanam uncle has been serving us, locals, an array of snacks like bonda, bajji, sundal and vadai. His cart is a favourite haunt for many here. It’s heartwarming to see him embark on such an initiative. We are proud of him,” shares Ajay, a regular customer. Earlier this week, when a Twitter user shared a snippet about Kalyanam’s good deeds, the small-scale entrepreneur began receiving compliments and contributions from tweeples.
“Many people called me to wish me and even offered monetary help to keep the initiative running. I was touched. Now, it’s become a community initiative. I am happy to be the enabler,” he tells. However, Kalyanam was in for a surprise when the constituency’s MLA, and Finance Minister PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan dropped by. “I first received a call from the Minister and on his way to a meeting, he took the time to drop by. He acknowledged the work we do, appreciated us and also made contributions to the initiative. This has further boosted us to serve hope for humanity during such times,” he shares.
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