In bone-chilling winter months and sweeping intense cold wave, the swelling numbers queuing up in torn, worn-out clothes--often handed out in charity by the brand-cautious elite in Le Corbusier designed capital city Chandigarh-- can take at least one thing guaranteed. Hot food throughout the year and all free of charge outside two big hospitals.
The free meal is a tasteful delight with a mix of chapatis, high-protein lentil, halwa, and often a pack of biscuit and, of course, at times a banana.
Shelter, perhaps, in the open and a patient to tend to inside a hospital, it's a situation one would dread to be in. But that's the way it has been for the countless who have been huddling at the “Baba” place for food in their hour of distress. He's fondly nicknamed Baba, which means the elderly or even a father. The Baba, Jagdish Lal Ahuja, has turned 81 and is not anymore in the pink of his health. But his unflinching commitment to serve food to the hungry outside hospitals is beyond just a Good Samaritan act. Here's why?
The Baba, till date, has sold his properties worth several crores of rupees to continue his commitment to serve food to the hungry. That's something not many in the city will dispute. In fact, many are prepared to vouch for it. And the food-serving tradition is something that is not a recent one. The free food service has not missed a single day. In fact it touched a “16-year landmark of sorts” on January 21.
It was way back on January 21, 2000, when Baba organised his first langar outside the gate of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research --one of country's premier hospitals. The only addition since then is the other venue--the space outside another prominent government hospital in Sector 32, Chandigarh, where a similar set-up welcomes the needy with folded hands. For the innumerable poor, arguably plodding their way in “sarkari” hospitals unsure of the fate of their loved one, perhaps, on a bed in the intensive care unit, it’s the only moment of solace.
Punjab and Chandigarh are the two places where the Sikhs are in majority, which is why both these places have thousands of Gurdwaras (Sikh shrines) that brought along a culture of langar--community kitchen food served to anyone who steps in any time of the day or even at night.
The food-serving tradition for centuries at the revered Golden Temple in Amritsar epitomises the spirit to serve humanity enshrined in the Sikh holy scripture Shri Guru Granth Sahib. All that and similar traditions being practised all over the country are at a different high.
But the Baba's initiative stands out amidst the many langars that go on. That's because the Baba does not enjoy any institutional backing or a dedicated flow of funds to support this philanthropic work that has continued for decades. Much of his savings and properties have gone into funding his passion to feed the hungry. Of course, well wishers in the city too pitch in with whatever little or more contribution they can make for the cause.
Early this month, as Baba would approach the January 21 anniversary of his first langar, an uncanny feeling gripped him and left him sad like never before, which is when he said the January anniversary date of his first langar would be the last langar at the two venues. “I wish I could continue, but my health is now failing,” Ahuja had said.
The Baba remained restless to say the least for the next few days. His passion to serve food was something that he pledged to continue till his last breath. Would it have ended in this manner? That wasn’t to be the case. Within days, the Baba rose like a Phoenix. He was back with the same grit. He says he was flooded with phone calls of well-wishers from all over asking him not to give up his passion. “The langar will not end, not until I am alive,” he has declared.
The philanthropic journey dates back to some three decades. “It was my elder son’s eighth birthday, when I decided to organise a community langar outside my shop 36 years ago,” Ahuja said. The free food service outside hospitals started later. Winters can be nasty in this part of the region. Ahuja also distributes free shawls, blankets, pullovers and shoes to the needy. He came to Patiala in Punjab during partition in 1947. Then 12, he sold candies to make ends meet. When Chandigarh came up, he shifted with bag and baggage with his family to the new place. He sold bananas in a big way and many in the trade crowned him “banana king”.
Ask about his motivation and he says: “It's magical, rather blissful to see a smile on the face of a child who is hungry and gets hot food. It makes my day. For the poor outside hospitals, it is extremely difficult to cope with the distress of little money, an ailing loved one on a bed and a family to look after back home. At least they don't have to worry about food,” he said.
Food is prepared elsewhere and a white-coloured vehicle which reads, “Jagdish Lal Ahuja, PGI Bhandare Wale, Chandigarh,” arrives each day and announces “It's time for food'.