It’s 10 in morning and there are these 40-odd ladies (possibly some gentlemen helping too) from Whispering Palms Xxclusives in Lokhandwala Township, Kandivali East, Mumbai, busy in their kitchens. Breakfast done, they’re all rolling out rotis. Some of these will feed their families for lunch while the rest will be packed for The Roti Project.
Running a residential building is like running a factory. There are ever so many things to take care of, for its daily smooth functioning – water supply, electricity, lifts, cleaning, garbage collection, and so on. In the last week of March, when we started becoming more aware of the spread of Covid-19 (virus headlines in the news), many offices had already stopped their employees from going to work and people were told to work from home. Our building society decided to stop the entry of household helpers, vendors, delivery people and other service providers. It was a sort of self-imposed partial lockdown.
To ensure that the building operations continue as normal as possible, it was decided to have the essential staff stay within the building itself. This meant that the staff would not need to travel home every day and it would minimise the chance of exposure to the virus and carrying it back home or to the work place. With the official lockdown, it also meant that they would not encounter any police interception, where they’d need to show that they worked for ‘essential services’. So it was that 26 housekeeping and security staff started living in the premises, including one who could cook to make sure they would be well fed with the rations that would be provided.
Talking about cooking brings me to the thousands of people affected beyond the Covid-19 virus. The lockdown, when it began, rendered many in Mumbai without work or the opportunity to carry on small business. This includes daily wage workers, roadside dwellers, vocational workers, traders, underprivileged slum dwellers, and others, many of whom are originally from other places. (As per recent reports, Maharashtra has 12-13 lakh workers from other states.)
Everyone looks for a better deal, and this is what brings many from the villages and small towns to the big cities. They work their hearts out, often extended hours and multiple jobs. Some are here with families. Many are by themselves in shared rooms, sending home whatever they can, so that the children can eat and go to school. This is how it is with some of our staff too, especially the security staff who are majorly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It’s usually a hand-to-mouth existence. They work, earn, spend and the cycle continues every day, every week, every month… depending on the nature of the job/business. No work means no money. No money to pay rent – so no shelter and consequently no place to cook food. In some cases, no money to buy food.
If one followed the news reports, we saw that the government, educational institutions, NGOs, possibly other groups as well, went about arranging accommodation for those left homeless. They also distributed groceries and ready meals to those in need, but many were not getting covered.
This is where The Roti Project came in. The idea, mooted by a township resident in the second week of April, was to make rotis everyday and reach them to the people who were going hungry because of the situation. If this was done by many households across the entire township, it would be very impactful. How exactly it would be done – who would be able to do the distribution in lockdown, who would be the beneficiaries, and so on, needed to be worked out.
Meeta, who volunteered to coordinate the activity in our society said that when she started inviting the residents to join the roti-making team, the responses were mixed. There were some who were sorry they couldn’t join the initiative as they were overwhelmed by the work they already had in the absence of maids to help. “I’m not even able to make rotis for the seven people in my own house.” Some had run out of atta, without which rotis are impossible. The most heartening thing was that there were many who quickly came forward. Within a couple of days, over twenty ladies had joined the society’s “Rotis of Affection” Whatsapp group, all ready to go. Some joined later, after they organised themselves, and currently there are over 40 volunteers.
While waiting for the initiative to take shape at the township level, the plans reached the ears of those who were managing the resident staff in our society and another idea came up. Many of the staff were longing for rotis. The rice they were being served everyday was easy to prepare in one shot. Rotis take time and effort. For 26 of them it would mean a lot of time and effort on the part of those handling the cooking.
There was eagerness in the XXclusive team to start. We call them the Exclusive Affection Roti Warriors. “Do we start tomorrow?” Charity begins at home. So it was decided that first rotis would be made for the staff and once this requirement was fulfilled, the excess rotis would be contributed to the township’s project, whenever it was ready to begin.
On 12th April the society staff were delighted to get rotis for lunch, to supplement the rice, and they have enjoyed rotis every single day since then. Subsequently, the township project took off with about 400 volunteers from 20-odd societies and proper logistics in place. The team from our society has been sending out 160-200 rotis daily, apart from the 60 for in-house consumption.
It’s been over a month now. The society staff are happy. Beyond the staff, the rotis have reached hundreds of people living in Kandivali itself, and also neighbouring places like Dahisar, Mira Road, Malad. Many of the beneficiaries said that they were getting to eat rotis after many weeks and were very happy and grateful. A simple act of kindness with such meaningful impact.
In the process, some of the society ladies mentioned that their roti-making skills have significantly improved, and the rotis have evolved too. Apart from good quality atta and a lot of affection, they’re often laced with ghee, ajwain, masalas and other ingredients to make them tasty. On some days, there are other foods along with the rotis – puris, shrikand, gulab jamuns to name a few. New volunteers joined the effort, so much so that the 800 rotis sent out on day 1 by the Lokhandwala Township team grew to cross 2500 rotis at its peak.
‘Annadanam’, the sharing of food is an ancient practice, recognised as the ‘root’ of community living… something that was prevalent even before history started being recorded. The basis is that no one, no human or animal should go to sleep hungry. If more people join the effort of making rotis, there will be much fewer hungry people. The authorities are busy tackling Covid-19 and related issues, and efforts such as The Roti Project would surely be making their work a little less taxing.
As the lockdown eases and the days go by, many of those who are receiving the rotis will return to their native places and things may gradually move back towards earlier. Leave aside Covid-19, the hungry poor have been around in our neighbourhoods as far as memory goes back. Efforts like The Roti Project will always have a place in our society.
The current plan for The Roti Project of Whispering Palms Xxclusives is that it would continue till there is a need, surely till the time we have resident staff. Then the team of volunteers will decide whether and how to continue. “Making the rotis everyday makes me feel so good… it’s the feeling that I can make a difference to someone’s life.”