NEW DELHI—Each of these people saw COVID-19 closely—they had either suffered as a victim or they had a friend or family member suffering during India’s first or second wave. Each of them decided to not let depression beat them and instead to cook for those in need of home-cooked, nutritious meals.
Ankita Sahay, a 29-year-old management professional from India’s IT city, Bangalore, witnessed her cousin suffering during COVID’s second wave in April and started serving her home-cooked meals. The cousin was bedridden, alone, and in quarantine.
Sahay then realized that there are others in the city in quarantine or without housemaids or sick senior citizens who have no support during the lockdown. She started reaching out on social media with her volunteer, free service of home-cooked food on April 26.
Today she’s supported by 45 volunteers who have an outreach throughout the city and have already served 1500 meals. Sahay plans soon to reach out to four more cities with the initiative she calls “Seher,” meaning Dawn.
“So there are two parts to it. One is supplying and the other is demand, right? So I onboard volunteers, I have a tie-up with our packaging vendor, I buy all the packaging materials from that particular vendor. And I send out this packaging material to each of these folks who are volunteers,” said Sahay.
“The reason being that I do not want to differentiate between any family. The quantity that goes out to each family should be the same,” said Sahay adding that the operation initially ran on the money that she and her husband had kept for helping people during the pandemic.
Gradually as the story became known and the operation increased, donations from others also started pouring in.
Samantha Pasha, 52, a former event manager and a homemaker was actively involved along with her 14-year-old adopted daughter during last year’s lockdown. The duo was supporting migrant workers with food and necessity kits.
But then Pasha tested positive herself. This year when the second pandemic surge happened, Pasha was looking for a way to do something from within her home, and on April 28 she joined Sahay to serve “nutritious meals” to her city’s inhabitants.
“You feel your body can’t take that kind of beating again. I said I’m sitting at home, I’m not going anywhere. But you know the person in me is like, I want to do for others. I want to do [something] in this situation. Otherwise, I feel very helpless,” said Pasha who has also got her two household help vaccinated.
“So it is therapeutic for me to do these things. It makes me feel really good about myself,” said Pasha who cooks 84 meals per week and has been the most engaged cook out of all the volunteers at Seher, according to Sahay.
Sahay said different volunteers have different schedules to cook and they devote the hours they want to. “Some are available during the weekend. Some available only twice a week. Some people are available only on weekdays and not on weekends,” she said adding that many volunteers have a professional life as well, and some are senior citizens.
Spirit of Doing Good
Nirupama Ramesh, 60 the wife of a veteran, and a few more wives from the veterans’ community in the city joined Sahay, inspired by the spirit to do good. Ramesh said the spirit of service is ingrained in the lives of the families of army officers.
“Since the time I was married, we officers’ wives had to look after the welfare of the families of soldiers. When our husbands were in border areas, looking after each other was the done thing. Our unit was more than a family,” said Ramesh adding that amid the COVID crisis the same spirit translated into cooking food for patients.
“Basically we are all housewives, and we cook for COVID patients. So you’re not doing it on a very large scale or on a commercial scale. It’s basically, whatever each one can do. Whatever we cook at home, we pack it up and we send it to the patient or the attendant,” she said.
Ramesh said during a crisis like the pandemic each human being has got the choice to do something and elevate the situation.
“Each one of us, no matter from whatever status of the society he or she is, we can do something. For example, you must be having some cook or somebody working for you. If you can only vaccinate, where there are free vaccinations, or even paying, let’s say, three-four hundred or thousand bucks for your maid and cook. Then you can imagine how many people will be vaccinated! Okay, that’s one of the things that all of us can do,” she said.
Unlike Ramesh, 30-year-old Nazish Fatima, an analytics and data science engineer learned to cook only last year amidst lockdown from youtube and her mother. Amidst the second surge, Fatima is the most eager dinner cook in Seher and she has cooked 97 dinners in less than a month.
“As someone who isn’t a health worker or a direct family of the affected, I feel like this is the closest I can get to helping them out,” said Fatima. “Every meal I cook is with a ton of love and effort. It makes me emotional to think this is helping someone heal.”
India is going through such a crisis that helping in just one way, such as through donations, isn’t sufficient, according to Fatima.
“There are old people, single mothers, kids who can’t even order online. I feel like this was the best way to help them out. To be completely honest it is a way for us volunteers to cope up with all the distress around us as well, and the gratification is paramount,” she said.
This spirit of doing good spread Seher’s story on social media. When Sahay’s mother-in-law shared her story on Linkedin, it started trending, and one of the investors of Dunzo, a delivery company, tagged her company to help out Sahay.
“After that Dunzo launched an initiative to help people who are delivering for needy. I wrote them an email and they replied,” said Sahay adding that the company provides subsidized rates to her to deliver volunteer-cooked food to the patients or their attendants.
Timely, and Comes With a Note
Indu Subramanian, 83, and her 92-year-old husband were alone at home, and when the lockdown happened their house help couldn’t reach them. Someone in her building put up Sahay’s Whatsapp message for free food service and that’s how the senior couple reached out to her.
“So I was diagnosed with cervical spondylosis. And I couldn’t get up and my neck was paining too much. Maids are not coming for the last nearly one month. I just asked her, we are two elderly people, would you be able to give us some food for at least a week?” said Subramanian adding the first time she was wondering how the food would be.
“First day onwards I saw that she was sending very nutritious, very good food. The menus were very thoughtful. Very nicely done,” she said adding that they were always delivered in time and they came with a “get well soon” note.
Like Subramanian, 47-year-old Linet Rashmi was in a desperate situation as she had just recovered from COVID and wasn’t in a position to look after her 77-year-old mother who had got infected and was completely bedridden.
She came across a forwarded message from Sahay on WhatsApp, contacted her, and was provided prompt help.
“And she needed, very hygienic, like in a liquid, semi-liquid food,” said Rashmi adding that Seher volunteers provided her with exactly what she requested.
“Such kind of food which was very, very appropriate for my mom. And for myself. Also, it was so good that she recovered within 15 days, actually.”
Rashmi said during that time she was battling depression and the help was “God-sent.”
“Every day those notes just pulled me out from depression,” she said.
There are many small and big groups around India currently supplying cooked and uncooked food to people affected by the deadly second wave of the pandemic. Sahay said they are her inspiration. Pasha said it’s “human nature” to reach out with help whenever someone is suffering, and the group is just doing that.
“You can’t control what goes outside, but you can control what goes on inside—be strong and be positive. Hope this food nourishes you,” is a note that Team Seher sent out to Rashmi and that she shared with The Epoch Times.