NEW DELHI—Each of the volunteers have experienced COVID-19 closely—they had either suffered as a victim or had a friend or family member fall ill during India’s first or second wave. Each of them decided to not let depression beat them and instead offered to cook for those in need of nutritious, home-cooked meals.
Ankita Sahay, 29, a management professional from India’s IT city, Bangalore, started serving her home-cooked meals after seeing her cousin—who was bedridden, alone, and in quarantine—ailing during COVID’s second wave in April.
Sahay realized that there were others in the city in quarantine or without housemaids, or sick senior citizens who have had no support during the lockdown. She started reaching out on social media to offer her free home-cooked food on April 26.
Today, she’s supported by 45 volunteers who have an outreach throughout the city and have already served 1,500 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,” she said.
“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 she and her husband had initially funded the operation.
As the story became more widely known and the operation grew, donations 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. This year, at the time of the second pandemic surge, 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,” Pasha said.
“So it is therapeutic for me to do these things. It makes me feel really good about myself,” she said. Pasha cooks 84 meals per week and has been the most engaged cook out of all the volunteers at Seher, according to Sahay.
Sahay said the volunteers, which include many who have a professional life and others who are senior citizens, have different schedules.
“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.
Spirit of Doing Good
Nirupama Ramesh, 60, is one of a few wives from the veterans’ community in the city to join the Sahay team, inspired by wanting to do good. She said the spirit of service is woven into 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. She says the same spirit translated for her 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 person has a 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! OK, 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 amid the lockdown from YouTube videos and her mother. Fatima has become the most eager dinner cook on the Seher project; she’s cooked 97 dinners in less than a month.
“As someone who isn’t a health worker or 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 is spreading the story of Seher on social media. When Sahay’s mother-in-law shared her story on LinkedIn, it began trending; 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. The company provides subsidized rates to her to help deliver 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 occurred, their household help couldn’t reach them. Someone in her building put up Sahay’s WhatsApp message for the free food service and that’s how the senior couple reached out.
“So I was diagnosed with cervical spondylosis. And I couldn’t get up and my neck was [hurting] 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?” Subramanian said.
“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 on time and came with a “get well soon” note.
Like Subramanian, 47-year-old Linet Rashmi was desperate, as she had just recovered from COVID and wasn’t in a position to look after her 77-year-old mother, who had become 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. “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.”
There are many small and large 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 to Rashmi, which she shared with The Epoch Times.