Christmas 2017: Meet the real secret Santas of Mumbai

Updated: Dec 24, 2017, 11:11 IST | Sunday MiD DAY Team

They don't care for publicity or profit as they quietly go about giving of themselves and influencing change in their neighbourhoods and city. Say Merry Christmas to Mumbai's redeemers

The yogi to Waghbil's homemakers
Arvind Chaudhari, 78, Thane, yoga teacher

For most senior citizens, mornings mean reading the newspaper over chai. Sometimes, a stroll in the park with friends is a welcome break from the routine. But, for Thane-based Arvind Chaudhari, retired life is a lot different.

Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

The 78-year-old begins his day at 5.30 am, packing lunch for his daughter Aparna, who works with a media house, before heading to the nearby Waghbil village at 7 am. Here, on the terrace of a building, he waits patiently for the motley crowd of middle-aged homemakers and young women who trickle in for the early morning yoga session, which he leads. This has been his routine for the last three years.

Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Despite being fitted with a rod in his right leg - the result of an accident some years ago - Chaudhari ensures he doesn't miss a single day of class. The motivation to be here outweighs his predicament. "I want them to take care of their health," he admits. Chaudhari, who has been practising yoga for 20 years and is a proponent of the Janardan Swami Yogabhyasi Mandal programme, began the class in June 2014.

"I used to do yoga with my friends at a nearby park, when a few women approached us and asked if they could join," he recalls. "That's when I thought, 'why not start a class exclusively for women'," adds Chaudhari, who retired as public relations officer with the Railways.

With the help of his advocate friend Madhukar Patil, he managed to secure a space on the terrace of a building in the village of Waghbil, where he started conducting free classes. Waghbil, 30 km from Mumbai, is home to many lower middle-class Maharashtrian families, "Women here spend long hours working in the fish and vegetable markets. They hardly get time to take care of themselves. In general, too, I feel women have been neglected by society. I wanted them to spare some time in the day to relax," he says.

The tiny group is now a bunch of 30. Chaudhari used pujas and get-togethers to interact with families, and convince them to join. His youngest student is 21; his oldest, "somewhere in her late fifties". Padma Patil, 38, who Chaudhuri calls "my right hand" is a homemaker who has been a committed member since he set up class. "My health has improved," Patil says. "When I started out three years ago, I had a severe pain in my back and joints. Now, I feel fitter and my stamina has improved too." Almost all the women in Chaudhari's class share Padma's sentiment. "His single-minded focus towards good health is inspiring. Women in our area have a lot to thank him for," Patil adds.

Magician who reforms garbage and addicts
Christopher Pereira, 59, Bandra, composting expert
Bandra resident Christopher Pereira is known on Rebello Road as the man behind The D-ERT Shop, a center that provides composting and gardening solutions to individuals, families and communities.

Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Pic/Datta Kumbhar

He quit his job in electronics six years ago after his time in a local ALM had him come face to face with the problem of garbage disposal. Not only does he conduct workshops across schools, colleges and housing societies, he has also managed to turn the lives of drug addicts around through non-profit Kripa Foundation which has worked tirelessly among those fighting substance abuse "The first person from there came to me in 2012. We taught him soil making, composting and everything they need to know about helping a community go green," Pereira tells us.

He admits he was far from easy. His challenge was to convince the addicts to work with "trash". "But when we explained to them that it was about caring for nature, and that it was a noble cause, they warmed up to the idea. Residents we have worked with have come out and appreciated them. It's then that they felt as if they are giving back to society." In fact, a reformed addict and former employee has set up his own composting business. "For every person we train, another 100 get taught, whether it's students in schools, kids in residential complexes, ragpickers, it all comes together."

Mr Opportunity for the disabled
Marzy Parakh, 33, Worli, restaurateur
Worli resident Marzy Parakh was the warm, sensitive child in school who would befriend those who had few or no friends. In fact, he remembers emptying out his pockets each time he visited a temple and saw a disabled beggar.

Pics/Satej Shinde
Pics/Satej Shinde

The sentiment to help remains, but his means have changed. The 33-year-old restaurateur runs Bombay Havelli at Charni Road, a food venture that is empowering the differently abled and helping them showcase their skills across various operations of the eatery. "First, in 2015, I set up a chocolate making class for the visually impaired. Despite putting in tremendous effort, the exercise was not commercially beneficial since we didn't find avenues to market the product," he recalls. It was around this time that he was due to launch the restaurant, and the moment seemed right to capitalise on his belief.

Pic/Satej Shinde

The restaurant currently has seven differently abled staffers across operations, ranging from kitchen management to serving to managerial tasks. There's also a hearing and speech impaired pastry chef, Rinky Yadav, who has been with them since the eatery launched last year. "We have a tent card that allows patrons to approach the disabled kitchen staff to place orders directly and the revenue from such orders is kept entirely by the staff," he says. Parakh says the disabled make more committed employees because they realise that they have limited employment opportunities. In a week, he receives close to 100 calls and messages, both from donors who wish to help his cause and from the needy looking for employment or funds for education.

The pied piper to the young and sick
Vikramaditya Dugar, 16, Altamount Road
The first time that Vikramaditya Dugar went to Happy Feet Home Foundation in Sion, he had no idea that he would be a regular. He was I class nine and doing something fruitful during his summer break. His mother Nandita had spoken about the cheery place, which is India's first hospice exclusively for children. "The children at the hospice, a friend and I, sat together and sang happily," Dugar recalls.

Pics/Bipin Kokate
Pics/Bipin Kokate

Since then, every weekend, term break and vacation, Dugar has spent at Happy Feet Home. The children here, typically aged four to 19, are patients of thalassemia, HIV and cancer. They are assured top notch palliative care, but what about the hours when they are not attending to their disease?

Pic/Bipin Kokate

"I am passionate about music, so I volunteered to do something along those lines," says Dugar, who plays the violin, piano, saxophone and guitar. The multi-instrumentalist offered to teach the kids music although playing and teaching are two different beasts, he says. But Dugar didn't do badly. Some of the hospice residents have accompanied him to performances at competitions held at his school, Cathedral and John Connon.

About a year-and-a-half ago, when the foundation was battling a financial crisis and looking at a shut down, Dugar managed to raise Rs 15 lakh through a crowd-funding portal and other non-profits. With budgets back on track, Dugar has now volunteered to maintain their accounts.

These days, he also into offering music therapy, especially to the younger patients. "The kids carry a stigma and it's no different how the educated treat those with HIV. This means that the kids have anxiety and anger management issues. Music therapy can help. A percussion circle for instance, is good for releasing anger," he says.

She, the saviour of the streets
Grace John, 47, Mahim, volunteer with destitute youth
Imagine following a bunch of young addicts to their most unhygienic addas, usually beside to dumpsters, between railway tracks and dark alleys, at all hours of the day.

Grace John. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Grace John. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

That has been Grace John's work-day for 19 years. The 47-year-old has made it her life's mission to rescue the young from the streets, usually aged eight to 25, and show them the way forward. John works as an outreach supervisor for Shelter Don Bosco in Wadala, an organisation that works for street children. Her job is to counsel and convince street children to shun the high-risk life they lead and opt for opportunities that could lead them to education and employment.

Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

This, the toughest part of her job, could take several months. John then refers them to de-addiction, rehab centres, and training centers. For those battling HIV, there is the Missionaries of Charity home in Kharghar. This is hardly a one-man job, and John could easily do with a helping hand. "But no one stays," she tells us when we meet her at the shelter. That's hardly a surprise, considering the danger she exposes herself to. But John doesn't see it as a threat.

"You won't find these kids in 'safe' spots. Most of them are under the influence of addiction. They steal, they fight, and are always running away from the police ka danda. Sometimes, I follow them around to the middle of railway tracks, which is their adda, or next dumpsters. They never attack me. Over the years, I have built a rapport [with them], so most of them recognise me," says John, who the kids call "mummy". In fact, even at the shelter, she is fondly called "Mother Teresa of Don Bosco".

She says, "Sometimes, if one boy gets verbally aggressive with me, the others stop him. They tell him, 'she's the only one who loves us and cares for us'. They are ill-treated by everyone, from the police to the public. Yes, they call it upon themselves through their misdeeds. But, they need love, like everyone else. And, if you explain something to someone with love, sooner or later, they will come around." John usually has her meals at stations where she waits long hours before approaching the kids.

She has earmarked 21 centres across the Western, Central and Harbour lines, having built a "caring committee" at each station. This refers to a young representative who will inform her if a new kid joins the pack, or in case of a mishap. "Everyone has my number, they can call me anytime of the day and night. I have no work hours." Where does she find the strength, we ask. "When I see some of my boys leave the streets and settle down, find steady jobs, that is joy you cannot match. If they don't go back to the streets, I consider my job done."

Jane Borges, Aastha Atray Banan, Anju Maskeri, Benita Fernando and Kusumita Das


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