Bhopal tea vendor’s decade-old free food initiative feeds the needy

There are evenings when Gajraj Choudhary, 48, is quite a dejected man. These are evenings when Gajraj hasn’t been able to find any manual labour job to do throughout the day and thus he has nothing to take home to feed his three motherless children. Also, these are the evenings that Gajraj’s feet automatically turn to Nadra Bus Stand in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.

Here, in front of a modest kiosk selling special ‘namak wali chay’ (salted tea) of Bhopal, stands a modest metal table. On the table are packets of hot food. And most of the time, Gajraj can simply pick up packets as required and walk off, without having to ask or say anything. Of course, he doesn’t have to pay anything either.

For, the small table serves as the serving tray of the ‘Langar-e-Aam’ of ‘Maqbool Bhai’ – a small free food initiative for the needy that has been run for the past decade.

‘Maqbool Bhai’ is Maqbool Ahamed, the owner of the tea kiosk, who without fail puts up about 100-125 packets of hot food before his stall every evening at 8.00 pm.

From then till midnight, poor, destitute, travellers with little or no money and other needy people pick up the food packets and go away with a smile and a blessing for Ahamed.

“I lost my son, lost interest in life, developed an infection in my foot, stopped working and have no choice but to stay on the footpath here. But for food provided by Maqbool Bhai, survival would have been tough as I don’t beg,” Jaswant Lodhi, 40, who is a regular at the Langar-e-Aam says.

Binno Bai and Tara Bai, two elderly destitute women were offered the food packets by Ahamed with great respect and affection. The women were reluctant to speak, but their smiles said a lot about their happiness at getting the fresh, hot food.

What made Ahamed start this small but significant initiative? “From my tea kiosk set up in 1990, I was witness to travails of the homeless, destitute, poor who stayed or visited the bus stand. I saw people fall ill and die, often starved. This shook me up and though I did not have much budget to spare, I decided to start this Langar (community kitchen) for these needy people in 2013. And by the grace of almighty, I have been able to put out the food everyday for the past more than 10 years. I feel that offering needy people the opportunity to survive with some dignity – where they do not have to beg at least for food – is the best service to humanity one can do,” Ahamed, 58, says.

He mentions that though he never sought any support for his initiative from anyone, some of his friends and associates who came to know about it, voluntarily contributed in the form of raw material – rice, flour, vegetables or oil. Some continue to do so even now.

“There was a time before the COVID-19 pandemic when every evening almost 300-350 persons would come for food. After the pandemic, however, the number has reduced to around 100-125,” Ahamed says.

Yet, he bears a cost of about Rs 1,000 per day to keep his modest initiative going. Normally, the Langar-e-Aam serves chapatis and seasonal vegetable curry thrice a week and on other days, items like daal and rice, matar (peas) pulao, sometimes khichdi (porridge) or similar simple vegetarian stuff.

Maqbool Ahamed of Langar-e-Aam Bhopal handing over food to needy | Narendra Sahu

The main focus is that the food should be fresh and hot. So during winters, packets are put up in batches so that food can be heated up for those coming later. This correspondent tasted a little of chapati and potato-brinjal-tomato curry served on the evening of her visit and found it very tasty.

Earlier in the evening, Devendra Singh, a conductor on an inter-district bus running from the Nadra Bus Stand, had escorted two poor families who had come to look for work in Bhopal to the Langar-e-Aam. 

“I heard their discussion on the bus about having no money to buy dinner for all of them. Since I am a regular at the bus stand, I remembered about Maqbool Bhai and when the bus reached here, I asked these persons to get the free food from the Langar. I too got blessings along with Maqbool Bhai,” Singh says with a smile.

These blessings are what have kept Ahamed’s resolve strong for the past decade. “I have faced some opposition from a few jealous people around my kiosk. They try to create hurdles. But as Hazrat Ali (Islamic religious leader) said – the work that does not face hurdles does not get accepted as good work. So I live by this principle and keep doing my work.”

Will the initiative keep running? “Till my death at least,” says Ahamed. He says that all his three children – two daughters and a son – have completed their education and are doing good jobs in Bengaluru. 

“My wife and the kids always supported me in this work and they will continue to support me, though they might not be able to continue the Langar physically after me. Maybe my brothers could carry on. But at least till I am alive, I will continue with this,” he says.

“I feel it is almighty who helps me on my tough days through Maqbool Bhai. So I do not thank him. I thank the almighty and I urge the almighty to keep Maqbool Bhai and his family happy and healthy always,” Gajraj Choudhary says as he starts to move away with the food packets.

Maqbool Ahamed smiles and nods – his eyes silently speaking of the satisfaction he gets out of helping out fellow human beings.