‘Happiness brigade’ of Abhinav Malhotra honours unseen heroes

There is an Aesop’s fable about Androcles and the lion. In this story, Androcles, after escaping enslavement, comes across a lion with a thorn stuck in its paw. Androcles remove the thorn and relieve the lion from great pain. Later, both are captured and Androcles is sentenced to be “thrown to the lions”. As it happens, he is imprisoned with the lion he saved, who merely licks his hand in greeting. The moral of the story: Gratitude saves lives.

Abhinav Malhotra, 37, who founded the ‘happiness brigade’ or Rab Shukran in 2019, would know this first-hand. He and his team hand out gratitude cards and flowers to those whose work goes unseen and unappreciated. “We talk about the mental health of corporates and others in high positions,” he says. “But what about the ambulance drivers, traffic policemen, rickshaw drivers…. Nobody is talking about their mental health.” They are the ones who are the backbone of society; they make everything work. And what are we really doing for them, he asks. 

Rab Shukran means ‘God’s thank you’, and Abhinav, based in Delhi, came up with the name because he believes that you don’t need to go to temples or churches to find God. He is right there in the form of the person who is standing before you. If you help that person, you find God.

It all began three years after Abhinav graduated from college when he lost his father. While sitting by his sick father’s hospital bed for 12 days he prayed hard that God would heal him. When he did not get better, Abhinav gave up religion and grew angry and frustrated with life. Which then settled into a dark period of grief. “Although we loved each other, we never used to express it much,” he says. “There were a few occasions when my father shared his worries and struggles with us. Now when I look back, I wish I had offered him a hug. He would have accepted it. That has always been a regret.”

That is when it struck him how uncertain life was. His father, who worked in the textile industry, had always worked hard to provide for his family and educate Abhinav and his elder sister. He gave up many privileges and luxuries in life, and spent long hours in the office. When he lost him, Abhinav realised that none of us would know what was going to happen in our lives the next day or the day after that. He decided he would make the most of each day, contribute something to society, and live in the present moment. 

Abhinav Malhotra along with volunteer Lokesh handed out gratitude card to a rickshaw puller and son. He works 12 hours a day to fund his son’s education.

Around this time, he also discovered Buddhism, when his friend took him to a Buddhist meeting. It helped him answer some of the questions which he had been grappling with. His Buddhist mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, taught him how peace could not be attained by participating in long discussions or joining the UN. It starts from where you are. Whatever peace you have attained in your own life, you can bring it to someone else as well. That was the core thought behind Rab Shukran.

That time, there was a lot of news in the media on intolerance and petty fights and murders over things as small as a pack of cigarettes. Abhinav brainstormed with his friends on what they could do, and came up with the idea of gratitude cards. So, one Sunday morning, they made and distributed the cards with personalised messages. For a traffic policeman, for example, they would have a message about how they were thankful to him for standing in the scorching heat or rain and directing traffic, which, they wrote, had not gone unnoticed. 

“These would be the thoughts going through the policeman’s own mind, that he was standing there without even a washroom break, and what thanks was he getting from the people, who were more likely to abuse him than show gratitude,” says Abhinav.

Rab Shukran today includes hundreds of volunteers and has distributed over 15,000 cards. They are mostly self-funded, and other than distributing cards and flowers, they hold workshops and make kindness calendars, where they allot days to smile at strangers or take out a slum kid. During the pandemic, they connected those who needed money for ration with those who were willing to provide it, through services like Grofers. 

There are many instances Abhinav can recall when the cards made a difference in someone’s life. He remembers once handing cards to BSF soldiers standing outside PM Narendra Modi’s house. After half an hour, one of them called Abhinav to thank him. He was in tears and told him how he had been posted in different places in his career, and although he was proud of his job, no one before this had appreciated the sacrifices he made or the long stretches of time he had to go without seeing his family. There are few times when people even look at us, the soldier told him. We see hundreds of cars passing us, and no one even smiles at us. What you did had a huge impact on me. 

“Seeing these men in their 50s crying and thanking us made a big impression on me,” says Abhinav. “When I was young, I was bullied and slapped. Children used to make fun of my clothes and my haircuts. I was never able to express what I was feeling to anyone. Nobody ever came to me to ask how I was doing or whether there was anything that troubled me.” And now he hopes to do for others what he wishes someone had done for him.