Our common ground

April 19, 2020

Hundreds of poor families who would feed themselves from the food left over at posh restaurants, aren’t sure where the next morsel shall come from

Open kitchen. — Photos by Rahat Dar

Lahore, a city of 12 million people, boasts a culture of food philanthropy that runs through its glistening avenues, patchy grey roads and dinghy streets. The culture changes its silhouette according to the locality it thrives in. So does the flavour, serve and size of a meal at the innumerable food joints whether they are open-air dhabas in downtown areas or snazzy uptown cafés. However, where few of both the low-cost and the posh eateries have a policy of feeding the poor, free of cost, outside their dining halls, privately run organisations such as Rizq Foundation and Robin-Hood Army pool in their leftover food from the day and distribute it among the poor.

Lahore has always had a tradition of langar (free food distribution) at places like the Data Darbar. But ever since the pandemic stricken city shut down its shrines and restaurants/cafés, in order for the people to observe social distancing, the poor and the needy have been forced to look elsewhere.

“I came [to Lahore] from Deepalpur, some 20 years earlier, to make it big, but today my job as a van driver at a bakery earns me just about enough money to pay the rent for my cubicle-like house. Putting food on the table thrice a day, for a family of five, is not always possible for me,” says Ahmed, a resident of Township who has been eating his afternoon and evening meals at a langar in his locality which is funded by some businessman.

“A day in the week, with biryani on the menu, is like a party for my children,” he adds. “They do not mind eating tasteless and watery lentils for the rest of the week, in anticipation of that one day of biryani!” A free plate of this biryani could be jazzed up with a pouch of raita that was had for about five rupees, a sum Ahmed and his clan could sometimes afford, and sometimes could not. Today, hundreds of families and daily wagers like Ahmed, now sitting at home without work, are a picture of worry about where the next morsel shall come from.

Langar as a concept is associated with shrines and imambargahs. The 300 shops outside the Data Darbar routinely sold cauldronfuls of hot meals to the rich to be distributed for free among the poor. The same was true of imambargahs found in every locality, which ensured meals and shelter.

Then there were soup kitchens in Township, Bahria Town, Garhi Shahu, Johar Town, Bhopattiyan Chowk, Lytton Road, Abbot Road, Saffanwala Chowk, Saddar, and Quaid-i-Azam Industrial Estate etc. News reports place the number of people feeding at these places at a couple of million a day. To think that such a great number of people is deprived of food in these tough times is worrisome, not just for the city administrators but also for those who can afford to eat.

Adeel Chaudhry has altered the setup: the dining room for the poor has been changed into a walk-in pantry where donors and passersby have stocked up clothes, soap bars and sanitisers as well as lunchboxes with hot meals that can be carried away without disrupting the social distancing paradigm.

There are individuals who have created a way out. Adeel Chaudhry, a restaurateur and owner of Junoon Restaurant on MM Alam Road, always had a dastarkhwan (similar to langar) for all, outside the premises of his restaurant, but today he has altered the setup: the dining room for the poor has been changed into a walk-in pantry where Chaudhry and his friends, some donors and passersby have stocked up clothes, soap bars, hand-washing liquids and sanitisers, as well as lunchboxes with hot meals that can be carried away without disrupting the social distancing paradigm.

Apart from these necessities, Chaudhry has piled up a collection of books. Those in need can just walk in and collect what they want to.

Another such restaurant is Dar’s Delighto, owned by Aleem Dar, in the PIA Society, which invite the labour community and daily wagers to walk into the main dining halls and be served food, free of cost.

“Other eating places can follow suit, in the absence of open kitchens,” says Sania, a resident of Model Town, who is collecting funds from friends and family to buy and distribute rations among the underprivileged families around her.

“If not, then bakeries, which are open in every neighbourhood in Lahore, can start mobile open kitchens where food boxes can be handed out to the needy.”

While assembling some individual efforts, rights activist and lawyer Nighat Dad has been distributing rations in three villages of Jhang with a team of social workers. Talking about the situation in Lahore, she comments, “It is important to reach out to marginalised communities — students who have returned from hostels, women who are daily wagers, women-led households; and widowed, divorced, disabled women who are at a greater disadvantage in this situation. These must be on the list when rations are provided at home.”

Dad says that everyone needs to pitch in and look around in their communities to identify who needs help, and work in tandem with the social workers and enable them in whatever way one can.

Slumabad, a charity NGO led by Muhammad Sabir in Lahore, provides education to children in slum areas. But these days they are providing them with cooked food and rations.

Everyone needs to pitch in and look around in their communities to identify who needs food.

Talking to TNS, Sabir recounts the story of Gulzari, an old woman who Slumabad provided with rations. “When her relatives in remote villages got to know that she had got ration for a month, they rushed to her jhuggi [hut] to claim their share. At each meal time she had to bake thrice the number of chapatis for her family and guests. It is part of our culture that we do not refuse our guests or our relatives who’ve showed up along with their extended families.”

The current situation has affected not only the families who depended on the langars, but also those who have additional mouths to feed. Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Social Protection and Poverty Alleviation Dr Sania Nishtar recently announced the Ehsaas-Saylani Welfare International Trust would now function as a “Langar On Wheels”, to ensure hot cooked meals reach the deserving right at their doorsteps. The initiative is meant to ensure that people stay at home and still not be short on food.

This is a time when one household’s empty bread bin points to the hunger of a community at large. Like James Beard says, food, now, is our common ground, and every person is responsible for the other. Empathy has to be the common attitude of the citizens towards this pandemic.

The writer is the author of fiction books including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

Langars in Lahore helping poor during coronavirus pandemic