It was not a bright vision that opened his eyes to the dire needs of fellow human beings but the graphic image of an old man under a bridge in Madurai, India, doing the most unthinkable of acts. That day in June 2002 was the turning point in the life of Narayanan Krishnan who at 19 [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

One meal that went a long way on the streets of Madurai

Chosen as one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010 and presented with the V-Rythm Award 2011 in Malaysia for his acts of charity, Narayanan Krishnan who was in Colombo, tells Kumudini Hettiarachchi how his life took a different turn at the age of 19

It was not a bright vision that opened his eyes to the dire needs of fellow human beings but the graphic image of an old man under a bridge in Madurai, India, doing the most unthinkable of acts. That day in June 2002 was the turning point in the life of Narayanan Krishnan who at 19 was set on a different pathway altogether. On leave from his work at a star-class hotel in Bangalore, he had been on his way to the kovil with his parents, for he was to depart to Switzerland to pursue his career as a chef.
In shock on seeing the man who was just skin and bone, overcome by hunger, eating his own faeces, Mr. Krishnan had stopped the car, bought a meal and fed it to him.

Narayanan: Giving lost souls not only a human touch but also dignity

It was not to be a single act of charity. Throwing to the winds his personal plans for a prosperous future to the dismay of his parents, Mr. Krishnan, quitting his job, had then set about feeding the mentally-ill and the elderly who were on the streets of Mudurai.

It was for this selflessness that he was chosen as CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010 and also presented with the V- Rythm Award 2011 in Malaysia.

The challenges have been many, not least being the fact that he was a Brahmin. With furious relatives telling him in no uncertain terms that he should not be doing what he was, “touching the untouchables”, he had had no option but to remove the sacred threads that Brahmins wear to mark the different milestones of their lives.

The first strands are placed across the torso after a grand ritual, when a boy turns 15, explains Mr. Krishnan, in Colombo last week to support the fund-raising efforts of Viluthu, the Centre for Human Resource Development which works in the north and the east. The other sets of thread follow when he gets married and then has a child.

When the pressure mounted from his relatives, he removed the threads, for “firstly I am a human being” and felt this compulsion to help other human beings, he reiterates.

The defining moment for Mr. Krishnan was, when after that first act of charity, the old man placed his dirty, frail and wrinkled hand in his. Using his personal savings, he then fed about 30 people, moving into providing freshly-cooked meals, three times a day, in keeping with his chef’s abilities. “There have been no complaints about the food,” he smiles.

Forming the Akshaya Trust, Mr. Krishnan seeing their need for basic necessities such as a bath, a hair-cut or a shave, which many of us take for granted, he himself goes around giving these lost souls not only a human touch but also dignity. Seeing a corpse rotting by the wayside under attack by stray dogs he has also begun cremating the dead.

“Up to March this year we have served close to two million meals,” says Mr. Krishnan with humility, adding that 425 people do not starve any more on the streets of Madurai.

Materialism does not attract him and Mr. Krishnan stresses that “wealth” can be categorised into two. “What you need and what you hunt for.” This man who has only five shirts, with “the sixth being in the shop where I can get it whenever I want”, believes strongly that satisfaction and fulfilment come with being content with what one has – a small car or a comfortable home, without pursuing the things that one’s neighbour has.

“There should be selflessness for that will bring joy when giving,” says Mr. Krishnan questioning many people who come out with the theory that they are doing good by helping their maids or drivers. “But that is an investment, not selfless-giving, for they are expecting something in return, that the maid or driver will work for a longer time more loyally.”
Pointing out how in our daily lives we can help others, he says when we buy stuff from small vendors don’t bargain over the price. “Do we go to big shops and ask them to reduce the price?”

Underscoring the fact that he and his organisation do not feed the beggars, most of whom have money stashed away in banks, Mr. Krishnan says that those they care for, the mentally-ill and the elderly destitute are in the same place every day. While beggars would be profuse in their thanks, his protégés “won’t even smile or take cognizance of the fact that someone is helping them”.

Now married and with a three-month-old daughter, he says his changed status will not affect the work he is carrying out. His wife, Harini’s salary keeps the home fires burning and they are not aiming at the stars but living simply. Their daughter, Sara, will go to a normal school and a normal university.

“Sara will be enriched by human values and not materialistic attractions,” assures Mr. Krishnan, relying on imagery to prove his point. “If there’s honey, the bees will come in their numbers and if a little sugar, not salt, is spilt the ants will crowd round.”
What of the future? While resolving to sustain the feeding programme Mr. Krishnan is setting up a home to look after and if possible rehabilitate the mentally-ill and elderly who are homeless in his hometown. The old man whom he first fed, the encounter with whom changed Mr. Krishnan’s life, however, is no more.

Asked whether the public donations on which he relies will dry up, he is quick to point out that funding for a good cause will never cease. If it does cease, that means the cause is not good enough and needs to be changed.For Mr. Krishnan satisfaction lies in the fact that small groups of people in other towns in India have begun to emulate him. The ripple effect is growing wider and wider.

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