I still remember taking up the book 'Franny and Zooey' by JD Salinger as a 17 year old. A reason why this book resonated with me so much is that it proliferated a strong message - that everything we do is self-serving and self-centred to an extent - even in the most minute ways. Over the years, I have wasted hours trying to convince myself otherwise, but to no avail. This search ended when I met Mr Alag Natarajan, a 60-year-old citizen of Panchsheel Park, Delhi, who is indeed living up to his name, 'alag'. Those of you who might have come across his social service endeavours will know him as 'Matkaman'. Before his work, let's get to know the man first. Mr Alag Natarajan was a passionate engineer since his childhood. He was capable of fixing an automobile engine before he cleared high school. This passion, clubbed with the inspiration from his father to give something back to the community, served as a drastic turning point later in his life. He joined Ramaiyyah college, Bangalore as a mechanical engineering student, but dropped out to move to London and start his own business. The business took off, and he returned to India nearing his retirement and settled here. Let's cut to the present day. Mr Alag starts his day at 4 AM in the morning. He fills the tanks of his custom made van with potable water with the help of a pump assembly. He packs eggs and winter clothes and sets off to multiple locations where his 'matkas' are installed. “I started this in a smaller way two years ago by placing a couple of pots on a stand in front of my residence in Panchsheel Park. I noticed a lot of passers-by, especially construction workers and cyclists, going to distant areas for work, stopping to drink water. Also, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers would not only drink water but also fill their bottles.” Sensing that it was not enough, Natarajan decided to expand the idea to neighbouring colonies including Green Park, Hauz Khas and Chirag Delhi. But that not only required installing more Matka stands but also the paraphernalia to fill them. Soon, his efforts diversified to giving eggs to feed the poor and giving them warm clothes to help them bear the chilling Delhi winter. As his efforts diversified, so did his van, and he had to import some parts from the USA to sustain his mission. Today, his van is fitted with a high capacity pump to fill the matkas quickly and efficient, a large plastic tank and a heater generator arrangement to help boil the eggs and feed the poor. Of course, sustaining this effort required a good amount of financial commitment as well, and not backed by any NGO, and set on his journey to try and bring about the change he represents, he is using his life savings for his purpose. He stated on multiple occasions how thankful he is for his supportive wife. “My household help and his wife are my support pillars. That apart, our household help and gardener also assists with much of the work,” he adds. It has gotten to the point where his efforts have led to him making sacrifices in his own standards of living to sustain and upscale his efforts. "I've had my days of living in the fast lane. I used to be the guy driving the expensive car. Now just last month, me and my wife, we wanted to get us a new car, nothing too fancy. But the thought of spending 15 lakhs to get a new car when it means warmer clothes, nice breakfast to someone poor suffering in Delhi cold was too much. I just couldn't bring myself to do it." He adds how this has engulfed some other aspects of his life as well, and he has simplified his life such that from the clothes he wears to the coffee he drinks, nothing is branded. Which raises the fundamental question - how much does a man need to sustain himself? Something he owes to 'vipassana' for teaching him. Before he started on this path, a wise person once told him, "The path to righteousness, from the background that you belong to, won't be easy. The people won't understand, and you will expose their hypocrisy." His neighbours objected to his installations of water coolers and benches for the poor, saying it might lead to drunkards and trouble makers coming into the area. They fenced their colony from the footpath connecting it to the main road to keep passerby from coming in. "Why should ordinary people be kept from drinking water due to concerns about trouble makers? Do people who drink not need water?" he grew emotional as he went on. "I cut the fence open with some help. They called the police and got it closed. I opened it again, this time with my own hands. Thankfully it's been that way for three months." "People, in their endless pursuit of greed, have lost the ability to touch human lives. Some of my neighbours, who see me filling water in my van in the morning or cutting vegetables to cook for the poor in front of my house never do so much as buy a woollen sock for me to distribute among the poor. The man living next door just bought a brand new Porsche, and he has never done so much as donating a penny for my efforts." he continues - " When people ask me what they can do to help out, the answer is very simple. Give me a dozen eggs. Buy me clothes or vegetables. Go and fill my matkas. Charity begins when one opens one's own pocket for the service of the poor." Stressing that he wished for Panchsheel Park to be an example for future India and how we should treat our poor. "The colony watchmen, from other houses came to thank me once, telling me how they benefited front my coolers — saying how the home owners won't even give them water to drink. I once came across two children outside my house. One was trying to pull a light I had installed on my wall. The other immediately reprimanded him, saying the owner is good, he gives us water and food, so why are you doing this? If I am good to the people, they will never wrong me. The cynic in me wanted to believe that there was some selfish motif behind this action, but I was quickly proven wrong. Mr Natarajan clarifies early on that he wasn't doing this work for societal validation or even inner satisfaction or happiness. He wanted to work for the sake of working, serve for the sake of serving. His wife took over here and narrated a very simple incident when he saw a person who delivered ice in the scorching Delhi heat on a cycle. He had to hurry so that the ice didn't melt. After observing his routine, Mr Alag called the man, a total stranger, and took him to a bike dealership. Before the man could understand what was happening, he purchased a bike, fitted a basket on it to carry the ice, and handed him the keys. "The guy fell on his feet, but it wouldn't have made any difference if he didn't. Alag had done his duty, and he would have walked away contended in this fact." In an effort to know more about the person, and seek answers to some of the questions I had been asking, I decided to interview his close friends and relatives. Some very useful insights came out. For one, Mr alag suffered from cancer while he was in the UK. After fighting it for a few years and almost coming face to face with death, he came back to India and started working with the American Foundation in Varanasi to make the manual rickshaws more efficient. Then he volunteered in Delhi itself in terminal cancer hospitals as a part of an NGO. There were some bodies which no one claimed at that place, so he brought a van to carry these people to the cemetery and give them a proper burial. And this is the same Van he uses, to this day, to help the poor. However, his efforts caught the eye of the NGO leaders, who grew insecure about their position in light of his efforts. Soon it became difficult for him to continue working there, so he decided to leave and start his own independent efforts to make a difference. He doesn't want to be called an NGO, or an organisation of any kind. Its always been him - well, him, his family, and his dog, Snoopy. And the rest is what it is. To conclude, it's hard to believe people like him exist in today's A-grade colonies, with such pure motivations to serve. People who put others first unconditionally. Another quote by Salinger comes to mind - "Introduce me to the egoless human, and I will be his or her unabashed servant till the end of time." So the next time you are in Panchsheel Park, make sure you pay his house a visit. Any watchman or pedestrian will tell you the way. You will find the 'matkaman' sitting on his porch, ever ready for tea and amazing conversations, and his dog Snoopy, right by his side, ever ready to play fetch.
(Interviewed by Pratyush Pandey)