Suicidal after son’s death, she now lives to make a difference to the lives of the underprivileged

23rd Aug 2017
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Damayanti Tanna feeds 110 people lunch every day, free of cost, donates monthly homecare supplies and food items to needy families, and supports an Adivasi hamlet.

Damayanti Tanna belonged to a family that had its roots firmly anchored in a suburb for generations, the kind where one not only waves at the owner of the corner shop but also own one themselves. Hers was a typical Gujarati clan with picture-perfect lives in Mulund, Mumbai too — what with they owned a snacks and savouries joint called Ashapura, had a tight group of friends and family, and a life they were happy with — till the day Damayanti’s 22-year-old son, Nimesh, a photographer, met with an accident while traveling on a Mumbai local for a meeting. His head hit a pole erected too close to the tracks, and he died because of the injuries sustained.

Life changed forever for the Tannas.

For Damayanti, outliving her son was a blow she did not see herself recovering from. “Both my husband and I had lost the will to live. He stopped going to work and I felt helpless. Our shop shut down after the incident,” she recounts.

For a year and a half, the couple, unable to get closure, refused to even leave the house.

But it is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars. When Damyanti lost the motivation to live for her own happiness, she found a greater purpose in life — living to make a difference to the lives of others.

“We were suicidal at a point. But one day, it occurred to us that we were no longer going to be able to live for ourselves, but why waste this life we had been given by god? Why not dedicate it to the service of others? My husband also said he would support me fully no matter what I decided to do,” she narrates.

The couple first decided to get their lives back on track so they were better equipped, mentally and financially, to help their community. They restarted their business and opened two new outlets, Farsani Duniya and Labdhi Farsan.

Damayanti Tanna

The first step

Knowing that the first link in her support system was secure, Damayanti started drafting a plan.

“I wanted to do something for the underprivileged groups of society, but silently. I did not want credit or gratitude; I just wanted to help people. At that point, my husband said that we should do something within our own means, and not seek external donations. So, we decided to serve fresh and hot meals to those who could not afford quality food,” she explains.

She gathered her son’s friends and asked them for their service, not financial help. Her idea garnered sweeping support. Nimesh’s friends put up pamphlets in the market, temples and gardens. They asked people to inform them about any senior citizens who lived alone and couldn’t get proper meals.

“We wanted to feed them lunch every day, free of cost. People started coming forth, telling us about people in their housing society and neighbourhood who were struggling to make ends meet. We asked for their photo or ID proof, and got 150 entries! I was shocked. There were so many people like that in my locality itself who were leading such difficult lives. Who knows how many others there would be in the world,” she says.

The couple sifted through the entries and chose 27 individuals whose predicaments​ were truly grave. “I came to understand that my own sadness was nothing, that there was so much misery in the world. As word got out, people came forward, insisting that we let them donate money, foodgrains, ingredients etc. I thought if people were so keen to help out, we must scale this trust and help even more needy people,” Damayanti says.

Today, through a constant stream of donations, not to mention their own savings, they serve about 110 people full meals. The dal, chapattis, vegetables, rice and other items are delivered to their homes every day.

“At first, I ran the house while [my husband] ran the shop. But now, I run the trust, which we named after our son, Shri Nimesh Tanna Charitable Trust, and we both handle the shop,” she says.

The joy of giving

Damyanti prepares the food at home, and has hired eight women who were struggling to make ends meet so she could provide them a source of livelihood. As her funding increased, she even identified families to donate a month’s worth of necessities to. These included items needed each day, including soap, dishwashing liquid, balm, toothbrushes, toothpaste etc.

Merck Pharmaceuticals, under its Helping True Heroes campaign, also presented her with an award last month, which gave her philanthropist activities a significant impetus.

“We started a project wherein we urged people to shell out Rs 1,000 from the Rs 5,000 (that they would otherwise spend at a hotel for their birthdays or anniversaries) and give it to our trust so we could put it to good use,” she says.

Since the kitchen she was operating from was small and already running on full capacity, she started thinking of other ways in which she could serve people in need.

“Support was pouring in so I found 75 families to whom we donate a kit of basic foodstuff every month. The rice, wheat, oil, sugar and salt we send them lasts a month,” Damayanti says.

Apart from funds, she also found herself with ample time on her hands as the lunches would wrap up by 1 pm. Keen to put the rest of her day to better use, she asked her friends to help her find Adivasi hamlets that were impoverished and inaccessible, and so could not reach out for help.

Damyanti and her friends found one near the Maharashtra-Goa border; it did not even have a road leading up to it.

“We saw that they used gunnysacks as blankets and had never even worn slippers in their lives. We donated blankets, slippers and snacks from my own shop. The first time we went, everybody volunteered to bring one item, be it slippers or fruit juices. When we gave them the slippers, the kids put them on their heads; they considered them precious and did not want to spoil them by putting them on the ground,” she recalls.

Be the change you want to see

Damyanti and her volunteers started frequenting the village, speaking to local NGOs that worked there and got involved with the Adivasis’ day-to-day problems. They found that women in the village only wore a small blouse and simply wrapped a towel around their lower bodies. Young girls rarely left the house because they did not have suitable clothes to wear.

So, Damyanti and her humanitarian cavalry collected a tempo full of clothes for the village and did a massive donation drive for men, women and children. They also sponsored stationery for 4,500 adivasi children, including schoolbags, raincoats, books, and pencil boxes.

“I like to think that my son is watching over us, making sure we never run out of funds so that we keep up the good work. I feel so empowered, knowing that it is possible to bring about change even as one individual. Everybody can do it – and they must. Just look around, there’s always someone who needs help, and you’ll always have a way to be able to help,” she signs off.

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