Matkas Of Human Kindness
A 70-year-old cancer survivor has set up and maintains around 100 matkas in South Delhi to provide water to the underprivileged.By Aatika H Jain
If you happen to be in South Delhi early in the morning, you might witness a man, accompanied by an adorable golden beagle, filling up earthen pots—matkas—with water from a hard-to-miss van. The van proclaims him to be the ‘Matka Man,’ and carries his mobile number on it. Every day, without fail, Alagrathnam Natarajan wakes up before sunrise to carry 800l of water in his modified van, fitted with a large tank, a generator and a pump, to fill the matkas he has set up in various parts of South Delhi and its neighbourhood. It takes as many as four rounds and 2,000l of water a day to refill all the earthen pots in summer. Natarajan has been doing this since 2014. Delhi summers are unforgiving. And not everyone can afford to buy bottled water to quench their thirst. Hundreds of people working in the scorching heat, such as roadside vendors, rickshaw pullers and sweepers, find it difficult to procure free drinking water. “I was once walking on the Lodhi Road and there was this cooler outside this one big house and I thought to myself what a great idea,” recalls Natarajan. In an effort to help, he set up a water cooler outside his house, despite objections from the neighbours.
The initiative brought in its wake another dismal reality. “I saw so many people coming and drinking water. Out of curiosity, I asked a guard why he came there to drink water. He said they were not given water or even time for a break. These people do 12-hour shifts and they aren’t allowed any time off during those hours,” says Natarajan. The guard’s response inspired him to do more, but setting up coolers around the city was not a feasible solution as it would require electricity and a constant water supply. Natarajan had been helping a Sikh father-son duo in distributing free food to beggars and poor people at Chandni Chowk for three years. It was the father who came up with idea of setting up matkas. Initially, Natarajan faced problems with arranging such a huge volume of water every day. Eventually, he received support from a school and a couple of individuals who supply water to him to fulfil the daily quota. Natarajan now has an assistant who helps him with the daily rounds to maintain the matka stands. He has been digging into his personal funds and his pension to fund the operations; a few people have also helped him out with donations.
“I LEARNT A LOT FROM THE HOSPICE AND REALISED THAT VERY POOR PEOPLE DON’T HAVE MONEY TO CREMATE THEIR DEAD. I BOUGHT A VAN, WHICH NOW SERVES AS THE MATKA VAN, AND I STARTED CREMATING PEOPLE.”Alagrathnam Natarajan, Cancer survivor
From London to Delhi
A Bengaluru resident, Natarajan moved to London at the age of 24. He ran a souvenir shop on Oxford Street for 40 years. A decade ago, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. The diagnosis and ensuing treatment caused him to introspect. He had always wanted to return to India and he decided it was time. An engineer by passion, he spent some time in Varanasi, improving cycle rickshaw design. Thereafter, he worked with an orphanage and a hospice for advanced terminally-ill cancer patients. “I learnt a lot from the hospice and realised that very poor people don’t have money to cremate their dead. I bought a van, which now serves as the matka van, and I started cremating people,” says Natarajan, who wished to give them a dignified end.
Initially, Natarajan faced problems with arranging such a huge volume of water (2,000l in winter and a little more in summer) every day. Eventually, he received support from a school and a couple of individuals who supply water to him to fulfil the daily quota.
When he started setting up the matka stands, he also set up a bench near them for the weary to rest. There is a sign at every stand with his phone number for people to inform if the matkas are empty. Along with the water, he also carries and distributes freshly cooked idli-sambhar and 100kg of peeled and chopped seasonal fruits and vegetables, such as cucumber, watermelon, and white radish, every week. He has also installed around 100 cycle pumps in his neighbourhood. Some of these are standalone pumps and some are set up with the matka stands. He gives away glow stickers and spare nozzles for the wheels to cyclists.
“I made the van very visual with all these labels. The reason for this is that it attracts people and they come to me and ask what I am doing and why. This creates a dialogue. I have leaflets in my van they can take. The van is my window display,” says Natarajan. “I have come to believe that we are all crucially linked together but that society today has abandoned this interconnectedness. For this reason, I work now with my immediate community in Panchsheel Park and South Delhi. I wish to help those in need around me and also to inspire people to help those around them. Perhaps then, I can start a quiet revolution of human kindness.”