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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

54 Y.O. Mumbai Woman Makes Over 100 Lunchboxes Every Day To Feed The Needy And Elderly

  • IWB Post
  •  January 28, 2019

When I first watched her YouTube video under the hashtag ‘Helping True Heroes’, my mother’s words rang loud in my head. She often speaks about the mother-child bond, and says that what a mother feels for her child, no other person can ever understand.

Damayanti Tanna, 54, lost her only son to Mumbai’s local train six years ago, and the incident tore the parents’ lives apart. Nimesh, 22, was a photographer and it was while he was on the way to a meeting that he met with the unfortunate accident. He bent his head a little outside to check the next station, and a pole located too near the track hit his head.

“One day I will be so famous that people will know you by my name”, he often said, shared the mother. “Losing him, we lost the motivation to live for our own happiness, we slipped into suicidal depression and had no wish to live for ourselves. But somewhere he led us to find a greater purpose in life – to live to make a difference in the lives of others. He guided us to experience the ‘joy of giving’, and we decided to not waste this life and dedicate it to a greater good.”

In 2013, they founded a Trust in his name, Shri Nimesh Tanna Charitable Trust, and have been providing free tiffin services to the needy and homeless senior citizens every day ever since.

Damayanti Tanna

When I called Damayanti Ji to check with her a suitable time for an interview, she asked me to call her anytime after 2’o clock, as that is the time she gets done packing and sending off the lunchboxes. Find below excerpts from my conversation with her:

Let’s begin with talking about your day, tell me everything that it revolves around?                  

My day starts early, I wake up at six and complete all the house chores and make food for my husband and myself before I leave for the kitchen at nine. The next two hours go in packing lunch boxes with the team; there are eight women to help me now, they come at seven to start with cooking, as I also have to look after our shop and other things. Once the boxes are sent, starts the menu preparation for next day, after which I leave for home. Then since the past one-year, a few of my friends and I have been working for the people living in the tribal areas, so after a little rest post lunch, the latter half of the day goes in that.

Okay. And speaking of the menu, do you prepare special things for festivals and other occasions?

Yes, we do try to add new things to the menu now and then. The everyday meals comprise of dal, sabzi, chapaati, and some seasonal fruit, but on festivals and special occasions, we make kadhi-khichdi, pao bhaji, or missal pao, etc. Also, we have a provision that if it’s someone’s birthday and they want to sponsor that day’s food, we ask them to design the menu based on their favourites.

Damayanti Tanna

Ah, that’s a nice idea. So do you also receive special demands, or thank you notes and feedback? 

We do, but the 115 lunch boxes that we are making currently are all for senior citizens, and they don’t always like experimenting, as also the purpose of a wholesome meal gets met only by proper lunch. But yeah, they do send messages inside their respective boxes, like the tiffin was good today, or that I didn’t like today’s bhaji, and sometimes also call to give their feedback.

Then she remembered, “I am a Gujarati, so intitally I used to try and incorporate some typical Gujarati food items, but not all the recipients had the taste of it, and this one time when I made ‘dal dhokli’, a South-Indian uncle sent a slip that read ‘today’s tiffin was very poor’. So you see, can’t experiment much, but I still try to make interesting variations here and there”.

Damayanti Tanna

Hmmm. Tell me Damyanti Ji, has there ever been a situation where an initiative you thought of seemed impossible in the beginning?

No. And perhaps it is with God’s grace that our simple and honest intentions never met any problem. When we decided to do something to help feed the needy, the lunchbox idea worked very well for us. And to the extent that a lot of genuine people came forward to help and eventually we decided to make a trust and use the opportunity to serve more people. Similarly, recently when I thought of giving sweaters to people in the tribal areas, so many people came out to help that we distributed some 9,000 winter-wears, and still more are coming.

Damayanti Tanna

And she concluded with the words, “I never think about how something will be possible, or how it will happen”.

On that note, how can people approach you for help?

We don’t ask or advertise for help, but anyone can help us in any manner they wish to. They can reach us through our website, my number is available there. Like recently, when I began to work on collecting food and clothes for people residing in the tribal areas around the outskirts of Mumbai, a lot of people just emerged for help and now even visit with me to those places. Any help and gesture coming from the heart is welcome.

Damayanti Tanna

And you mentioned that you now have a team of women working with you – how did they associate with you? 

They come from humble backgrounds, where most of them were working as maids in people’s houses earlier. Now they’re associated with us fulltime, and even though we have them appointed on salary, they work with an intention of serving. They’re also very dedicated, and without my involvement, manage for anyone’s absence amongst each other. I make sure that enough food is made for them to have lunch after packing the boxes, and also support them in their children’s education and other basic necessities. 

That’s very thoughtful of you. Also, you are now contributing towards the betterment of the people living in tribal areas, what, in your opinion, is the biggest problem faced by the girls of those communities? 

The biggest problem is of lack of toilet facilities for girls in schools, because of which they have to go in the jungle. In the past few months of connecting with them, we have tried our best to extend small bits of help, and now the toilet work is also in progress. The other problem that is there is that girls and women there don’t have innerwear, school provides them with uniform, but no one tells them about the importance of using bra and underwear, and of dressing properly.

Damayanti Tanna

Damayanti Tanna

Do you also see the scope of helping them beyond material needs, in terms of skill training and education? 

Yes, there is a lot of scope and need, but I can’t do as much. I have myself studied only till class X, and that too, through Gujarati medium. And moreover, I want to focus on things that are under my control, and work that I can get in action independently. Though in the recent times, when a few girls showed interest for machine learning, we communicated it with the village panchayat and are working towards it.

That makes sense. Now before I forget, let me get back to the lunchboxes, do you remember the very first menu?

I do. There was aaloo, rice, sabzi and chapaati, and we had packed 27 lunchboxes. With time, the number of lunchboxes increased, and the support of people also grew. Last year, our trust completed five years, and we celebrated it on our son’s birthday on August 5, by giving gifts to all the people associated. We gifted the senior uncle and aunties night suits, with the thought that otherwise they would never spend money on it.

Damayanti Tanna

She further shared, “We started the trust on my son’s name, and we have been able to do all this because we like to believe that he is with us. His absence made us lifeless, and we could come out of it only because we wanted to do something for him. Nimesh was a very giving and kind-hearted person, and he is in everything that we do. We are not sad, and we lead a normal life, but this work is all our life is about, we have no other wants and aim in our life”.

I don’t know what to say, but I can understand your emotions. I read that Nimesh was a photographer, would you like to share with me the one photo clicked by him that became your favourite? 

The building in which we’re now living, was still in under construction when we moved in, and a lot of times, Nimesh used to take his camera downstairs and play and take photographs of the workers’ small kids. I used to get angry at him asking what was the point of taking their photographs, to which he would say, “oh maa, their smiling faces are the real definition of joy”. And now when I think about it, he was right.

Damayanti Tanna

Indeed. What did he like the most in food?

Pizza. If you would give him pizza, he’d want nothing else, she laughed.

Any childhood memory of his that you’d want to talk about?

I don’t want to think about it, because that will make me weak. I just want to know that he’s there somewhere, perhaps in the foreign land of God, just like how many parents live far from their children who live abroad. I don’t want to imagine it any other way.

Hmmm. And would you want to leave us with a few encouraging words for parents who’ve had to go through the tragedy of losing their child?

I just want to say one thing – someone’s parents leave them and go, and someone’s children go, but where are they going — just tell yourself that they are there with you, and find something that they loved doing and start doing it yourself, you’ll find them to be right there with you. For anything decided with a pure heart and intention, God itself comes for help.

Damayanti Tanna

Damayanti Tanna


First published on Feb 11, 2018.

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