Bhalukpong Women’s Langar: Serving hot meals to an army of frontline workers
In Arunachal Pradesh, a self-funded community kitchen ensured frontline workers in town did not skip lunch during lockdown.
GUWAHATI: “They were working for us, so why not work for them?” Neeshi Jebisamam recollects her thoughts from April, just a week after the nationwide lockdown was announced.
But at the outset itself, there were murmurs and objections: “Isn’t it risky? What if you get it? Don’t do it”. Even in a corner of Arunachal Pradesh, where only one person had contracted the novel coronavirus back then, panic had set in.
But the 25-year-old English teacher would have none of it. One morning in early April, responding to a call from one of her relatives, she met a group of ten women at an empty government school building. The desks and benches had been stowed away, large utensils had been brought in, and the women — homemakers, nurses, teachers — put on their masks, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work.
On day one, it was a meal for 70, but only 35 showed up. But then slowly, as word got around, the numbers doubled, the simple fare of rice, dal and boiled vegetables gave way to stews of pork and bamboo shoot, chicken cooked with traditional herbs and on some days, even feasts of the bovine animal mithun.
The ‘Bhalukpong Women’s Langar’ — as it came to be known — was open for business. “Except that we never charged for our meals,” said Mary Sidisow, the 39-year-old who first suggested the idea of a community kitchen. “Our objective was simple — to feed the frontline worker, be it a doctor, a nurse, a policeman or even a daily wage labourer,” she said, “A free meal for anyone who needed it.”
A week into the lockdown, Sidisow, a staff nurse at the Community Health Centre (CHC), Bhalukpong saw how life around their quiet town, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district, had unravelled. “While everyone was indoors, those of us who had to be out had this unprecedented challenge to deal with: whether it was the new duties at the CHC, or even screening people at the check-post,” she said.
The entry point for three districts (West Kameng, Tawang and East Kameng) in Arunachal Pradesh and bordering Assam, the town of Bhalukpong is often used as a pitstop for paramilitary forces, army etc and sees a rush of movement — both people and goods — on a daily basis.
Sidisow would see the workers at the checkgate as well as in the hospital, day in and out. “I realised that lunch was a meal we often ended up skipping,” she said, “Unlike before you could not just pop back home for a bite.”
The nurse then went and asked a few of her relatives if they would be interested in running a community kitchen. “Not everyone I approached was up for it but that was fine, since this was completely a voluntary service,” she said. In April, ten women — many of whom were from Sidisow’s family — got together at the school. “Bhalukpong’s community-based organisations had collected some money from donations, we pooled in too — and that gave us a head start to launch our kitchen,” she said.
Among hundreds who would walk in for a hot meal every afternoon was Dr Tage Neha, Senior Medical Officer of the Community Health Centre, Bhalukpong. “As frontline workers, we have been on Covid duty since March,” he said, “Going out early in the morning and returning late at night. In the initial days, late night dinner was the only meal of the day I was certain of. Until these ladies came along — the saviours of Bhalukpong.”
The oldest at the kitchen, Bajim Sagro, was nearly 60. “Everyone knew everyone,” said Jebisamam, “So time would just fly as we chopped vegetables, planned the menu for the next day, and figured out how we could improve our dishes.”
Sidisow, who had to juggle her CHC and kitchen duties, said her day would start early. “I would do all my work at the CHC — usually paperwork — head home, put on comfortable cotton clothes and head to the ‘kitchen’ around 11 am,” she said. But the kitchen was usually abuzz with activity since 8 am every morning.
Often the lockdown made vegetables hard to source. “We would drive down 10 km to another town, buy vegetables from local farmers, and rush back to cook,” said Sidisow. Donations — in the form of chicken and pigs — would come from wellwishers too. “In that sense, it was purely a community-run, donation-based kitchen,” she said.
Last week, as cases have spiked in Arunachal Pradesh, as well as the Northeast, the community members advised the women to temporarily shut their kitchen till things settled down. “We understood it is because the risk has increased but we have made it clear we are ready to start whenever they require us,” said Sidisow.
Jebisamam, who now holds tuition lessons to kill time, said they all miss the kitchen. “Initially, we would talk on the phone about our time at the kitchen, and even all the visitors who would come and savour the things we made,” she said, recalling how even on days when simple vegetarian fare was served, people would eat happily, no complaints. “Sometimes even high ranking government officials and police officers would come to eat, but no one had airs, everyone would thank us and tell us how grateful they were for us,” she said.
In one such instance, a health worker, who had come for lunch, quietly took pictures of the women at work. “Later, he wrote a long, heartfelt Facebook post on us and our kitchen,” said Sidisow, “I mean, we were only cooking but someone thought it was special.”
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