A famished child walks up to Aarti, tugs her dupatta and asks for an extra apple. She rummages for something in her purse, and within seconds, hands the boy what he had desired. The joy on the child’s face, she says, is what she works for.
“Just so you know, I am young at heart”, she says, without revealing her exact age. Meet Aarti Madhusudan, a social worker, a volunteer and very proudly she claims, “a giver!”
Aarti often spends her evenings at the Marundeeswarar Temple in Thiruvanmiyur, sitting on a stone bench and looking at people around her. She frequently distributes food to the vagrants around the temple, and says that observing the activities of the underprivileged seated outside the temple lawns, is a sight to contemplate.
The first time Aarti volunteered was when she was as young girl studying in Missionary Convent School in Rourkela. The students of the first standard were asked to get extra tiffin for the leper patients in a local hospital. When Aarti’s mother forgot to pack her the extra food packet, young Aarti decided to give her own lunchbox to the patients. Recalling this act, Aarti feels gratified now, and says, “That memory stayed with me forever.”
Aarti grew up in an affluent family, her parents made sure that she be provided with everything she needed. She says, “Welcoming strangers was taught in my mahoul (culture), my grandfather always said that there are no rights but only duties, and that rights emerge from the duties of a person.” To this day, Aarti follows almost everything her grandparents and parents have taught her.
When asked what benefit she gets by helping these people; she smiles nonchalantly, and says, “I sleep peacefully at night.”
The experience of teaching her maid’s son, Nilu, when she was in eight standard was a life changing experience for Aarti. Young Nilu in fact taught her a lot about feeding the poor, something which she had never experienced growing up in an affluent society. It was then that she decided to work for the poor strata of the society.
After passing out from high school, Aarti was always sanguine about her future in the development sector, and enrolled herself in Stella Maris College in Chennai to pursue Social Science.
Like every other Tamil-Brahmin family, soon talks of her marriage started unfolding at her place but her father knew that she wanted to study further and after some convincing, she landed up the ‘Madras University Scholarship Grant’, which was given to academically brilliant students only. She went to pursue her Masters from Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) in Mumbai.
“TISS changed my life,” she says, “Having worked at the Gir forest as a part of our rural camp, I saw deprivation in front my eyes. In the freezing cold of December, the adivasis living in bamboo house had to go miles to the open toilets.”
At these camps, Aarti saw how these impoverished people needed empowerment. She learnt about the atrocities that the villagers had to face, when they were converted to Christianity because the Missionaries provided them with food.
By the advent of the new millennium, Aarti who was already working with numerous NGO’s, started developing an interest in non-profit managements and their sustainability. Soon, she launched an NGO called, ‘Governance Counts’ which helps in identifying key issues related to non-profit governance and recommending good practice guidelines.
She refers to herself as a ‘multi-tasker’. With a belief in organized volunteering, she focused on religious places to propagate her agenda of ‘food for all’.
“It was once such Sunday, when all my friends sat and discussed about inheriting goodness in everyone. We discussed how Indians like to celebrate festivals, and came up with the idea of ‘Joy of Giving Week’, which is nothing but a festival of giving to the necessitous,” she says.
“The ‘Joy of Giving Week’ was later renamed as ‘Daan Utsav’ as it seemed more connected to the people of our country; it is not an NGO as it has no specific blueprint. It’s simply the act of giving,” says Aarti.
According to Aarti, the ambiguity of this group is the recipe for its success. She says, “Success of anything lies in the anonymity of the person.”
‘Daan Utsav’, now in its sixth year has a pan India reach. Its ‘dinner-drives’, ‘cooked food outings’ and ‘fruit festivals’ are the highlights of its success.
Aarti doesn’t believe in the concept of corporate sponsorship for this festival. She says, “Is Diwali sponsored by corporates? Then why should ‘Daan Utsav’ be sponsored by anyone?”
For Aarti, volunteering means peace. “It validates me. I enjoy giving back and actually realise that I do so because it brings me great joy. I meet some amazing people, the inspiring kind, it’s a wonderful feeling,” she adds.
The ‘Joy of Giving Week’ has surely come a long way from humble beginnings and Aarti Madhusudan is proud of this fact, but she continues to say, that this is just the beginning and she doesn’t take anything for granted. She wants a country free of hunger, and she fights for it each day.
Aarti has surely realized her dream of giving everything to the poor and is in every sense of the word, ‘a giver’!
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