He was born in an impoverished farmer family in the tiny village of Laggaon in Adilabad district, in undivided Andhra Pradesh.
In a home where his family struggled to put a square meal on the table each day, education was a distant dream for Anumula Babu Rao.
He studied until class five in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, where he lived with his uncle. While his government school provided education free of cost, students back in the day had to buy their own books.
After class six, when it became difficult for his uncle to finance these needs, he was pushed by circumstances to take free shelter in a hostel run by his community. The hostel charged Rs 100 per person for food and accommodation, where five underprivileged students would be allowed free of cost.
“Un paanch garibaan mein, main ek garib,” (I was one among the five poor hostelites) he begins. His Hyderbadi accent apparent in his words.
Working at an apparel store during his Diwali vacations, he financed his academic and domestic needs. One of his closest experiences of crippling poverty was at the age of 16. In Class 10, he required Rs 100 for books. So he went back to his village.
“I told my father that I wanted to study. He had no money, but he told me he would ensure I got the amount that evening. And he was true to his word. The next morning, I saw my mother walking home with a bowl of buttermilk from our neighbours. When I asked her why she had to borrow it, she welled up saying, ‘Your father sold our only milking cow for Rs 120, so you could buy books.’ I was shattered. I knew what that cow meant to my whole family,” he says.
Armed with vigour, he completed Class 10. When he realised that the situation at home wasn’t going to improve, he left for Hyderabad in 1975. He boarded a train and got off at Nampally Station. For days, he slept on the railway platform.
Luckily, his experience as a clothes salesman earned him a job at a clothing store.
“Once the shop shut down for the night, I slept on the store’s verandah. I would wake up before dawn, rush to the railway station and have a bath in the open roof washroom. I would wash my clothes and dry them there too.”
This continued for a few days.
His boss regularly gave him Rs 5, to eat food at a small hotel in the vicinity. When he shared his struggles with a few workers there, they told him, “Is this how you want to spend the rest of your life? Why don’t you take up a job at a hotel? You’ll get food, accommodation, clothes, and money!”
He then dabbled into the food business.
He spent eight months working at a small eatery. The boy who had never mopped floors before, in no time, was cleaning tables, picking orders, becoming the boss’ star employee, earning Rs 10 a day.
“One of our regular customers walked into our restaurant and told me, ‘Babu Rao, I am planning to buy a hotel. Would you like to work for me?’ He recalls the day everything changed.
This restaurant would go down in history as Hyderabad’s iconic Cafe Niloufer.
“In 1976, I started sweeping and cleaning the floor at Niloufer Cafe. It was only a matter of time until I steadily climbed up the ladder. I was promoted to the position of a waiter, and soon moved into the kitchen where I made the cafe’s extra special Irani tea and Osmania biscuits.”
Within two years, the owner approached Babu Rao with a proposition. He signed an agreement which stipulated that Babu Rao could run it. He could take away the profits but would have to pay the owners a fixed amount every month.
As the years passed, people from all walks of life came to Niloufer.
From nostalgic memories, heartwarming stories and hot gossip, everything was shared over a cup of kadak Irani chai and freshly baked biscuits.
Fresh Osmania biscuits. Photo Credits: food_trooper/Instagram
Once selling 400 cups of tea, it started selling close to 20,000 cups of tea per day after Babu Rao took over. Its specialty was the Osmania biscuit that would be freshly baked merely an hour before being served.
Babu Rao started making more money than he had ever seen. Back in the day, he made more than Rs 40,000 in profits each month.
Saving enough money, he bought the cafe in 1993. It has been 40 years since Babu Rao first began running it in 1978.
His story from rags to riches continues to be narrated to everyone who enters the bustling space, as the aroma of food wafts through the air.
“Niloufer is a warm and cozy place where you can buy a cup of tea at the meagre price of Rs 12/- and chit chat for hours. Their classic Irani Chai served in a kettle pot enhances the authentic experience of the rich Nizami culture which Hyderabad is known for. In this age of Chaayos and Starbucks, nothing beats the joy and fun of drinking chai with Osmania biscuits by the roadside with friends,” says Revanth Bachupalli, who grew up in Hyderabad.
Similarly, Mohammad Rangoonwala, another Hyderabadi, recalls fond memories from his grandfather’s time. “My grandfather moved to this Bazar Ghat area in the early 90s. He started having Nilofer chai out of convenience as it was close to the office. Later, my father and his friends started hanging out there. And now, my friends and I go there. So going to Nilofer Cafe is a tradition that has been passed down in the family.”
While Babu Rao now owns a high-end car and uses an iPhone, he never really forgot the words his father told him.
“Tumku padna, fir bada aadmi banna. Bada aadmi ban gaya toh garib aadmiyan ka madat karna nahi bhulna. You have to study and become a big man. Once you make it big in life, don’t forget to help the poor.”
And so, for the last twenty years, the man dressed in crisp white shirt and pants, has never failed to feed the 350-400 people outside the government MNJ Cancer Hospital and Niloufer Hospital nearby.
Babu Rao recalls how his heart ached when he saw people from far-flung areas of the country queued up outside the hospital to seek treatment for their terminally ill kin.
“They had no place to go. So they would sleep on the footpath, burn wood and cook their food there too. I began by providing them with a free gas connection and stoves. Later, we started supplying groceries and ration, so the patients and caregivers who came for radio and chemotherapy could cook their food easily.”
But as time passed, he provided them with food three times a day.
When asked how much he would spend each month, he answers that it is service, so it is priceless. When coaxed further, he says that the figure would be approximately Rs 75,000.
Apart from food, he has also helped more than 2,000 people lay their loved ones to rest. Since many cancer patients pass during the treatment, their caregivers and family members do not have the resources to conduct their final rites or transport their bodies back to their native villages.
Babu Rao makes transport arrangements to take them back. He has also set up a temple close to the hospital, donations from which also help run the service.
The man is held in high regard across Hyderabad. He has opened another A/C cafe close to the old one. It employs rescued and rehabilitated street children from the Yashoda Foundation after they have completed class 12.
Today, inspired by Babu Rao’s work, several good Samaritans are coming forward to provide free food to patients and caregivers government hospitals across the city.
Babu Rao, however, continues to spend his earnings to feed the underprivileged.
“It is deeply heartening to see many young people come forward and sponsor these meals on different days of the week. I am sure that even after I am gone, this initiative will go on,” he signs off.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)