Food never discriminates, it only satisfies hunger and makes people happy, says 60-year-old Sangeetha, who has been successfully running The Sangeetha Catering Service, one of Coimbatore’s most popular catering services, for the last six years.
A story of resilience and courage, Sangeetha, who identifies as a transwoman fought her way through every challenge to truly empower herself and many in her community. And in these testing times, she stepped forward to help hundreds of homeless people, by providing regular meals.
“For many, especially the homeless, managing to have a single meal has become a big challenge during this lockdown. I was once in a similar situation, with no money, no shelter and no food. If people from a city-based transgender community had not stepped in to help, I would not have survived. The lockdown was my chance to give back.”
Sangeetha began by collecting funds and pitched in her own savings to start cooking daily meals. With the help of her team and many other good samaritans from the community, she now manages to provide meals to over 300 people everyday.
“My team and I go around across the city and distribute food to as many people we can. From beggars, daily workers and front-line workers from the corporation, we provide food to anybody who needs it but cannot always access or afford it,” adds Sangeetha, who has also donated grocery packets worth Rs 1,000 worth to over 30 families in the city.
One of the beneficiaries, Papaathy, a member of the community who manages to earn a living by begging or doing odd jobs, says, “During the lockdown I had no means of income. Within a few weeks, I was left with nothing to eat. It was Sangeetha Akka who helped me during that tough time by giving provisions like rice, atta, oil, and more. In these times, her help is godsend.”
Helping The Needy in Coimbatore
Born to a family of farmers in Bannari, a small village named after the deity of the Mariamman temple in Erode, Sangeetha grew up in a close-knit family.
“My parents were uneducated, but gave me a good childhood. Somehow, they never really noticed that I was different. They would not even pay any heed to my effeminate characteristics that began to slowly emerge while I was in high school. As a consequence, I was never mocked. Rather, being the youngest child, I was thoroughly pampered and was the only lucky one to have gone to school,” says Sangeetha fondly.
However, things began to change once she reached adolescence, The pressure to conform to a set identity and perceive progress in life only in terms of marriage and family, began to close upon her, only fueling her drive to come out.
Finally, in 1985, she left home to move to Coimbatore in search of a support system in the trans community. She was only 25.
“I wanted to be among the people who truly understood me and what I was going through. I left home with almost nothing and was not in a great situation when I reached Coimbatore. But, thanks to the community, I was able to rediscover myself and start the process of becoming the person I want to be,” she adds.
In 2010, with some monetary help from friends, she joined a catering course at Avinashilingam University, Coimbatore and finally after finishing the course took a loan of Rs 3 lakh, rented a home and started her business in 2014, cooking for the elderly as well as at weddings and family functions.
Today, she has catered to more than 100 events including weddings, birthday parties, and small gatherings at home, and has also given back to her community by training and employing many transpeople.
She is also the President of the Coimbatore District Transgenders Welfare Association. Through it, she has helped train more than 50 transpeople in catering at the CSI Bishop Appasamy College, and also built a self-help group that further helps them to set up a small business.
“We get a minimum of 5 orders every month and Biryani is the most famous dish in our menu. It is so popular that we were even called to cater a function in Kerala recently. Food has now become my identity and I love cooking and serving people,” she adds.
As a boost to this already successful venture, she hopes to expand into starting a community kitchen where she can train and employ many more transpersons and empower them with a sustainable and dignified livelihood.
“I have had to overcome a lot to reach this happy space. Society is not welcoming towards people like us, and in the past, several people have refused to accept food that I had cooked. I was exhausting to battle the constant social stigma, but I didn’t back down because if you are good and consistent, nothing can stop you. At the end of the day, we are all equal, gender should not stop anyone from getting what they want. In my case, despite all the initial hesitation, after they met me, they always ended up loving it and recommending it to others. Good work never goes unappreciated, you just have to keep at it,” she says.
Featured Image Courtesy: Sangeetha
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)