For 24-year-old restaurant owner Shivam Soni, things were already looking bleak before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In January 2020, he suffered a loss of Rs 18 lakh, and the global health crisis further catapulted him to hit rock bottom, literally leaving him at the mercy of food packets handed over by social groups.
Shivam, who is from Sikand in Madhya Pradesh, owned Street 16, a restaurant, where he served biryani, roti, dal, and chaat. “I dropped out of engineering in 2016, and did not want to continue pursuing academics. I started the restaurant by borrowing Rs 20,000 from friends,” he tells The Better India.
Shivam says the restaurant was doing well, and that he was earning good profits. But in 2018, he was diagnosed with Psoriasis, a skin disease that causes red and itchy scaly patches, commonly observed on the knees, elbows, scalp and other parts of the body. The ailment prevented him from working near food items for health and safety reasons. “I started taking leaves for my treatment from early 2019 onwards. This resulted in piling up the overheads and forcing me into debts. As the repayment amount piled up, I decided to shut down operations for good in January 2020,” he adds.
He says he spiralled into depression and became suicidal. In March, when the COVID-19 restrictions were enforced, Shivam took the only bus available at the bus station to run away from home. “The travel restrictions had started cropping up, and there was only one bus to Indore, which is around 400 km from Sikand. I boarded it, leaving a suicide note for my family, asking them not to look for me. I had no clue what to do with my life,” he recalls.
During the lockdown, Shivam ate from donated food packets and in langars, and slept in railway stations. This journey, he says, made him value life more. Today, in a show of extraordinary grit and determination, he owns a small outlet by the name of Hunger Langar, where he offers meals for as low as Rs 10, and also for free, to those who cannot afford them.
Picking up broken pieces
“I spent nights without food, and struggled for each meal. I would never wish anyone else to go through this ordeal. Millions do not have access to safe food, and my aim is to help such people as much as I can,” he says.
Narrating the struggle he went through for months, Shivam says that he boarded the bus without any clothes or supplies. “I just wanted to run away. I did not give it a second thought. I spent the first three days with Rs 500 left in my pocket. I survived on biscuits, as all shops and restaurants had closed owing to lockdown,” he adds.
“I tried to get a job at a hotel, but in vain. I had no option but to spend nights at the government hospital, bus stations, railway station and streets,” he recalls.
Shivam says that about a month later, he took up a job as a security guard at the government hospital. “I could access food from the canteen as a part of the incentive, and earned Rs 6,000 a month. Soon, I doubled up as a security guard at a residential society, which offered Rs 8,000 a month. The arrangement solved food and shelter issues,” he says.
He adds that a month later, he contacted his siblings Nikhil and Vivek, and his mother, informing them of his whereabouts. “My family had filed a missing persons case with the local police station. I assured them I would come back strong,” Shivam says.
During Diwali in November 2020, Shivam’s mother informed him that his family had sold their house to repay debts. “It was an emotional moment, along with a huge loss, as the family gave away the only house we had. She asked me to return home, but I refused,” he explains.
By November, Shivam had saved almost Rs 25,000 from his two jobs. “I had saved a salary of Rs 8,000 from one shift and used the other to pay my EMI and other expenses. Through local connections, I rented a place for Rs 20,000 to seek necessary certifications and start Hunger Langar near Mira Garden at Bhawar Kuan Square. The name was inspired by the food served at gurudwaras, which helped me survive,” he says, adding that by the time of opening the new venture, he had pledged not to earn profits from food.
‘No desire for materialistic pleasures’
“My struggle helped me realise the value of food, and I decided to serve the needy. I had no desire to earn money. I offered vada pav, medu vada, biryani, and masala dosa for Rs 10, while a vegetarian thali was listed at Rs 30. On Thursdays, those who cannot afford food could eat for free,” he adds.
Rohit Gharwal, a regular at Shivam’s joint, says, “I frequent this area often. I may have visited at least 15 times, and was surprised to learn that the biryani was priced at Rs 10. The quality of the food is never compromised, and has never disappointed me.”
Shivam says he has meticulously planned the pricing of the food items. “Not all food items earn profits. But some items earn as much as 100% more. For example, serving a masala dosa for Rs 10 is a loss. But selling parathas and chole bhature for Rs 30 earns a profit of Rs 10. Some items earn lesser profits. Around 500 customers visit the food joint every day, out of which 100-150 contribute towards profits. Some generous customers pay more or donate. The overall sales help me earn Rs 30,000, enough to meet the rent and staff expenses of the food stall,” he adds.
Shivam says that he still does not earn enough to meet personal expenses. “I have survived the worst, and the greed to earn money and seek material pleasures has faded. I have decided not to earn from food. Instead, I am planning to enter the advertisement business or merchandising. I will also start a YouTube channel on cooking classes. These ventures should help me earn money and repay remaining debts,” he says.
Shivam adds that he also plans to start handing out memes for Rs 5 by introducing food booths across Indore to help the masses. “I am saving money to earn a degree in hotel management and preparing for the same,” he adds.
His mother, Lakshmi says, “We were very worried when he lost his business and ran away from home. But since then, he has come a long way and has rebuilt himself. I am sure he will achieve big goals in life.”
Edited by Divya Sethu