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Are you being served?

Mid-day, Mumbai, Modified: January 22, 2013 10:50 IST

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Are you being served? Last week, Mumbai got its first taste of Seva Cafe. Guests ate food cooked by volunteers, paid for in advance by previous guests. Inspired by the pay-it-forward ideology, it will be a monthly occurrence with the next session on February 17

The concept of Seva Café can make even die-hard consumerists do a re-think. At a time when money speaks loudest, Seva Café highlights the goodness of people. Started in Ahmedabad seven years ago as an experiment centred on the joy of giving, it is based on the belief that Atithi Devo Bhava (the guest is God) and food must be served as a token of love. Here, meals are cooked by volunteers and served to people who can choose to sponsor the next guest's meal as per their capacity and wish. Thus, previous guests pay for every meal, and volunteers cook, clean and serve in this spirit.

With monthly sessions in Pune and Bengaluru, Seva Café was hosted in Mumbai on January 13 at Shantivan Gardens, Napean Sea Road. It featured 100 guests and 15 volunteers. The next session is slated for February 17. At the Saturday session, people were served pangat style (on the floor) and the menu included simple items such as Pulao and Raita, Dhokla with chutney and Gajar Ka Halwa.

Recalling the session, Siddharth Sthalekar (31), a Seva Café volunteer says, "In India, it's a tradition for families to host people at home. Here, we serve people across the community unknown to us but we trust them to value it and pay for future gatherings. Class divides don't count, the rich can serve the poor, and vice versa. It relies on generosity." Sthalekar chucked a comfortable corporate career to work for non-profit organizations and serves at Ahmedabad's Gandhi Ashram. People drop by, voluntarily, and provide help based on word-of-mouth. "It's an experiment; if it doesn't work out we will shut it, and move on but we will never refuse a meal due to the economics of it," he says, matter-of-factly.

Every Seva Café gathering has its share of stories, and the Mumbai chapter was no exception. "Plates, spoons and groceries were donated while someone contributed the dessert. At times, we get guests who pay less or nothing, and walk out but since its not based on transactionalism, we ignore it. There are people who come with the intent of free food but change their minds after seeing volunteers' efforts.

There's a leap of faith involved; we trust that something good will emerge that a guest takes back. Perhaps, the person will leave happier, and pass on this joy," believes Sthalekar.  People are updated about sessions and opt to volunteer via email. Sthalekar says: "This is a microcosm of society that shows how a circle of giving gets completed with someone offering their money, time or food for someone else. Even if one person shirks, the circle falls apart."
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Log on to www.sevacafe.org

Experiments in giftivism
In June 2010, Ahmedabad's first Love-All-Serve-All rickshaw was inaugurated. This gift-economy rickshaw gives riders the chance to go from one place to another, on a pay-it-forward basis: someone before you has paid for your tab, and you can pay-forward as per your choice. The meter always reads zero; there's inspiring reading material, snacks for riders and a trash can inside so you don't litter on the streets. On the back, it sports the sign, Gandhi's statement: Love All, Serve All.

Silent Wednesdays is part of the experiment in generosity where people open their homes for others to drop by, every Wednesday for a few hours. They can sit in silence, meditate or introspect and share their insights later over a home cooked meal offered by the host. 3-4 such meetings in Mumbai have taken place this year.  



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