Saturday, November 28, 2009

No free lunches? Says who?

It's not Utopia. But almost looks like it. Because at the Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad, no one charges you for the food you eat.

Unbelievable it may be, but the eatery just has a menu, there's no tariff. The model that Seva Cafe, situated in the heart of bustling Ahmedabad's swank C G Road, follows is unique: dine and enjoy the ambience, but pay only what you want. Managed by a group of volunteers, including a few NRIs, guests here can, at the most, leave a donation that pays for the meals of others to follow. There are free lunches, too, for those who don't want to do even this or simply can't afford it.

"The cafe runs on the age-old Indian belief of athithi devo bhava," says Sandeep Vaghela, 23, one of the volunteers associated with the eatery since its inception in 2005. Vaghela joined the initiative soon after completing his graduation. "A meal at this cafe costs you nothing. Food offered to you is a gift, already paid for by previous guests. After the meal, guests are handed an envelope that asks you to 'pay from your heart'. That's all."

Bhaskar Kulkarni, another young man who helps out mostly with kitchen work, says, "We call it a circle of giving. There are no bills. We leave this choice to the guests. We serve pure vegetarian food, prepared with utmost thought for cleanliness by our volunteers.''

The idea, of course, came from Annalakshmi, a vegetarian restaurant in Singapore that started in 1986 with the 'eat what you want and give as you feel' concept. Almost two decades after that, four 'social entrepreneurs' in Gujarat decided to start a similar experiment in Ahmedabad. Each one of them, though, wants to remain backstage, happy to give all credit to the bunch of sprightly volunteers who manage the daily operations.

Volunteers, on their part, are more than willing to be a part of Seva Cafe, and serve for free. "We hardly get any guest who does not pay up,'' says Vaghela. "Yes, sometimes people don't, but that's rare. The model is actually working very well. We keep our accounts transparent, putting the budgetary expenses and earnings on a display board in the cafe. Everything's clean.''

After the initial skepticism, the eatery has now begun attracting a loyal, burgeoning customer base. Lopa Shah, a homemaker from Ahmedabad, is a frequent visitor. "When I first came here, it was a whole new experience for me to understand the concept of Seva Cafe. But I liked it so much that my association with this place has only grown stronger," she says.

For volunteers, too, it has been a life-transforming change. Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, Raghav Agrawal, 18, mops the floor as part of his chore here. Agrawal, who studies in Mahatma Gandhi International School, is happy doing what he does. "At home, I used to just laze around. All that changed after I got involved with Seva Cafe. My perception of life and what it means to serve changed. These days I help out my mom at home. She was shocked initially, but now she's very appreciative."

Agrawal's enthusiasm and earnestness is shared by Sharmeen Attarwala, Dhruvita Patel and Meeti Shah, all in their teens, all from rich families that pamper them no end. "Volunteering at the cafe has made us more responsible in life," they say, almost in unison. "Once you come here, you always feel like coming back. I just love to volunteer, and so do the others. From washing dishes to cleaning the floor, cooking and serving, we do everything. And we feel it helps us become more humane, more understanding towards other people." In fact, Seva Cafe has built up such a reputation for itself that many like Prometheu Raj Tyagi, 15, and Yash Desai, 16, have flown all the way from Pune to become a part of it. Students of Mahindra United World College, the duo heard about the cafe from friends and decided to join as volunteers during their vacation. "It taught me that no work is lowly,'' says Tyagi, finely balancing empty plates on his hand. "And the interaction with a diverse set of people has been a truly enriching experience for us." Another thing Seva Cafe serves for free: wisdom and humility.

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