Meet Chandigarh’s langar baba, who has been feeding the poor for decades
“Don’t ask me about my childhood. I won’t be able to narrate that time,” said 83-year-old Jagdish Lal Ahuja, in a voice choked with emotion. In 1947, a 12-year-old boy born in Peshawar, Pakistan, came over to this side during the Partition. The event not only took away his birthplace from him, but his childhood too.
It is this lost childhood that Ahuja, popularly known as PGI’s ‘langar baba’, is searching among hundreds of poor kids whom he feeds daily. Over three decades have passed since he started organising langars across Chandigarh in 1981. In 2001, he started a daily langar outside Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER). He has been at it without a break.
SOLD PROPERTY WORTH CRORES
In 2015, he sold his seventh property worth ₹1.6 crore to arrange money for his noble initiative. Ahuja has sold six other such properties worth crores to ensure that the poor do not go to bed on an empty stomach.
Sitting on an easy chair, strategically placed near the heater, he said, “ Puttar, we will share a cold drink and have tea too. Don’t say no.” He offered a chair next to him and took out a brand new tablet from his table and handed it over.
“It has recordings of all the work I have done. My daughter gave it to me a while back, but I find it hard to operate,” he said, struggling with the gadget. Ahuja has a wife, two daughters and a son. The kids have their own business and are well settled.
The tablet had six to seven videos, showing a man in his 70s, serving langar, handing out woollens, biscuits and fruits at various colonies such as Maloya, Sector 24, Industrial Area, an old age home Snehalaya, outside PGIMER, Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), Sector 32, and other places.
“Now, tell me what you want to know?” asked Ahuja in an authoritative tone. However, questions about his childhood left him distressed.
He started after a long pause. “I was 12 when I left Peshawar. We arrived at the Patiala base camp from where we were sent to camps in Amritsar. I stayed there for some months and shifted back to Patiala,” he said.
Ahuja was the only breadwinner of the family as his father did not work and his mother was a homemaker. “Everyday, I walked three miles barefoot to buy namkeen dal for ₹1 and sold it for ₹1 and 2 aane at stations. I made two such rounds daily and earned ₹2 and 2 aane. By the time I got home, my feet and hand would be full of blisters, but I still had to earn or else I would go hungry for days,” he said, his voice choking up.
He never went to school in Peshawar even though he could afford to do so. He said, “My father beat me up if I studied and teachers beat me up in school because I would not have done my homework. So, yes, I could not study; my childhood was horrifying.”
From selling namkeen dal at the stations in Amritsar to selling toffees, jaggery, and fruits on the streets of Patiala, Ahuja continued working and fought hard when faced with hardships.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
At 21, he moved to Chandigarh after a fight with his family. Here, he started buying and selling fruits. His journey in the new city that started from the purchase of a cart of oranges for ₹15 turned into an enterprise worth crores.
He bought his first property, a house in Sector 22, in 1965-66 for ₹4,000. He recently sold this property to fund the langar. Since he had a business of selling bananas, he was often known as the “banana king”. Soon, he was became popular as ‘langar wale baba’.
Talking about how he began this initiative, Ahuja said, “It was my son’s eighth birthday and I wanted to celebrate it by giving to the society. So, I decided to organise a langar for children.”
“We cooked food for 150 children and served it in the market in Sector 26. The moment I saw the joy on the faces of the children, it reminded me of my childhood. I then announced that this langar will be held daily,” he added.
YEARS OF SERVICE
He said, “It was on Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday that I wanted to distribute halwa and was wondering which place I should choose to set up. I was passing through PGIMER and saw a boy serving rice to the poor; that’s where I got the idea.”
Since then, baba’s langar is part of a routine at PGIMER. Between 6pm and 6.30pm, a black van stops outside gate number 2 of PGIMER and a stall is set up. In no time, people queue up for food. The langar outside GMCH-32 is organised in the afternoon.
“Not a single day has passed in the last 17 years that this langar was not organised outside PGIMER. We serve dal, chapatti, rice, halwa and banana. Apart from this, we also serve biscuits to cancer patients and kurkure, toffees, lollipops with whistles and balloons to children,” said Ahuja.
NO FAVOURS FROM OTHERS
However, these days, shortage of money has made it difficult to run the langar but that has not stopped him. Asking for financial help from others to run the langar is against Ahuja’s principles. Instead, he has chosen to cut down the supply. “Earlier, I made this langar for over 2,000 people daily; now it’s for 500. I have reduced the quantity after 2015,” he added.
The number of vegetable drums has reduced from 17 to seven, the carts of chapattis have reduced from six to three and only two boxes of bananas are distributed instead of six.
His motivation comes from those he feeds daily. He said, “Main apna bachpan dekhda haan, inna ch (I see my childhood in them).”
Now that baba is growing old and is fighting cancer, he only comes for a visit towards the end of the langar. That is when he distributes balloons, toffees and snacks to children.
“I have never sought a favour from anyone, but can only expect some help from the government. Kindly convey my message to the governor that I might need his help in continuing the langar in the near future,” said Ahuja.