Bhopal: Death, devastation and despair has been the common thread among the stories flooding social media ever since the Covid pandemic began. From the crisis, though, stories of hope, of ordinary citizens rising to the challenge and going above and beyond to help others, have also emerged.
Among these is that of three brothers in Bhopal — Zeeshan Mujeeb, Abdul Mubeen, Abdul Rehman — and their friend Surendra Kurmi. Moved by the struggles people were facing, they decided to help, but with one condition: They would not become the story.
“We didn’t want people to post our pictures helping others. We didn’t want to seem patronising or doing charity for fame or to show-off … that would be wrong,” 30-year-old Zeeshan told ThePrint.
After brainstorming with families, the group came up with a solution: Masks. Not the kinds that have become a routine aspect of our lives since Covid, but the kinds that cover the entire face. More dramatically, they chose to use the Guy Fawkes mask, made popular by the movie V for Vendetta and that subsequently gained prominence in protests across the world.
“This was just the perfect solution to our problem. This way, we can help people and not have our faces plastered all over social media,” Zeeshan said.
For about two months now, the group has been cooking meals for about 100 people on a daily basis and occasionally distributing ration kits during the lockdown. Now that restrictions have lifted, they have been focusing on their meal plan. All their charity efforts are entirely funded by their collective savings.
‘Jokers for some, angels for others’
Since early April this year, when a lockdown was announced in Madhya Pradesh — first partially and then completely — the group has been making food and distributing it at night shelters.
Every evening, all four men, who work in the manufacturing industry, gather on a terrace to cook vegetable biryani and make raita. The food is packed into individual portions, which the group then distributes to people in rain baseras (night shelters) outside hospitals. Everyone here is mostly from a very poor background, seeking treatment for relatives at hospitals but unable to afford a paid accommodation.
Apart from cooked meals, the group had also been distributing ration kits of rice, wheat, cooking oil, pulses and other basic items to people in slums. “For the ration kits as well as for the food we make, we make sure we use the same items we use in the food we eat too. Nothing substandard,” Zeeshan said.
When the group reaches the night shelters now, they are almost immediately surrounded by the inhabitants who recognise them by their masks. The over hundred small tins of biryani get distributed almost instantly, going like hot cakes.
This wasn’t always the case. On their first trip to a night shelter, the Guy Fawkes mask was less appealing to the crowds. In fact, the it’s sharp pencil-thin goatee and wide smile had spooked people out. “We spent some time there, talking to the kids, making them laugh, so that the entire setting becomes a little more easy and fun,” said Zeeshan. Gradually people took to them, and have even grown a fondness for the masks.
“For some, we are jokers. For others, we are angels,” Zeeshan added.
‘Doing it for publicity defeats the purpose’
The group was successful in keeping its identity under wraps for a while, but their unique approach has been gaining popularity in the city. As acquaintances and friends began learning about their work, many even came forward to help.
Zeeshan, though, says they’ve been skeptical about accepting help.
“This one person helped us one day, but immediately went and posted a picture of himself with his mask lifted up. In the picture, the mask was showing and his face was also showing — making it evident that it is him doing the charity work. That just defeats the purpose,” Zeeshan said.
During the first lockdown, the group similarly carried out relief efforts and distributed food, but were upset by people posting their photos on social media.
The group doesn’t accept any donations, but are now wary of people accepting money in their guise. To avoid such instances, they’ve decided to be identified.
“Originally, we weren’t even telling anyone our names. But then we realised that many other groups have started pretending to be us and are asking for donations. We thought our masks are being misused and only then began telling people our names,” Zeeshan said.
Their inspiration to wear masks while distributing food came from Zeeshan’s time in Dubai, when he travelled on work a few months ago.
“We saw there that many people indulge in amazing relief work. But they do it in such a way that even their left hand doesn’t get to know how much the right hand gave out in charity,” Zeeshan said. “We knew that if we are to do relief work this time, it has to be in a way that our faces aren’t revealed,” he added.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)
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