Volunteering at a Gift-economy restaurant can be challenging at times. Initially when my wife Lahar and I decided to co-ordinate Seva Cafe, I immediately sat down to get a handle on the numbers. An excel sheet was created with figures on variable costs, fixed costs and a break-even. We eventually came up with an average break-even benchmark per guest in order to stay afloat. Even though this was all meant as reference numbers, it was interesting to observe how it was subtly working on us. When ever a guest walked in, We would question the likelihood of him paying the minimum break-even amount. At some point of time, we also thought about how we should attract guests who would pay more than this amount.
This continued for a couple days, until one night we both realised that we weren't running a 'Seva Cafe' anymore. It had become a regular restaurant in its functioning. It was at that moment that the two of us decided to abandon the excel files and run on something unthinkable for us - 'Faith'.
What if we began blindly trusting every person that walked into our space. Would it be possible to sustain ourselves if we believed that there lay a goodness within every guest? We weren't sure then, but we were willing to see what happens. For the next few days, we decided to work with this mindset.
Everytime a judgmental thought arose in our minds, we decided to not feed it. Lets love all, serve all and interact with everyone in the same manner is what we thought. After all, we were just a platform to exchange diverse thought and nothing more.
The universe has a tendency to send just the right person to you at the right time. The next day, we saw the 'Chai-wallah' from across the street-market walk into the space with his wife and 7 year old son. We knew him from our earlier interactions.
Immediately, the mind started to work. Lahar and I looked at each other and decided to experiment with our new outlook. We spoke with him for about 15 minutes, explaining the concept with as much love as possible. We soon realized that this was the first time for them in a restaurant. A 'proper' sit-down meal with cutlery and tablemats, complete with cordial service. What an opportunity i thought, to be able to provide this environment to someone.
Renewed with positivity, we continued interacting with others. About half an hour passed by and I was meekly tapped on the shoulder. I turned around and looked down to see the seven year old boy with his outstretched hands, offering me a pile of tablemats and cutlery. On inquiring, I realized he had decided to clear up the adjacent tables after the guests left. He had observed some of our international volunteers that night and decided to take up the initiative himself.
Whatever concerns I had about our new outlook stopped - my heart opened and it all started making sense. That night, the family may not have paid a 'large' amount for the meal, but it was valued perfectly by them, and that is all we can ask for. I then realized that 'value' does not lie in the meal, or restaurant, but in the person who is receiving it based on where he is in his journey. Someone from Mumbai may value this meal differently from someone across the street, but they are both perfectly valid 'values'.
I'm not sure if that boy will turn out to be a better son or brother or father after this experience, but at that point of time it was our duty to continue serving and providing environments to all who entered. Some might respond tremendously and some just a little. But it was up to us to continue serving unquestioningly. Just trust that the seeds will flourish. Just have faith in our actions without questioning the results. Don't try to be an organization, just an environment. After all, it is this philosophy that has kept Seva Cafe going for more than 6 years, serving close to 85,000 meals.
Love all, Serve All
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