Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
Power of One: A Man and His Food Van
The taxi driver who turned a racist encounter into a mission to help the needy
As Darwin slowly wakes from a Sunday sleep-in, Tejinder Singh has already been up hours preparing a delicious curry for the city’s hungry. After a long, sticky 12-hour shift in his taxi, Tejinder returns to his three-bedroom home in Australia’s hottest capital city around 7am and then rolls up his sleeves.
Using a two-ring gas burner in his backyard, Tejinder spends the next five hours carefully preparing and cooking rice and a chickpea curry in large industrial-sized pots. The act of giving,
he says, gives him the energy to power through what is going to be a long day.
It’s a ritual Tejinder has undertaken, with the help of his 15-year-old son, Navdeep, for the past four years. The slightly built 44-year-old father of two, who also works as an air-conditioning engineer, dedicates the last Sunday of each month to helping the needy of Darwin by providing them a muchneeded hot, home-cooked lunch.
As part of his faith – Tejinder is a devout Sikh – he also donates 10% of his taxi-driving income to the needy, as well as setting aside $1 every day to
help fund the monthly meal his family generously dispenses.
The idea for the food van was prompted by an encounter Tejinder had with a passenger who reacted to his black turban and long beard. “I had a person in my cab who asked me which Darwin school my children went to,” he explains. “When I told them, they said that they’d be sending their kids to the same school as I wouldn’t be likely to bomb one that my own children attended.”
Realising his appearance stood out in the largely white and Indigenous
city, he decided he needed to break down cultural stereotypes and use his uniqueness to spread good. And so, in 2012, he launched his food van.
“I didn’t want people to be afraid of the turban,” Tejinder says. He hopes that by helping in his community, he’s also breaking down the prejudice and fear associated with the turban and beard worn by Sikhs.
Tejinder and his family moved to Australia from Sohana in the Punjab
district of northern India in 2006, in search of a better future. The family first settled in Adelaide before moving to Darwin eight years ago.
The food run begins
It’s a gruelling day for the sleep-deprived Tejinder. “He works all night and doesn’t sleep at all,” says his wife Gurpreet. “It’s amazing how he does it. He drives for 12 hours in the night and then spends five hours cooking on a gas stove.”
As he works up a sweat in the backyard, Tejinder’s modest white van awaits its spicy cargo in the driveway. The van is decorated with a banner that he brought back from India, which reads: “Free vegetarian food for hungry and needy people. Provided by Sikh family”.
At noon, Tejinder and Navdeep load up the mobile kitchen with 30 kilograms of vegetarian chickpea curry, fluffy white rice and 45 litres of icy cordial in blue plastic coolers with tight-fitting lids. Then they set off in search of homeless or hungry locals. The route varies from month to month, but generally sees the pair visiting local parks in and around Darwin’s northern suburbs of Leanyer and Casuarina, as well as the beach areas of Rapid Creek, Parap and Fannie Bay.
The vegetarian curries are particularly popular with the ‘long-grassers’, indigenous people who live rough in the parks in and around Darwin. Other visitors to the van include the non-Indigenous homeless and backpackers. One thing unites most of his diners – their lives are mired in extreme poverty. There are different faces every month. “In Darwin there’s always a lot of coming and going of people back to their communities,” explains Tejinder. “So often we don’t see the same people twice.”
Religious beliefs or race are not a barrier to receiving one of Tejinder’s
IF YOU WANT TO DO SOMETHING FOR SOCIETY – YOU NEED TO WORK HARD”
curries – everybody is welcomed. “I want to help all people, no matter if they are black or white, no matter their religion, or none. If they’re hungry, I will give them food. I want to do something for homeless people, so they get more energy, so they’re happier.”
When he spots a group, Tejinder stops the van, flings open the double doors at the back and lifts the lids off the coolers, releasing steamy, aromatic wafts that draw people over. Large portions are served in plastic takeaway containers, with plastic cutlery. And since not everyone eats meat, Tejinder always serves vegetarian fare. Typically he’ll feed up to 100 people, though on Christmas Day in 2014 he served a special meal of paneer, a fresh Indian cheese, to 125 locals.
Navdeep stands proudly at his father’s side, handing out cups of cordial, a welcome thirst-quencher in Darwin’s infamous sticky heat.
Some diners flop down on the grass nearby, while others find a picnic table or wander off with their hot containers, which they set aside to eat later in the day when it’s a little cooler.
The meals are free, with no strings attached and no prying questions asked. “I don’t ask about their story,” he says. “I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s life – my only duty is to give food to hungry people.”
If he is offered payment, Tejinder politely declines, insisting that he has everything he needs and “doesn’t want to be greedy”. The gratitude he receives is payment enough: some diners thank him, others express their gratitude with a hug or a slap on the back. Many utter a “God bless you” before heading off. One man said of Tejinder’s altruism, “He loves people, he loves Aboriginal people. He gives them food and love, like God.”
It is this generosity of spirit that earned him the CommBank title ‘Australian of the Day’ in August last year. The campaign recognises the day-today contributions made by ordinary Australians to their communities. And while Tejinder is appreciative of the recognition, he really doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.
By 5pm and after five hours on the road and serving lunch, the van makes its way home. Gurpreet helps Tejinder clean the van and the coolers before he turns in for a well-deserved early night, leaving his family, including two-year-old daughter Kaur, to relax in front of the TV or play games.
Tejinder’s advice for those inspired by his acts of service: “I have no sleep, it can be hard. But if you want to do something for society – you need to work hard.”
Since the beginning of this year Tejinder has inspired three other groups to come forward and mirror his example – and he’ll be lending them his van and equipment to get the job done. “So now we have all the Sundays covered,” he says cheerfully.