"It has been a difficult few weeks. There are so many people dying...it breaks my heart. These days, I am glued to my phone, 24x7. It doesn’t stop ringing, and we receive nearly 40,000 SOS messages every day, from people who are desperate to save their loved ones. It is not an easy situation, and there are times when I feel helpless. We try to help as many as possible, and have set a target for ourselves, to save at least 300 lives a day.
What keeps me going is a deep sense of responsibility. I believe that if someone has faith in me, trust in me, I have to keep doing more. I get sad often, especially when we lose someone who we are trying to help. And I get disturbed, thinking about those innocent lives lost, and what their families must be going through. But I don’t allow myself to wallow. I don’t allow myself to think, ‘I’m feeling sad...I can’t take any more calls’. No, I have to be available 24x7.
Sometimes, my family and friends ask if I get tired. But I don’t get tired at all. Not even for a fraction of a second do I think, ‘Oh, I’m exhausted, I don’t know what to do anymore.’ What encourages me is receiving a call from someone I have helped. When the person recovers and they call to say, ‘Thank you, Sonu...because of you, our family is together.’ I believe I will always live with those families, in their blessings and wishes. And my intention is to help and connect with many more families, so I can be with them. It doesn’t matter if we never meet in person...I am just happy to be in their thoughts.
It was around this time, last year, that I decided I had to do something to help those in need. I remember I was distributing food, during the first COVID-19 wave, when I came across some 300 migrant workers who were planning to walk all the way to Karnataka with little children. I managed to help them get home, and the happiness that I saw in their eyes...it changed something in me. I remember thinking, ‘All these people, struggling to return home in the middle of a pandemic, they are like my family members and I have to help them’. That’s how it all began and now, during the second wave, my efforts have intensified.
This second wave is a tumultuous one for the country—there is no oxygen, no beds, no ventilators, no medicines, people are struggling everywhere, every day. My team and I are on the phone day and night, helping procure beds in different states. Suddenly, in the middle of the night at 2:30am, we will receive a panic call regarding a critical patient. ‘Please save my family’ are the words we hear constantly. I have seen the most influential people struggle to get a bed or medicine... In 2020, the situation was truly difficult for the poor and the migrants. This time, the rich and the poor...everyone is in the struggle together.
Over the last year, several volunteers and I have worked to give employment to over two lakh migrants. We helped create jobs for them, and provided them with shelter, education, and a healthcare system. And today, those same people have offered to help us. I have enrolled them as volunteers, based out of different parts of the country, and they are the ones helping us organise ambulances, beds, and medicines. I am grateful to have so many helpful volunteers...many of whom I have never even met. Yes, I am trying to help the entire country, but the entire country is also with me.
Illustrations: Naina Hussain
Many of us blame the government for not doing the right thing, or not doing enough. I also feel angry at the state of our healthcare system, and I wish we had better infrastructure, more doctors, etc. Innocent people shouldn’t have to die because there is not enough oxygen or hospital beds available. These are our fundamental rights. Can you imagine the mental state of someone who couldn’t save a loved one’s life? They will curse themselves all their lives, and believe they failed as sons, as fathers, as husbands...because the system failed them. In India, we spend 1% to 2% of our GDP on the healthcare system; I sincerely believe it is time to take that number to 10%.
But while many of us might feel frustrated at the state of things, when we only indulge in blame games, we are the ones who suffer. Instead, I chose to come out, help, and do my duty as an Indian citizen. I believe each one of us must give back to society. If you are one of the ‘privileged ones’, one of the blessed ones, you have no right to sit within the comfort of your four walls and simply watch what’s happening.
Over the months, I have managed to convince many friends—whom I jokingly call ‘good-for-nothings’—to become volunteers and help others. I asked them to take up a case, get involved, find a bed or an ambulance, and close it. And now, they save lives every single day and their hearts are joyous. They stay up till 3am and 4am to help people. I believe that we just need to change the mindset of an individual... And when they start doing good work, it makes them happy, and they want to do more.
Every day, I survey the situation, and plan what to do next. This morning, we started an oxygen drive in Delhi to meet demands. We did the same in Bengaluru yesterday, to help those in need. I am also planning to import oxygen plants for smaller states, so the hospitals there can refill all their cylinders for free. And whenever I am in the position to do so, I would like to build hospitals for the needy, so they can get free treatment and don’t have to suffer.
Recently, I requested the various state governments to offer free education to all the children who have lost a parent or a bread winner. I asked that all children, whether in a government or private school, or college, should be given free scholarship. And I am so glad that several states have now declared that they will extend pension or free education to children who have lost a guardian in the pandemic.
I also believe it is the responsibility of the influential to create jobs for the needy. They should use a large chunk of their CSR funds to support those who are out of work. It’s only when there are employment opportunities that people—and the country—will survive. And this must be done quickly, before it’s too late.
I came to Mumbai to become an actor, to make my parents proud. I began my acting career and worked on many films, Hollywood included, but what I have discovered about myself in the last two years is that nothing brings me greater joy than touching someone’s life. Yes, I will continue working as an actor, but I think helping people will be a big part of who I am, and it is what I enjoy doing most.
When I was a little boy, my father would organise langars [food distribution drives] in front of a shop in Moga, Punjab, and my mother taught children who couldn’t afford a school fee. My mother always said to me, ‘The day you are successful, make sure you are able to help someone else.’ I wish my parents were alive to see what their son is doing now. I’m sure they are guiding me from heavens... And I just want to tell them that I miss them.”