When being strong is our only option, at that moment we understand how strong we really are. Such is the case for single parents who have survived it all to give their children the best life possible, no matter what it cost them. Between sacrifices and hidden tears, they believe their children are their biggest blessings and work harder than ever for their sake.
Heena Mandavia started 'Harsh Thali and Parathas' as a mere means of survival. Later, her son Harsh Madavia took over the responsibility and the business. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the mother-son duo has been feeding the poor and the destitute and have served more than 11,000 meals.
"It all began 22 years ago in 1998. My husband died in a car accident abroad. I was just 27 years old and had to earn a living and raise a four-year-old son which was a big challenge for me. At this point the struggles for roti, kapda aur makaan began. There was a point where I was homeless due to issues with my in-laws and had to sleep in my colony's passage for eight days with my son, Harsh sleeping on my lap.
Things changed in 1999 when after several legal battles, I won my house back. Now only the question was how to earn livelihood. I graduated from a Gujarati medium college in Jamnagar and there was no chance of getting a job, nor could I afford a creche for Harsh if I had to work.
A helpful suggestion came from one of my neighbours. She suggested I start making tiffins with home-made food to cater around Kandivali. But, I had no money for groceries and utensils! All I had was one light bulb in the house.
One of my friends helped me with 500 grams of potatoes and two steel tiffins which belonged to her sons. Another gave me 1 kilo of wheat for the rotis while the third got me a gas stove. In this way, with no formal training, I began cooking. All I knew at the time was that I was making simple Ghar ka khana.
The first tiffin I sold fetched me ₹35 and I used that to buy basic ingredients and vegetables for the next evening's meal.
Within a week, I started getting calls from the employees working in the factory, next to my house.
While I prepared and packed for the employees, they would teach Harsh basics of English grammar and Maths. Harsh also doubled up as a delivery boy from the tender age of six because I couldn't afford a delivery boy.
The factory had a huge manufacturing plant and I started having at least three to four customers on a daily basis.
With the factory's canteen being shut as the staff members called-on a strike and with no food facilities around in the area, more and more employees started calling to avail the tiffin service because of the 'Maa ke haath' ka touch to it.
And it was then, I started getting orders for 12-15 tiffins from that same factory
Slowly, even without a telephone and zero budgets for advertising and no social media, of course, I had more than 20 regular customers from Lokhandwala, Kandivali just through word of mouth publicity.
One of my customers used to eat at my place regularly at least twice a month when he visited the city for business purpose from Italy. He got in touch with me through my building watchman and insisted I open a restaurant in the main market and sell tiffins and thalis from there.
He offered to invest or rather sponsor ₹60,000 as the initial deposit to rent the place.
This way, on April 1, 2003, the food-service began on a commercial level. With just thalis and no fancy menus or cuisines, I later started selling Aloo and Methi Parathas upon my aunt's suggestions.
And with this, Harsh Thali & Parathas was born!
It was an uphill journey starting from scratch. There were issues with the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation)procuring licences, police harassment, and staff strikes. However, our neighbouring shop owner helped us through the rough patches, handed our problems and saw us through.
Over the years, I encountered several challenges with managing the staff members. There were internal staff politics and union strikes which also made me understand the entrepreneurial part of the process.
When I started the service, it was not to mint money from the business and open 10 other outlets, it was to earn enough to provide Harsh with good education and lead a simple life, and this kept me going.
Since most of my customers had an engineering background, I always dreamed of making Harsh an engineer. He had other plans though and was interested in marketing and business, and took up commerce in NM College.
I thought he would be a Chartered Accountant or do his MBA but in June 2015, while I was in Gujarat to attend a family function, Harsh managed the business on his own for 10 days.
And that's when he introduced technology and his marketing expertise to the business.
He roped in the business with the food delivery applications that were just emerging in the market and it extended our service radius by three times.
After Harsh joined in, he added the tagline- 'Mom Makes, Son Sells' which reflected our two decades old story in short.
The fact that he took up Harsh Thali & Parathas so seriously and did not opt for another job is my greatest success."
"We have been through a phase in our lives when mummy fed me 2 times ka khana - lunch and dinner but she herself survived on just one meal a day or just chai and biscuits on some days.
That's because we had limited resources and limited money at that point in our lives.
So while conducting the food donation drives during the lockdown, mothers carrying children along with them came to me saying "Bhaiya, roti aur laddoo extra dedo, shaam ko bhi yehi chalana hai. "
At that time mom and I actually felt that pain in their voices, because we have been through that struggle. So we can empathise with what they were going through.
In a way, the COVID-19 lockdown gave us a chance to help the poor and the needy in the smallest way possible.
When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, we obviously had to shut down for a couple of weeks. But in April, we started getting calls from nearby hospitals asking for food for doctors and nurses on duty.
Also, a lot of bachelors and students who couldn't cook at home started calling us for food.
That's when we realised that in spite of having ration and money, these well-to-do people were facing difficulty in feeding themselves, one of the basic requirements in life which lead us to think about the plight of people who are unemployed, jobless, and without any resources.
In May, one of our customers wished to donate money for feeding 100 people, but he asked me to find the people and feed them since he didn't want to risk going out due to the virus outbreak.
After some research, I found a place outside Gurudwara in Malad where we did the first round of feeding at least 100 poor people. We served them roti, sabzi, dal and rice which prepared in our delivery kitchen under hygienic conditions, keeping the safety norms in mind, supervised by my mother.
It was when I had put an appreciation post on my social media accounts regarding the first food donation activity, people started donating money online from all over the country!
In a matter of just 20 days, we received ₹1.5 lakhs, which didn't stop until we reached ₹3.5 lakhs in 62 days.
On an everyday basis, we are feeding 200-250 people during lunchtime. There are also some orphan kids and elderly people we feed in the ashrams and old age homes.
As on 28th August (almost 114 days to the cause), we have received ₹5,23,400 from eight countries and 170 donors across the globe.
By now, we have fed over 11,000 meals and served more than 26,000 Tawa Rotis (made of whole wheat atta) keeping the health aspect in mind.
Slum-dwellers, watchmen, daily wage earners who have been rendered jobless since the past three months, garbage collectors and rickshaw drivers form part of the community that we have been serving food to.
We don't see things normalising anytime soon for the unemployed and the underprivileged, so with the donations coming in, we wish to keep the cause going on for as long as possible.
And commercially, like my mum, creating an impact is all that drives me. This keeps us going even with our own health being put on risk while feeding hundreds. Overall, it's the power of pain, people's trust and the power of social media that helped us conduct this food donation drive for 100 days without a halt.
To make a difference in the lives of others, through something which can be as small as a 250 square feet delivery kitchen has been our mission."
For supporting the cause and donations, people can follow us on Instagram @harsh_mandavia
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