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Hero is a very strong word, but it fits 34-year-old Narayanan Krishnan perfectly. During the last 12 years, he has served over 1.5 million meals to India's homeless, mostly people abandoned by their families, either suffering from mental conditions or too old to care for themselves.
Back in 2002, young Narayanan Krishnan was already an award-winning chef working in a high-class restaurant for the prestigious Taj Hotels, and close to securing a job with another 5-star hotel, in Switzerland. Just before heading off to Europe, he traveled to his home town of Madurai, to visit his parents, where witnessed a scene that changed the course of his life forever. "I saw a very old man eating his own human waste for food," Krishnan told CNN. "It really hurt me so much. I was literally shocked for a second. After that, I started feeding that man and decided this is what I should do the rest of my lifetime."
Although he was a Brahmin -- an upper class Hindu -- destined for a successful career as a chef, Narayanan decided to give it all up and dedicate his life to helping those who couldn't help themselves. Shaken by the scene he has witnessed in Madurai, he quit his job within a week, convinced his destiny wasn't to cook elaborate dishes for the rich and famous, but provide sustenance to those who needed it most. "That night I thought, what am I doing? I am selling a plate of fried rice for ten dollars in my hotel where people come and have food for fantasy, fun, joy and recreation. Not for hunger. They eat only half portion of it and leave half of in the plate. It was a spark, a very powerful spark that I had," the young chef said about the event that made him what he is today.
By 2003, Narayanan Krishnan had founded Akshaya Trust, a nonprofit through which he has already served over one and a half million meals to India's homeless. The name of his organization is Sanskrit for "undecaying" or "imperishable", and was chosen to signify that human compassion should never decay or perish. Also, according to Hindu mythology, the Goddess Annapoorani used her Akshaya bowl to feed the hungry, without it ever depleting.
Krishnan's day begins at 4 am, every morning, as he and his team cover 125 miles in a donated van, scouring every nook and cranny of Madurai in search of homeless people in need of a hot meal. The dishes he prepares consist of simple, vegetarian food he cooks, packs and oftentimes hand-feeds himself to over 400 "clients" per day. He is frequently forced to work in temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and deal with hostile and paranoid people suffering from mental illnesses, but these difficult conditions only strengthen his resolve.
"The panic, suffering of the human hunger is the driving force of me and my team members of Akshaya," Narayanan says. "I get this energy from the people. The food which I cook ... the enjoyment which they get is the energy. I see the soul. I want to save my people." Apart from food, he also carries a comb, scissors and razor, and is trained in eight different haircut styles to give his clients that extra bit of dignity they so desperately need.
Providing food for hundreds of people every day costs money, and according to a 2010 report by CNN, the sponsored donations received by Akshaya Trust only cover 22 days out of the month. The rest he subsidizes himself with the monthly rent he receives for a house his grandfather gave him. That leaves him with virtually nothing for himself, but luckily he can still rely on his once unsupportive parents for help.
"They had a lot of pain because they had spent a lot on my education," he said. "I asked my mother, 'Please come with me, see what I am doing.' After coming back home, my mother said, 'You feed all those people, the rest of the lifetime I am there, I will feed you.' I'm living for Akshaya. My parents are taking care of me."
"I used to think everything is alike -- beggars... mentally ill... so I used to think everyone alike but he taught me the difference" Narayanan Lakshmi, Krishnan's mother, told ABC News. I was not a teacher, he was a teacher to me. People used to ask me, how did you brought up your... I didn't bring up my child. He only brought up me. (laughing) That is the irony".
In 2010, Narayanan Krishnan made the CNN Heroes 2010 list, a distinction that made his story known to the whole world, and helped raise awareness to India's homeless problem.