Told by Barani Krishnan, Founder & Americas Editor @ neverforget.cloud
“You do good, good will come to you. I follow this mantra,” Nagalingam Nagaraju says in an inspiring message broadcast on Malaysia’s 64th Independence Day.
While he wouldn’t make another such recording, his words wouldn’t be forgotten either by those Malaysians he helped feed and keep alive during their darkest moments of despair with Covid.
Every hometown has its own hero. To the Kampung Jawa suburb in the coastal city of Klang in central Malaysia, Naga will forever be one of its favorite sons. Growing up there before his culinary passion took him on travels across three continents, Naga chose at the pinnacle of his career to give it all up and stay back in his native land to serve those he grew up with. And serve he did.
At the height of the pandemic in Malaysia, he became an angel of mercy for the hungry of Kampung Jawa. Mobilizing a little army of donors and other contributors, Naga served hundreds of his town folk with at least one meal a day. And he did it till the day he fell victim himself to the virus, which cut short his life on Aug 21, 2021 when he was just 43.
“All he had to know was that you needed him and he’d be there for you,” says Naga’s friend from his teen years, Vicneswaran Ramasamy. “It may sound cliched, but he really lived his life more for others than himself. He never wished ill even on his enemies, not that he had any to begin with.”
That last bit was true even with soccer, Naga’s favorite game.
Despite being a lifelong fan of Liverpool, Naga never trolled the club’s arch rival Manchester United. Being an MU fan, I regularly got into banter with him, but Naga always kept our exchange respectful.
As a greater lover of the game, I occasionally made postings that even praised Liverpool, and Naga was always the first to acknowledge that.
“Maamz!,” he would begin, using the Tamil endearment for uncle. “You’re the best football fan ever!” he’d say, before congratulating me for my magnanimity. Had our roles reversed, I’m sure he’d have done exactly the same.
This genteel side of Naga was what surfaced during the Covid crisis.
Had To “Do Something” For His Town
With its mix of small industry and farming activity, Kampung Jawa probably exhibits a little more codependency among its people than the average town.
It didn’t take long for Naga, who was running his family’s two restaurants, to realize some of the people in his town had become too poor during the pandemic to even afford regular meals and were too embarrassed to ask for help.
“It got to a point where I was seeing fewer and fewer of the familiar faces at our restaurants,” said Naga in the Independence Day tribute. “Even our delivery orders had dropped a lot. It was a sign that something was happening beyond what was visible to the eye. We are a close knit community and know each other well. I decided to reach out and ask.”
What he discovered totally distressed him. “Many people did not have enough money for daily food. Their savings were gone. Some had lost their elderly to Covid. Most of these people used to work very hard for their money and now they were really suffering. I had to do something.”
Pooling his own money and some from the two restaurants — “we’re family run, so we could tighten costs,” he said — Naga launched his maiden food drive during the first Covid outbreak of 2020, feeding about 100 people daily during a month-long lockdown.
But barely a year later, the pandemic was back in Malaysia, worse than before, and forcing another shuttering of businesses.
This time, Naga decided to do better, tapping a bunch of friends for a more organized food drive.
As a result, his restaurants had 200 packs of free hot meals ready for pickup by lunch on a typical day. Given his own Hindu faith and piety, he made sure there were as many vegetarian meals as there were non-vegetarian ones.
During the weekend stretch that begins on Friday, Naga prepared as many as 300 packs a day. For those who couldn’t do pickups, he drove to their doors to drop.
The free lunch aside, he gave deep discounts throughout the day to anyone who needed food at his restaurants, but didn’t have enough to pay.
“I needed to buy six roti canais but I had just $2,” says a customer who popped up one morning at one of Naga’s restaurants for Malaysia’s breakfast staple. “Mr. Naga said: ‘Just give what you can’. He is a very good man, and so is his family.”
Happiness In Making Others Happy
The Independence Day tribute shows Naga navigating the streets and alleys of Kampung Jawa to make his free food deliveries. The recipients are clearly awed by the hulking figure of the man before them with a heart as big as the triple-X sized shirts he wore.
“Seeing their happy faces makes you feel happy,” said Naga in the tribute. “As Malaysians, we always come together during tough times and we’re there to help each other. You don’t see that when we are prosperous. But during tough times, that’s when we shine.”
Malaysia has been through several economic crises over the past quarter-century. But Naga barely experienced any crisis of his own — probably because of his destiny or the goodwill he had accumulated through life. At any point in time, he was never unemployed for more than a month, and every job he landed was better than the previous one.
“Good karma aside, this guy had a gift for communication,” says long-time friend Vicneswaran. “He could impress anyone within minutes of being introduced to them, and that’s a huge quality to have with employers.”
Globetrotting F&B Manager Who Found His Heart at Home
Completing basic Malaysian schooling in 1995, Naga went to the Swiss Hotel Management School in Caux and followed that up with advanced training in hospitality and catering in the United States.
Upon returning home, he worked for several years at a hotel and even taught a course on hospitality at a local college. Soon, he found opportunity knocking again from abroad, in the form of food & beverage stints in Vietnam and Laos. Not long after that, a friend in New Zealand invited Naga over for a stay and within a couple of weeks, he found himself a job there.
Over the next couple of years, Naga taught himself all he could about catering, while managing a restaurant in Auckland.
In 2009, he was back in Malaysia for the biggest event of his life: his wedding. With beautiful bride Hema by his side, Naga returned to the laidback, pastoral life in Kiwi land.
But in 2010, while awaiting his NZ visa renewal in Malaysia, two pivotal incidents altered his life forever: his wife’s hospitalization after an accident and his parents’ wish that he stay on.
“Even then, he made that decision not for himself, but for me and his parents,” Hema, who’s now raising their one-year old son, said of Naga. “Over the past 12 years that we’ve been together, I can’t think of a single occasion where he acted selfishly. Had he lived longer, it would have been to the benefit of others, not himself. That’s just Naga. He couldn’t be otherwise.”