From Self-Defence to Social Activism: Making Real Impact through Conscious Decisions

By Liani MK

June 2024 FEATURE
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Vaira posing in front of his establishment in a Zero to Hero shirt.

Photos courtesy of Vairavasundaram Rajasegaran.

AT 63, Vairavasundaram Rajasegaran cuts an interesting figure in the F&B industry. Fondly known among peers as Veera or Vaira, the sinewy former national martial artist brims with contagious enthusiasm as he shares his interests in health, education and community service.

Described as someone with a compassionate and generous soul, Vaira is the co-owner of The Garden Banana Leaf Restaurant, an Indian vegetarian eatery located along Jalan Penang Free School. Since its opening in 2017, the open-air alfresco restaurant has been serving delicious, healthy lunch thali sets featuring dishes like parboiled rice, chickpea beetroot masala and mixed vegetable kurma.

As we meet on a sweltering morning, aromas wafting from the restaurant kitchen momentarily divert attention from our conversation. But Vaira does not consider his cosy restaurant as merely a place to serve Indian cuisine; it is a part of his effort to ensure that every meal counts and nothing goes to waste.

Amid increasing food insecurity, worldwide food wastage and rising prices of goods, Vaira’s efforts reflect how individual actions can make a difference. By making full use of his establishment as a space to motivate, inspire and support the community, Vaira brings a different meaning to sustenance and strength.

Healthy living is important to Vaira, who uses homegrown banana leaves in his restaurant.

From Combat to Charity

Vaira, who has retired from a career in security management and coaching, describes his deeds as social work.

“I go and help people,” Vaira says simply. “I deliver food wherever there is a need.”

From giving talks to schools, to running motivational camps for children from vulnerable homes—a programme he calls “Zero to Hero”(SPARK)—Vaira’s ethos is clear: education is key.

A proud father of two daughters, Priyanka and Kowsalya, Vaira is quick to highlight their achievements.

Both he and his wife, Rethinambal—who has master’s degrees and a background in zoology and education—take pride in instilling in their daughters a strong sense of community service. As a result, his eldest daughter, Priyanka, won UK’s Diana Award in 2020 for coaching students from disadvantaged families, while Kowsalya now leads SPARK's Zero to Hero, a motivational programme spearheaded by Vaira.

Vaira has always taken a deep interest in education, charity and healthy living. With a background in a string of martial art forms—including judo, karate, kickboxing and even Sanda (Chinese boxing)—he has a history of excelling in full-contact sports.

“I had a troubled childhood. My father didn’t have the tools that we do today to manage emotions,” he shares. This experience built his resolve to take control of his life, so that his children and others with similar experiences would not have to face difficult life choices.

The moment for change, he says, came in the form of the exhilarating Bruce Lee film, The Fist of Fury, which he watched as a teenager.

“My life was transformed. I’d never thought of doing martial arts until that movie. It captivated my imagination. I wanted to be outstanding in martial arts.”

He was beyond outstanding. After completing Form 5, Vaira took up karate, and earned his black belt in just two years. He then pursued other full-contact sports, winning numerous medals and representing Malaysia in international championships and winning the 1993 North America Full Contact Championship was the “pinnacle of success".

His training was intense and disciplined.

“I would run in the morning while the other children were sleeping. In the afternoon, I’d hit the gym for an hour and a half. Then at night, I’d train for another two and a half hours,” he says, without missing a beat.

On average, Vaira trained for about five hours daily, doing up to 1,000 sit-ups a day. By 21, his muscular physique led him to compete in a bodybuilding championship.

“I was not even a bodybuilder,” he laughs. “It’s just because of all this training!”

To this day, Vaira maintains a strict training regimen. “Sometimes I go to the gym and train at night for a solid hour. After every set, I rest for about 30 seconds then I’ll move to another set. I don’t eat after sunset.”

He attributes his fitness to healthy lifestyle choices, such as avoiding alcohol and smoking, while maintaining a vegetarian— now vegan—diet.

“Some days I can even just eat rice with one vegetable and survive. I only eat once a day.”

He details his daily routine and diet. “For breakfast, I only have fruits or just coconut water. Later, I’ll have lunch—a full meal—and at night, I don’t eat anything. I do intermittent fasting too.”

Vaira leading a motivational session at a local school in Penang.

When Every Bite Counts

As if on cue, a man on a motorbike interrupts our conversation by bringing over a packet of coconut water—which Vaira immediately offers to me. “They send me coconut water every morning,” he says. Since Vaira had already had his coconut water for the day, he did not want it to go to waste and offered it to me.

“It’s healthy. Plus, I don’t want to waste it,” he says.

This commitment to preventing food waste is central to Vaira’s and his wife’s food business—which ensures that their food is healthy for both consumers and the environment.

This comes as the recent UN Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index Report 2024 reports that one fifth of the world’s food— an equivalent of over 1 billion meals a day—is wasted. Households contribute most of this, totalling 631 million tonnes of food wasted. This means that each person wastes an average of 79kg of food annually. Food waste can also generate up to 10% of the global greenhouse gases.

“Since we started, we’ve always ensured that any leftover food from our meals is distributed to people. Our workers can take it home, and we also donate to the community and children’s homes,” says Vaira.

Flavourful homecooked thali sets are served fresh at The Garden Banana Leaf Restaurant in Penang.

Besides environmental impact, Vaira recognises that this is also an issue of food distribution. The same food waste index report reveals that an equivalent of 1.3 meals is wasted daily per person.

Meanwhile, 783 million people worldwide continue to go hungry, with one third of the population facing food insecurity.

“Because I grew up here, I know some people in this area are very poor,” says Vaira. “So we also give them food.”

Vaira’s commitment was evident during the Movement Control Order (MCO) at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. He and his wife reached out to their customers, friends and family to contribute extra funds to provide food for those who could not afford it, including migrant communities in Penang.

“At the peak, easily over 80 packs of food were distributed daily. We absorbed 20% of the cost of free meals and the sponsors absorbed 80%,” he says, adding that he kept donors updated on how money and resources were spent.

Despite feeling the pinch from rising food costs and insecurity for products like rice, Vaira insists on keeping prices low.

“Prices have gone up, yes. That has affected us, but we haven’t increased our prices yet. We always try to find cheaper suppliers,” he says.

To minimise costs while keeping their ingredients healthy, Vaira and Rethinambal gather organic produce from their garden or from local sources, including Consumer Association Penang's organic produce. “Wherever possible, we harvest ingredients ourselves and make full use of any plant. For instance, different parts of the banana plant—the trunks, stems or flowers—can be consumed as vegetables.”

“The banana flower is highly nutritious and affordable, but people find it laborious to clean. Instead, they buy other expensive vegetables.”

In a way, the restaurant becomes a platform to educate customers about their food choices.

“We learn to become smart consumers. We eat the right food, which is cheap, nutritious and organic,” Vaira says.

At the same time, Vaira emphasises that while food must not go to waste, it must also not be recycled for the next day.

“We have a strict policy of not recycling the food. We always cook fresh,” he says. “Our policy has always been to not hurt the customers.”

It is not just about avoiding recycled food; it is also about customer health.

“Look, it’s home-cooked food. Everybody knows it’s not rocket science,” he says, adding that they use only healthy ingredients. “Strictly, we don’t use ajinomoto (MSG). We only use rock salt.”

Rethinambal shares about the care, thought and concept behind The Garden Banana Leaf Restaurant in Penang.

Beyond Charity: Making Real Change

Eventually, Vaira hopes for his food establishment to function like other communal centres such as the Sikh gurdwara or Muslim surau—one that serves communities in need and keeps their best interests at heart.

“Like the temple, I believe that an individual—even people like me—can make a difference. If everyone with food and time uses them effectively, we can create real change.”

Vaira’s efforts highlight the need for action beyond personal lifestyle choices. They also emphasise the importance of giving back to communities and addressing global issues like climate crises and famine. Rather than feeling helpless or overwhelmed, Vaira focuses on taking individual actionable steps to address food insecurity where systems may have failed.

His current focus is to motivate the next generation to tackle these challenges. Reflecting on the different “waves” in his life, Vaira believes that one of the ways he is giving back to the community is essentially by changing mind-sets.

He is at a point where he wants to pass on the baton: “I’ve got two very outstanding daughters, and I want to see this movement grow independently.”

“When I was really young—even at 19—I regretted missing out on many things. Now I don’t think that way,” he says thoughtfully, adding that he can only act on what is within his control. “I live in the moment. I focus on what’s next.”

“I still have my vision. I want to take Zero to Hero (SPARK) programmes internationally. For example, I’ve seen how dalits, who are considered low-caste in India, are mistreated. I want to identify what I can do to train and empower people to do something good for themselves.”

Real impact, he believes, comes from every conscious decision. When the community takes action, and does so with meaning and compassion, he says, a more sustainable ecosystem is within reach.

Liani MK

is an independent writer, journalist and artist whose works span areas of language, film, culture, indigeneity and migration in Southeast Asia.