In a rain-splattered afternoon in Calcutta, three women, childhood friends now in their late forties, decide to meet for coffee. “But instead of the cafes where we usually catch up, we decided to drop in at this new joint everyone is talking about,” says Chandrima Chanda, a teacher, who travelled nearly 40 km from the north of the city to get to leafy and busy Jodhpur Park in south Calcutta, where on July 15 a new coffee shop unveiled its very special charms to the public.
Called Cafe Positive, the joint operates out of a garage, concaving its way into a 10-ft by 12-ft space in the wall. But the word ‘positive’ here takes on much more meaning than casual optimism. The new cafe is owned and managed by a group of young adults who are HIV positive. Diagnosed when they were children, they grew up in a shelter for the HIV-infected. Some were abandoned by families; others were orphaned and rendered homeless.
The brain behind the initiative is Kallol Ghosh, founder of OFFER (Organisation of Friends for Energies and Resources), a non-profit NGO which runs the shelter for the HIV positive children, called Ananda Ghar. It was started in 2000, 14 years after Ghosh founded OFFER. “We had opened homes for orphans and homeless children, as well as one for those suffering from mental disabilities,” Ghosh says. “During our work we stumbled upon many HIV positive children. Mostly, they were born with it, having contracted it from either or both parents. Often they were the children of sex workers or beggars and were also orphaned and homeless. They would land up in a children’s home or be left to fend for themselves on the streets. We realised HIV positive children needed special attention, including medical care, like access to the drug Anti-retroviral, without which their chances of survival would be slim.”
Among the first batch at Ananda Ghar was a brother-sister duo whose mother had committed suicide after neighbours ostracised her in the village. “She was a milkmaid. After her husband left her, she was bringing up her children by supplying milk to households,” says an OFFER member, recounting the tragedy that forced the boy and girl—the oldest not even eight—to end up in a shelter. If it took a long time for the traumatised children to exorcise past memory, AnaNDA Ghar wanted to ensure that their present—the dire fact that they were HIV-infected—would not tarnish their future.
Situated in the suburbs, where lush greenery crouches over abundant water bodies, the shelter has largely protected the children from the social stigma that hounds HIV positive people. “Here, they are not just surrounded by others like them, but they are taught not to be ashamed of their disease,” Ghosh says emphatically. “We keep telling them the only illness that they have is a weak immune system.” When a young girl at the home says, “I was brought to the home because I was diagnosed with AIDS,” she is promptly corrected by an OFFER official, his tone hardening in a mild reprimand. “Never say that again,” he says. “There is a difference between having AIDS and being HIV positive.”
The 75 children are sent to four different government schools, where they can choose from a wide range of extra-curricular activities, including dance, music, art and sports.
However, the most important part, says Ghosh, is to make them feel loved. Explaining the need to instil “a sense of security” in the children, Ghosh recounts the story of a girl who was brought to the home when she was eight, after being abandoned by a well-to-do Calcutta couple who had adopted her without the knowledge that she was HIV positive. “Eventually, they left the little girl on the streets.” After living a life of affluence for three-and-a-half years, she was in utter shock. For the first six months in Ananda Ghar, she didn’t utter a single word, says Ghosh. “It took tender, loving care for her to open up. Her first words to me were, ‘Uncle, you will not chuck me out on the road, will you?’” says an emotional Ghosh.
During Outlook’s visit to the home, the newest entrant, a three-year-old girl, is picked up and hugged by a warden as she looks around with lost, dazed eyes. Abandoned by her family for being HIV positive, the child, say the older girls, cried ceaselessly at first, but has now settled in.
“We all cry at first because we miss our families,” says an older girl, who was eight when her HIV positive mother deposited her for ‘safe-keeping’. She is lucky; unlike many of the abandoned or orphaned, her mother and grandmother regularly visit her. “But this shelter became our home and the girls, boys and staff our family. We love it here.” A boy who had arrived at Ananda Ghar also aged eight, and who is also a Cafe Positive employee like her, teasingly calls out, “You didn’t cry at all”. “Of course I did,” she retorts. “I wept silently.” She is comfortable at the cafe, too. “Initially, I was unsure, but now I like the interactions with customers.”
But care is one thing, the wherewithal to face the world outside is another. As the children grew older, Ghosh worried about their leaving this cloister and being unprepared to deal with prejudices they would undoubtedly face. “We couldn’t leave them in the lurch,” Ghosh says. “We had to make them financially independent.”
While the sceptre of inadequate funds constantly stalks OFFER—it subsists on donations—Ghosh and other members decided to utilise their limited resources to train the ten 18-year-olds. “The Japanese government had donated a bakery to a shelter run by OFFER,” reveals Ghosh. It includes an oven for baking cakes and muffins, machinery for making sandwiches, the technology for brewing coffee and other beverages, including tea, cold shakes and mojitos.
“The month-long training, with a couple of weeks of internships at other cafes, was provided to the boys and girls, over and above other career counselling,” says Ghosh. For many, the cafe job is an opening, a toehold in professional life. “I think I will make a good salesperson and working in Cafe Positive is giving me valuable experience,” a girl says with a wide smile.
The boys and girls work in six-hour shifts and travel the 21-kilometre distance from the home to the Jodhpur Park cafe by bus. “The idea is to instil confidence in them,” says Ghosh. So, not only do they travel to work on their own, they do the whole show: don aprons and t-shirts with the Cafe Positive logo, take orders from customers, prepare dishes, serve them up, keep tabs of the bills, collect cash, check accounts and manage the cafe. One of the boys speaks of how initially he was inhibited and wasn’t sure of how to speak with customers. “Not that we were not nervous, but we have been taught to proudly declare that we have this condition and not hesitate to speak about it. When that fear is gone, it doesn’t matter what people will think,” he says.
Though getting someone to rent out a space for a cafe to be manned by people infected with HIV was, expectedly, a harrowing experience—ultimately, a gentleman called Indrajyoti Dasgupta vacated his garage for the “noble venture”—the response was overwhelming. As word spread, Cafe Positive stood out amongst the hundreds of eating out options that vie for attention in posh South Calcutta.
“Some days it’s so packed that customers wait for tables outside on the road,” gushes Ghosh. Word-of-mouth knowledge about the cafe has spread through social media. “The cafe is more than an avenue to generate income for HIV positive children,” he says. “This is the start of a movement which will not just eradicate stigma, but also bust myths about HIV, such as the grossly erroneous belief that the virus can get transmitted through food or drink. We want HIV positive people in every Bengal district to open a Cafe Positive, through which the true facts of HIV will be disseminated.”
The three childhood friends too had read about the cafe on the opinionated walls of Facebook. Says Ashmita Trivedi, a homemaker: “I live in Jodhpur Park, which is a Bengali, upper-middle-class, conservative neighbourhood. But people seem to have the maturity to welcome the cafe.” Many more people must have felt like Ashmita. For there is always a crowd in front of Cafe Positive, painted as it is in the radiantly hopeful colours of the sun, in bright yellow and red.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta