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Malgudi Coffee Shop and other stories

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Twelve dalit girls are baking bread and cakes at a Mysore café. Elsewhere in Mysore sex workers and transgenders are running their own restaurant. At La Boulangerie in Chennai, dalit youth are baking French delicacies and supplying them to 5-star hotels. These ‘tasty’ experiments are about breaking the vicious circle of oppression and making a political statement

Twelve dalit girls are baking bread and cakes at a Mysore café

What do safai karmacharis, sex workers, transgenders and young dalit boys and girls have in common apart from being oppressed, humiliated, put down and discriminated against? Food is an unlikely answer. But I have discovered that food as a livelihood option has managed to take on a political character, serving as a means to make a statement, empower (yes that dreadfully abused cliché) the disempowered, and make a huge difference to the lives of these particular people. 

Looking back at my previous columns I was struck by the fact that, like the mood of the present time, they are full of gloom and doom. Well, if you work among or even merely read the reports on the current status of adivasis, dalits, sanitation workers or street children they seem pretty bleak and hopeless. 

Nevertheless, change has happened. In this I want to talk about a few experiments which lifted my spirits and are, to me, a sign of hope in a generally bleak scenario. A sign that the tide can turn. Two are based in Mysore, one in Chennai, and one in Ahmedabad. 

The first is a project with young girls from the safai karmachari community. For those not aware of the issue, the safai karmachari, or balmiki community, is at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy. Even other dalits practise untouchability towards this group. They are condemned by birth to do the lowliest of tasks -- clean human excrement, move animal carcasses, work in morgues. I have written extensively about the problems of this community and it bothered me that I saw few rehabilitation possibilities for them. They were struggling to do new things.  

The odds against them are daunting. Also, centuries of oppression and discrimination have led the community to believe they are only capable of sweeping, making and selling brooms, and similar traditional occupations that society has allowed and expected them to undertake. In most cases, this attitude stems from bitter experience. In rural areas, villagers who know their caste origins will not buy anything from them. So they fall back on safe, traditional occupations. 

The first radical breakthrough I heard about came from Gagan Sethi of Jan Vikas, Ahmedabad. He decided that two young girls from the balmiki community would be the new cooks at the office canteen. There was a bit of consternation in some quarters. But Gagan was firm. “This is non-negotiable. Anyone who harbours feelings of untouchability, notions of impurity, should not work in our office or in the social sector.”  

I interviewed the two girls. They were bright, confident and capable. The fact that two members of their community were working with food meant something to the elders especially. It was a huge political statement; the breaking of centuries of social and religious taboo and stigma. 

While travelling around Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh with staff of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, I ate the most delicious, truly authentic local food cooked in the homes of balmiki families. This set me thinking. In Mysore, my husband Stan and I were on the board of the Green Hotel, a beautiful hotel that employed a lot of staff from underprivileged backgrounds. The profits went into supporting local charities. The idea of a coffee shop had been on the agenda for a while. Why not get balmiki girls to run it? And so we did.

It was not easy. There was suspicion and mistrust. Young girls in a hotel? Were our motives shady? A million fears had to be allayed. Finally, with the help of RLHP, the Rural Literacy and Health Programme, an NGO working with slum-dwellers and street children, we recruited 12 young women.

Training began, and within a week these balmiki girls who lived in the Mysore slums and knew barely a smattering of English were reeling off words like ‘cappuccino’, ‘café latte’, ‘quiche’ and ‘croissant’ with panache.

The Malgudi Coffee Shop opened on February 2, 2009, with much fanfare. The press was extremely supportive of the idea and gave us wonderful reviews. The girls were nervous on opening day, but they charmed the guests nevertheless. They were a visual treat, dressed in traditional Mysorean long flowing skirts in burgundy and sunshine yellow.

Mysore is considered a conservative, one-horse town (by Bangaloreans and the fashionable elite), but the much-maligned media went to town praising the concept of dalit slumdwellers being given a break. And the girls were delighted to be on local television and on the front pages of the major dailies.

What’s really interesting though is that in barely three months, several of the girls can bake bread and cakes. They’ve learnt by helping and watching the baker. No theory, no tests. They’ve made bread without supervision and it’s the best in Mysore. They have proved that, given a chance, anyone is capable of anything.

Employing 12 dalit balmiki girls is no big deal. What’s important here is that the girls become role models. That they show others that anything is possible. And that they will never clean toilets like their mothers and fathers did. We’ve broken the mould.

Another story about breaking barriers is the La Boulangerie school in Chennai. Alexis de Ducla, a 20-something-year-old French lad, was inspired by Fr Pierre Ceyrac, a legendary French Jesuit who has lived in India for most of his 92 years. “Do something useful with your life. Come to India and work with the poorest of the poor, with dalit youth,” Fr Ceyrac urged Alexis in Paris. Mesmerised, Alex obeyed. He came to Chennai and started the La Boulangerie school to train young dalit boys to bake the French way. Their products are bought by five-star hotels and Chennai’s more discerning foodies. Tucked away  several twists and turns off the main Anna Nagar Road, it attracted people who drooled at the thought of genuine French patisserie, authentic croissants, melt-in-the-mouth quiches, real French vol-au-vents. The shop has moved since, to a more accessible place, and its popularity has grown.

The recruits, mostly dalits because this school is for the poorest of the poor, are given intensive training beginning with basic classes in English, Tamil and general subjects before proceeding to baking and pastry-making. Many of the trainees are absorbed in five-star hotels.

One of the boys was sent to France after 18 months to fine-tune his patisserie skills. He was so good that he was offered a job at a five-star restaurant in Paris. He turned it down. His heart was in Chennai, and his loyalty to La Boulangerie came first.  Imagine a young dalit boy from Tamil Nadu baking croissants and pastries in Paris for the French! To me that is the height of perfection. And it excites me that someone finally provided an opportunity for dalits to strive for excellence and achieve it. To prove they are capable of anything.

The norm is third-rate vocational centres with mediocre, badly designed tailoring, carpentry, driving, electrician, or mechanics courses. There are few centres of excellence, few places where creativity and genius can flower. The La Boulangerie school is unique in this respect and deserves to be saluted. 

Back to Mysore, and this time it’s a typical south Indian restaurant serving traditional vegetarian food. Excellent filter coffee, hot masala dosas, idlis, puri-palya, crisp vadas with chutney and sambar. There’s a difference though. Gradually you realise that this is not your run-of-the-mill south Indian eatery. It’s bustling with a different sort of crowd. There are sex workers and their families, hijras, gay men…

The café is owned and run by Ashodaya, an NGO working with male and female sex workers, hijras and transsexuals.

To start at the very beginning, the café idea grew out of another venture -- a community kitchen for people who needed a safe space, a violence-free place to relax and get a meal. Most sex workers and hijras are harassed by the police if they loiter in parks or public places. And there was the need for affordable meals. Regular eating places discriminated against them; there was a lot of disapproval and stigma attached. So a community kitchen was started. Meals for community members were heavily subsidised at Rs 6 a meal. This comprised rice, dal, one vegetable dish, and buttermilk. For outsiders, non-community members, the cost was Rs 20-25 for a mini thali. The sex workers’ space built up a reputation for good food. It became a meeting place, a melting pot for the community. “We are good with food; why don’t we start a restaurant,” people began to ask.

In 2008, Ashodaya won an award of US$40,000 from the World Bank. And the dream became a reality in December 2008. They got a former restaurant employee to help with the cooking, and training staff. And they invited the police commissioner to open the restaurant on World AIDS Day. This was a coup. The press covered it and the commissioner’s seal of approval meant there would be no trouble from the cops! It’s early days yet. But the sense of pride and ownership is palpable.

When I interviewed them, in June 2009, 11 of the 15 staff members were from the community. Meenakshi (name changed), a former sex worker, says: “I come here every day. It’s our own place, so it’s our responsibility to make it work. If we don’t pitch in, if we don’t help out, who will?”

In all these places, it’s the spirit, the determination that makes them more than just another eating place. If change is to come, we must continue breaking barriers, creating new spaces for the oppressed and the socially excluded.

These new ventures are, of course, a drop in the ocean. But many drops do an ocean make.

Infochange News & Features, June 2009