A Kolkata café run by HIV positive people is the first of its kind in India, and an absolute sell-out
A pick me up cup: At Café Positive. | Photo Credit: Ashok Nath
It is easy to miss Café Positive, tucked away in a corner of the warren of shops at Jodhpur Park bazaar in Kolkata. But the discreet venue, the refurbished garage of a four-storey residential building, has seen a steady stream of celebrity visitors in the past few weeks. Since its opening last month, film stars, activists and journalists have been dropping by to pledge support.
In a first of its kind in India, Café Positive is run by a crew of HIV positive men and women. Kallol Ghosh, the founder-director of Organisation For Friends Energies and Resources (Offer), a non-profit outfit from where the café’s team has been recruited, says the ‘positive’ in the café’s name is not just the defining characteristic of the peoplerunning it, but also the hope that our misconceptions about HIV+ will change over a liberating cup of coffee.
Ratan Das, in his early 20s, is café manager. He is not HIV positive: the brewmaster is a former student of one of the tutorial homes that Ghosh used to once run for under-privileged children. When Ghosh came up with this idea, he got in touch with Das, who gave up his job at
a popular coffee shop chain to manage Café Positive. He is now training 10 HIV+ people — all from Anandghar, a home run by Ghosh in Baruipur, where children born with HIV get institutional care, educational help, and vocational training — in the fine art of brewing coffee and making savouries.
All 10 of them are just over 18: the idea is to make them self-sufficient before they leave Anandghar. If the café catches on and these young people learn their job well, they will go on to run it, and their lives, perhaps with some support from Ghosh.
On the afternoon I visit, Riya Nabajja and Samiran are on duty. As she serves me Americano in a paper cup (the café uses disposable cups and cutlery to maintain hygiene), Riya tells me shyly that she has written her Class X board exams this year, and plans to study further through distance learning. Born with HIV, she has been under treatment since she was three, and now takes antiretroviral medicines twice a day, with health check-ups once a month.
She is clearly a quick learner, for the chicken-cheese sandwich she has made me is delicious. As I sip the coffee, I ask myself whether I am simply making a statement. After all, Riya or Samiran seem fitter than most people their age, and it is known that the HIV virus doesn’t spread through air, water or touch. So what really is the need for this café?
When I speak to Ghosh, he dispels my illusions. He tells me how he had first zeroed in on a space in Kolkata’s posh Dover Lane, but how the owner backed out at the last moment. “The confusion between HIV with AIDS is still very common: even apparently sensitised people tend to see the virus and the syndrome as interchangeable,” he says. And then the association of AIDS with sex gives HIV a stigma that is hard to shake off. Ghosh hopes to correct all these false ideas through Café Positive. But his real aim goes deeper.
Grants for treatment
According to the National AIDS Control Organisation, the total number of people living with HIV in India in 2015 was 21.17 lakh, of which children accounted for 6.54%. The latter are entitled to government grants for treatment under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, but the problem lies in identifying them first, and then ensuring the money reaches them. Ghosh has been campaigning to give them greater visibility and he hopes to make Café Positive a platform where such young people can be located by the scheme’s administrators. “I am an activist with an agenda,” says Ghosh, “and I want to see it fulfilled through Café Positive.”
He must be inching closer to his goal if the responses to Café Positive are anything to go by. Even as I sit there, customers troop in with bulk orders. In the feedback book, there’s only glowing praise. They are booked for birthdays and one couple events wants to register their marriage here as a token gesture. Two rival Durga puja committees are vying to co-opt the café for the festive season. Ghosh and his team have plans to keep the café open through the night during the season, and they’ve already decided the puja special: Momos.
First published by The Hindu on on Aug. 25, 2018