Writer’s Cafe or a Victim’s Retreat?

BY: TANNU JAIN

Chennai: The reading culture in Chennai never ceases to surprise me. As I set out to report on a café that worked in collaboration with the International Foundation for Prevention of Crimes and Care for Victims (PCVC), I expected a quaint little café with woodwork and expensive baked food. What I found was quite the opposite.

The entrance to the Writer’s Café itself was a surprise. A big orange glass encased board indicated that the café was in a partnering business with Higginbotham’s Chennai. A small sheet of paper on the wall said that the second floor stored 18000 books. This was different because for a Delhiite, there is only one such café cum bookstore which has now become a fad amongst the people.

While I had imagined a small room like place, the café was actually double storey.

The waiting staff, all dressed in black, was in a rush. The day being 26th of January, a lot of people had come in to eat at the café. Many stood waiting for the tables to be free. This is when I was introduced to the corporate chef and manager, Karan Manaval. He told me that the inception of the cafe came about since the owner M. Mahadevan was in contact with, Higginbotham’s and the NGO, PCVC. He started the café as part of CSR.

Karan told me a few more specifics about the café. He said that he himself had designed the menu of the café and planned to change it every three months. The USP of the café he said was the Swiss inspired European cuisine and the Japanese siphoned coffee which was a rarity in Chennai.

The café employed seven burn victims from the PCVC. These women were trained for a period of five months at the Winner’s bakery, another venture by Mahadevan. Karan added that Silke Stradler, a Swiss chef was flown to train the women.

Very keen to talk about the café, Karan refused to let me speak with the burn victims individually. Even on requests he seemed reluctant saying that many journalists had already harrowed the women which made them vary of talking anymore.

However, I did manage to talk to one lady, Asma as she handed me out my blueberry cheesecake. She told me that as a result of her abusive marriage she had tried to immolate herself. But her job here the café had lightened her with new hope.

He then introduced me to the manager of the bookstore, Shardha Dharmaraj. Very proud of her work here at the cafe, Shardha gave me a tour of the first floor which had most of the books. She told me how they planned to expand the business and curate books in a better way. She said that what she wished here most was to aware people of the horrors that the women had faced.

After a sumptuous lunch at the café, as I took leave of Shardha she asked me to inform my friends about the café. Her tone made it evident that the deepest desire of the staff at the café was to make it a success.

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