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How a café in Kolkata is brewing antidote to taboo against HIV

Spread over 130 sq. ft. inside a garage in a south Kolkata neighbourhood, Café Positive, the first outlet in the country employing only HIV+ youths, is making a quiet revolution in the city and beyond.

kolkata Updated: Aug 18, 2018 20:57 IST
A customer receives his coffee from one of the HIV+ youths who run the cafe in south Kolkata.(Samir Jana/ HT Photo)

Fans believe a lot can happen over a cup of coffee – love, gossip, debates, creative discussion and even revolution. Kolkata-based HIV+ activist Kallol Ghosh now wants to add “breaking social taboo” to the list.

For, spread over 130 sq. ft. inside a garage in a south Kolkata neighbourhood, Café Positive, the first outlet in the country employing only HIV+ youths, is making a quiet revolution in the city and beyond since Ghosh launched it on July 14.

Ghosh is now flooded with offers from all over the state to open similar cafes in towns such as Siliguri, Barasat and Haldia and also along the busy Durgapur Expressway. “I have a target of launching six outlets in a year, all owned and run by HIV+ youths,” he said.

Working on six-hour shifts, the youths maintain accounts, clean tables and serve customers from 11 am to 8 pm on all days of the week.

“We launched without a single advertisement. Yet in the first 30 days, we had about 700 customers and 30% of them are returning to our outlet,” said Ghosh, 52, who has trained 10 HIV+ youths to run the outlet.

The café that sells three-four types of muffins, two types of sandwiches, birthday cakes, several types of coffee and first and second flush tea will break even in three months, Ghosh believes. Sausages, fish snacks and French fries will be added soon after he gets necessary licenses.

But Ghosh, who set up Anandaghar, a shelter home for HIV+ kids, in 2000, believes numbers can wait. “I got a call from a youth in Jadavpur who wants to register his marriage in the café. No amount of business can match this experience,” said Ghosh.

“I bought a birthday cake for the 20th birthday of my daughter on July 31. Even if I set aside the social aspect of the gesture, the product was good. I came to know about the place from social media,” said Arijit Das, resident of Jadavpur.

The cafe is located inside a garage in Jodhpur Park in south Kolkata. (Samir Jana/ HT Photo)

Perhaps most important, those who run the café are forthcoming with their condition. “We don’t hesitate to declare that we are HIV+. Almost all our customers engage in chats. Conversations are warm, the handshakes more so,” said a 19-year-old, who was given a one-month training in crushing coffee beans, preparing coffee and handling various other jobs before being placed at the outlet. She was sheltered at Anandaghar when she was five because her family abandoned her.

“I have seen the number of customers is bigger than what the small outlet can handle. I have told them to use the pavement to accommodate customers if necessary. I want to stand by this pioneering effort,” said local councillor Ratan De.

On a Sunday afternoon, Ghosh was surprised to see about 50 women outside his outlet. “They had all passed out from school in 1984 and nine of them were visiting from Delhi. They wanted to have a look at the café,” said Ghosh, who has struggled through social barriers and taboo against the disease at all levels, including denial of treatment to children by state-run hospitals and refusals from school authorities on one ground or another when these children wanted to study.

“There is extremely encouraging response from the neighbourhood. There are indications that the outlet is helping to break taboos,” said Indrajyoti Dasgupta, who rented out his garage to Ghosh who had by then spent six months looking for a place to launch the experiment in Kolkata.

The project began as a means to offer financial independence to the kids as they grew up in Anandaghar in South 24 Parganas district.

All the inmates of this shelter home were abandoned by their families when they were declared HIV+ during childhood.

Apart from the 75 inmates of Anandaghar, Ghosh’s organisation has an outreach programme involving 350 kids and teenagers in the districts of Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.

In these locations he can help launch similar projects with these people, whom he can help train.

Before the launch in Jodhpur Park, Ghosh’s friends donated almost everything used in the café – a fridge, a coffee machine, a microwave oven and even furniture.

A self help group has been created with the 10 HIV+ youths who work here. The outlet has a captain who is paid Rs 10,500 a month. The rest gets a monthly stipend of Rs 6,000.

“As profits start flowing in, their remuneration can rise,” said Ghosh.

First Published: Aug 18, 2018 20:57 IST