Atma had lived a life full of incredible hardships. One day, because of unbearable suffering, she reached a point where she felt that life wasn’t worth living anymore. She decided to self-immolate. Fortunately, she survived; but Atma was left covered with burns that would mark her face and body forever. While this could have become yet another chapter to an already miserable life, she decided she wanted to live. Today Atma earns a living making pasta as part of the kitchen staff at a quaint eatery called Writer’s Café in Chennai.
And she isn’t alone. The café, which was opened in December 2016, employs women who are also burn survivors. Not only are they an integral part of the kitchen but they’re also trained by professionals in the trade.
The café, which is the brainchild of M Mahadevan, a restaurateur, has tied up with Prevention International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) to give such women a second chance at life.
He came up with the idea of employing burn victims after visiting PCVC six months ago and meeting with many survivors.
According to Karan Nanavalan, Unit Head and the chef at the cafe, the idea is to empower these women. “We want to give them a new lease in life. Because of the burns in their bodies, especially their faces, they sometimes find it difficult to find new jobs. Here we not only employ them but they also learn how to bake and cook. They hold various positions…one of them is a pizza expert, one of them is a head confectioner… and this is the pilot batch.”
Currently, there are seven women who are part of the first batch. Any burn survivor who is selected to work for Writer’s Café has to undergo a three-month training process.
“We have another CSR project called Winner’s Bakery. They start there. Once the training is done, they are permanently absorbed here until they wish to leave,” he adds.
Karan is quick to note that because of the training provided, skill in the kitchen is actually not a requirement when these women are employed. They just have to be willing. The training though doesn’t just end with those initial three months. Since the menu is inspired by cuisine from Switzerland, the eatery had an expert flown down from the region just to train the women in the specific skills required for making authentic dishes.
A typical day in Writer’s Café starts at 9 in the morning and ends by 10.30 at night. In the interim, the café sees about 100 customers throughout. One of the women, Manjula, who is a 42-year-old survivor, positively radiates with enthusiasm talking about her new schedule.
“It feels super to be working here. All of us have forgotten our past problems and are moving on. We feel like we can do anything. We now have that confidence we didn’t before. We have been given so much freedom,” she gushes.
Manjula doesn’t wish to talk about the past but alludes that she had faced abuse and problems at her married home and with her husband. But, it is in the past and should stay there, she sternly notes. “We make noodles and puffs and soup. It is a lot of fun for us. They have taken a chance on us and have given us this shot, none of us are in the mood to leave this job ever,” she notes.
Karan beams with pride when he points out that even though the cafe has only been functioning for a month, it already has regulars. “The response that we have seen from people is phenomenal. In fact, we have people who have already visited more than eight or nine times, which is really heartening.”
This venture is completely not-for-profit and the proceeds from the cafe go towards the rehabilitation of other burn victims. Karan also adds that this is just the beginning when it comes to the chain’s commitment to these women. “We have four more women being trained right now to join. We will be hiring women to not only be part of the kitchen but also part of the service team.” Future plans for similar cafés that will employ tenacious survivors, are underway.
For women like Atma and Manjula, this could be their slice of delectable heaven.
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