Here’s something different you can do on your next visit to Agra, eat at a café that isunlikeany other in more ways than one, says Vidya Deshpande
It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place on Agra’s busy Fatehabad Road. The dusty courtyard and blue hoarding outside are hardly any justice to what you’ll experience inside. The small café can barely seat 20 covers, but there are many interesting things about this café: they have free wi-fi, a place where you can sit for long without being disturbed, a menu card that has no prices and something unique: it is run by acid attack survivors, and interestingly it’s called Sheroes Hangout, as a tribute to these women.
As I walk in through the small courtyard a distinctive painting on the wall caught my attention: to me, it looked like a woman emerging out of a chrysalis, symbolic of the concept of the café. Move inside, and there are more such brightly painted murals on the wall, giving the café a very colourful feel.
Forty seven year old Geeta came up to me with a menu. The menu is not very fancy. It has a simple yet small mix of Indian, Chinese and some Continental food, but only vegetarian. I noticed that there are no prices on the menu and thus struck up a conversation with Geeta.
Geeta can never forget the night of horror, when her husband poured acid over her and her three daughters, all sleeping in a huddle in their one room shanty. “It must have been around 2 am, when I felt a burning sensation on my face. At first, I thought that the rain was falling in through the roof, but then I started to feel the burning sensation as did my toddlers and we began screaming for help. But my husband and in-laws did nothing to help us,” she recalls. The acid attack has left her face and body deeply scarred. Of her three children, the youngest one died within a few days of the attack, the oldest managed to escape largely unscarred while the middle one, Neetu, was left with 75 per cent burns.
Acid attack survivors who work at the cafe: Neetu is second from left and Geeta is fourth from left
For years, together they struggled between hospital visits and juggling jobs, as few would offer them employment. Ironically, Geeta continued living with her husband after his plea not to file a case against her. For almost two decades, she and her daughter lived in abject penury, till she met a journalist-turned-activist, Alok Dixit.
Paiting on wall outside cafe
Dixit set up a non-profit, Stop Acid Attacks, in March 2013 to rally support for acid attack survivors. “I saw the kind of support rape victims got after the Nirbhaya case in 2012 and decided to do something for these women,” he says. The idea of a café was born after he met Geeta and Neetu and was moved by their plight. He used crowd funding to start the café in December 2104, which now provides a livelihood to eight acid attack survivors. A group of hotel management graduates, from IRCTC, has volunteered to help them with streamlining the food and service.
The café has now become popular with tourists as well as locals. Although the food is simple and there are no prices, no one leaves the café without paying a generous amount as donation. The popularity can be judged by the fact that the organization has now opened similar cafes in Udaipur and Lucknow, last month and will be soon opening a beauty parlour in Delhi. The day I visited the café with 13 American tourists for lunch, Sheroes raised INR 38,000 from the group. And the American tourists left with the promise of crowd-funding another café for these brave women.
Sheroes will leave you moved. You will not leave there without moist eyes and making a generous donation to help these brave women who are struggling for job opportunities.