Beyond face value

In the city of Taj Mahal, Sheroes’ Hangout is another wonder to admire

swati

Swati Chandra | February 25, 2016 | Agra


#Acid Attack   #Laxmi   #Taj Mahal   #Agra   #Sheroes Hangout  


On Fatehabad road in Agra, close to the Taj Mahal, a single-storey building looks like any other, nondescript house except for its familiar name – Sheroes’ Hangout Café – which is painted on a huge board and hung from the top floor. On a Sunday morning, as I enter the place from a small gate, a large number of guests – mostly foreigners – are already sitting around neatly laid tables and waiting for their orders to be delivered.

Ritu rushes to the front desk of the café; greets her colleagues and apologises for being late. Soon, she moves to the guests and greets them. Many guests are seated in the small lawn of the café and soaking the elusive winter morning sun.

She moves to her desk placed in a corner of the lawn and looks a little annoyed. One of her colleagues is telling her about the possibility of fund crunch for an upcoming event. It seems that one of the event sponsors has started haggling with them about money for their upcoming annual calendar.

Ritu is listening on intently; and from her expression I can make out that her mind is calculating – probably money. Suddenly a bright smile appears on her face and she gives a reassuring pat to her friend to signal that things would fall in place. Both quickly get back to attending the guests, who seem to be coming in hordes even on a lazy Sunday morning.

READ | Acid is in our hearts: Laxmi on easily availabile acids despite court ban

Ritu suddenly notices a new face, comes towards me and gives me a warm hug. She requests me to wait for two minutes before I can place my order and speak with her. She sets her desk in order – places visitors’ book, pen stand, telephone and the billing register at their fixed spots to give it a neat look.

Dressed in a black blazer and green trousers, Ritu speaks softly; very much like a professional manager. She invites me upstairs to the café’s kitchen and pantry. She takes stock of the day’s menu and gives directions to the cook for making coffee for us.

On the gas stove is a pot with some boiling liquid. Ritu looks at it – milk is boiling furiously. It suddenly rises splitting the thick crust of top fatty layer releasing plumes of steam. Ritu slowly moves back to avoid the heat. That was the only time, in the four hours that I spent there, when her face looked grim. Maybe the steam and heat reminded her of past trauma and pain.

Till three years ago, Ritu was a cheerful girl living with her family in Rohtak town of Haryana. She was 17, when, on a fateful day, goons hired by her aunt threw acid on her face in a busy market place and left her writhing in pain.

The concentrated acid burnt the skin and flesh of her face and left one eye permanently damaged. “They [her aunt and her sons] had tried to settle scores with my father by disfiguring my face,” she tells me with a deadpan expression as we drink coffee on a table laid in the veranda.

After multiple surgeries and prolonged treatment, Ritu, along with other women who have gone through the same pain, now manages Sheroes’ Hangout café, which was the idea of Chhanv Foundation, an NGO that works for the rights and empowerment of acid-attack victims.

Meanwhile, guests, mostly foreigners, keep coming in. Some prefer to sit in the lawn and others choose indoor ambience – bookshelves and handicrafts displayed tastefully all around giving the place a warm touch. Ritu ties her long and silky hair in a bun as she talks about her dream of becoming a volleyball player since she was 12.

“In Haryana, girls are way too ahead in sports. But only god knows when the state will learn to respect them,” she says. “When the attackers threw acid on me, I was walking on a busy road to reach the playground. I was going to play volleyball in a packed stadium.” She first felt a burning sensation which was followed by immense pain that made her cry for help.

People had gathered on seeing a girl being attacked with acid but nobody came to help She felt acid entering her left eye but kept her right eye tightly closed to prevent damage.

“I soon realised that nobody was coming forward to help me, though, I could sense, a lot of people had gathered around. At first, I didn’t realise what had happened, then I touched my face and felt my skin melting,” she says. Fortunately, her elder brother was passing by and took her to hospital. The attack left 90 percent of her face disfigured with no vision in one eye. Her dream of becoming a volleyball player was now over. However, the attacker was to soon realise that he had failed to dent young Ritu’s spirit. She was going to overcome the pain of several reconstruction surgeries and of loss of her facial identity, and fight on.

Ritu first got in touch with Laxmi, who had emerged as a voice of acid-attack survivors, and was working with Chhanv Foundation for their rehabilitation.

The foundation set up the café in Agra which Ritu and six other acid attack survivors have been running for a year. The café is popular both among tourists and the locals. Ritu has picked up managerial skills on the job and is now keen to acquire fluency in English and learn some foreign languages too.

Ritu and her team have played host to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and his MP wife Dimple on many occasions. They are planning to set up another café in the industrial city of Kanpur.

As we are talking, Nitu excitedly comes running to us. “Rehearsal kab karenge (When are we going for rehearsals),” she asks. Ritu gives her typical reassuring smile. She explains to me about the ramp walk event, which is scheduled in the evening.

“We have got used to participating in fashion shows and ramp walks. This time, a Mumbai-based designer wants us to walk along with LGBT people. It seems the mindset is really changing,” she says.

Next, Ritu introduces me to Nitu and her mother Geeta as she takes a break from our interaction to take stock of the mineral water bottles.
The Geeta-Nitu story is another spine-chilling tale of human depravity. Now 24, Nitu doesn’t remember her real face, as it was disfigured by her father when she was only three. He had thrown acid on his wife Geeta, Nitu and her two-year-old sister, who died of burns.

Nitu grew up with a disfigured face. “I made friends in the neighbourhood as I never went to school. They would ask me to cover my face whenever I was with them playing or in the market place. I firmly told them to accept me with my face or leave me alone,” says Nitu, who is known as the most talkative of all at the café.

Nitu can see only blurry images of the world around as her eyes were damaged in the attack. But she is good at attending to café visitors. As we go indoors, Geeta joins us on the table.

She is the chef at the café and speaks only a regional version of Hindi. However, language is no barrier for her to greet and mingle with guests. The duo show me handicraft items and dresses, designed by their colleague Rupa, which are sold at the café. Earlier, they used to work as domestic helps and did odd jobs for a living. However, a year of working at the café has made them strong and financially independent.

Inside, the café looks like a reader’s den and an art lover’s paradise. One can read books while eating food. “Most of the guests come here after visiting the Taj, while some of them come here first for the breakfast, spend time with us and go to visit the town. Our café has become an important part of a traveller’s itinerary,” says Nitu pointing to some nine guests inside.

As we sit at a table near the book gallery, Nitu informs me that she can sing well. In fact, she has already sung with well-known singers like Sona Mohaptra. “I am giving a five-minute appearance in the upcoming film Akira starring Sonakshi Sinha,” she tells.

Besides books, one is also inspired by the real-life stories of these gutsy women as depicted through their pictures in trendy dresses, clicked during fashion modelling assignments, and a memento from Ritu’s famous TED talk displayed on the walls.
At the café, one is face-to-face with the power of human spirit. The Sheroes’ Hangout Café protagonists are living inspirations to the world on how to overcome difficulties and pain. Today Ritu, Rupa, Laxmi, Nitu, Geeta and others are confident professionals, helping fellow survivors to become symbols of courage.

The gleam in the eyes of these women and their smiling faces make their scars too trivial to be taken note of.
I have finished my meal and conversation and ask for the bill. Then I am told the café runs with the pay-as-per-your-wish rule. In return, I got a receipt with a thank-you smiley drawn on it.

The new model of business is successful as the café is making profit in the first year of its existence – a dream for many startups.
I hold the thank-you receipt in my hand as Ritu smiles and invites me to visit them again. I leave the place with a feeling that the place evokes more love than the Taj Mahal.

swati@governancenow.com

(The article appears in the February 16-29, 2016 issue)

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