TUCKED AWAY in a quiet corner at Royapettah in Chennai’s north is Writers’ Cafe, where every face that serves you has a story to tell. For, the seven women who work here are burn victims who had once wanted to end their lives. An offshoot of Hot Breads and Oriental Cuisines’ Copper Chimney chains, the cafe offers space for visitors to read, write, browse and eat, or hold meetings and book-reading sessions. But what makes the difference here is its staff.
One of them is Priyadarshini, 20. “I failed to fulfil my handicapped mother’s dreams in school. She sent me to a relative’s house where I slipped into depression. One day, I asked my mother to take me home, and she angrily replied that I would have to stay there or die. I decided to kill myself. First, I tried slashing my wrists, then I tried to hang myself. Finally, I poured kerosene over my body in the kitchen and lit a matchstick. Luckily, I fell into a small water container nearby that saved my face from being burnt,” she says.
The cafe is the brainchild of M Mahadevan, chairman of Oriental Cuisines, who selected the staff from the burns ward of Kilpauk Medical College in association with Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), an organisation that works among victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Karan Manavalan, 30, the chef and manager, says four more burn victims are currently undergoing job training. “We were trained by Chef Silke Stadler from Switzerland who flew down to train us in Swiss dishes. She spent a month with us. And our prices are so affordable that we have items that cost just Rs 25,” says Manavalan, speaking on behalf of Mahadevan who is currently on tour abroad.
Apart from the cafe, Mahadevan is also behind a number of similar initiatives in the city that are part of the company’s CSR initiative, including Winners’ Bakery for slum children and Freedom Bread for inmates from the Puzhal central prison.
“After joining Writers’ Cafe, we realised that there is a space for everyone in this world. This cafe was started for us and the profits are being reinvested here itself,” says Priyadarshini.