It’s hard to emphasise the other-worldliness of stepping from North Kolkata’s Central Avenue into The Cup café.
Outside, there is such an astonishing and brash display of inner-city life and inside, the complete opposite.
Outside, pimps jostle for customers, staff from the neighbouring car battery shop stand around open bonnets, women shuffle around the edges, cars slow to a crawl and transactions are made.
There are dogs, crows, public urinals, white-clad police on motorbikes, an ice cream vendor, a row of yellow taxis, and a man brushing his teeth. There is noise. So much noise. And the heat of an arid urban landscape in the searing summer sun.
Inside the cafe, the lighting is just right, the walls are decorated with intricate artworks, the air smells like perfume and sweet tea.
Inside, happy music tinkles from the speakers, the counter-top sparkles, and the clientele are relaxing on the custom-made furniture.
Oh, and there’s air conditioning.
A year ago the Cup opened its doors for the first time, and there was a company-wide celebration. The guests marveled at the transformation of a former storage room into a slick, chic café.
But this special café is not for Freeset employees. This is a space reserved for women, and the majority of the guests are red-light workers from the maze of Sonagachi lanes that lead to the front door.
The Cup opens its doors from 11.00am to 6:30pm, Monday through Saturday, and hosts around 50 individual visitors a day. Friday is the most popular day, and there are frequent requests to extend the opening hours.
There is a core group of visitors, but increasingly there are new faces, who are being welcomed by the regulars.
The menu is small but perfectly pitched to keep the customers happy. There are sandwiches, vegetable pakora, omelette, cake, hot and cold drinks. Women are also free to bring their own lunch, which they do to enjoy the companionship and pleasant environment.
There’s a hope to add a Bengali style lunch to the menu in the future.
A generous group of donors fundraised for a ceiling-mounted movie projector, so the café can be transformed in a little theatre. Showing movies is a great way to engage with children and an increasing number of young people are enjoying the café space.
The Cup is a place to eat and relax, but it’s intentionally much more than that. There are regular activities such as nail art, pedicures, paper craft, jewellery making and ceramic decorating. In April, The Cup clientele helped to prepare 600 paper flowers that were given out in their neighbourhood during the Easter programme.
Women from the Sonagachi community see the space as their own, and have offered their own ideas about what the space could achieve.
As a result, there are now six women taking English language classes, in which they have been learning the alphabet and how to write their names.
The Cup manager is a compassionate and approachable local woman, who is able to speak with visitors in their heart language and hear their stories. She is increasingly making visits into the community to make connections with new women and to gain a greater insight into the red light realities.
As relationships, trust and understanding deepen, the Cup team are able to make meaningful interventions to bring about lasting change. Women have been able to access legal advice, decent healthcare and assistance to repatriate to Nepal or Bangladesh, away from the controlling eyes and ears of the brothel.
The Cup provides a temporary relief from the stressful, precarious and often dangerous reality of life in a red-light area.
It is a place of beauty and peace, where women feel pampered and loved and worthy.
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