Inside The Indian Cafe Helping Acid Attack Survivors

By Dipsikha Thakur

Agra is one of those towns that almost everyone knows about, even if they don’t know its name. They almost certainly know about its most famous piece of architecture: the Taj Mahal. From travel guides to casinos in Atlantic City, its familiar silhouette is ubiquitous.

That towering, almost surreal mausoleum was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his queen Mumtaz Mahal before his son took over and had him imprisoned. The story goes that Shah Jahan was building a mirroring mausoleum for himself in black marble. Thankfully (for the coffers) and sadly (for all art historians and travelers ever), that one never got made. If you stare out of the terrace of Taj Mahal, you can see red sandstone stumps and a conspicuously empty plot on the opposite bank of Yamuna. That’s all you can find of it.

But when the brochures talk about the Taj Mahal celebrating “enduring love,” they carefully hide the fact that Agra has also long been a witness to the way human relationships, both romantic and familial, can be disrupted. Under patriarchy, that disruption is often violent.

Today, Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Agra is located, has one of the worst crime rates in India. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau listed the state among those where crimes against women were most frequent. And one of the most potent and lasting acts of violence committed in Uttar Pradesh is the practice of throwing acid at the face of a woman — usually one who has left a relationship, rejected a partner, or refused a marriage. Because of the lasting internal and external damage that acid can cause, recovery often becomes a question of financial resources and fortune in compassionate friends and family. Most survivors feel deeply embarrassed and become reclusive. Jobs become even harder to get, while reconstructive surgeries remain expensive and unavailable outside cities. The logic of the crime is crude as it is remorseless: “Since you cannot be mine, I will disfigure you so that no one ever finds you attractive again.”

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Sheroes Hangout Cafe, located in one of the shack-houses on Agra’s Fatehabad Road, was founded to draw attention to acid attack survivors and help them build fulfilling lives. The cafe is founded and supervised by survivors, although its recruitment of staff is not limited to survivors alone. What it manages to create is a space that is completely at ease with the representation of life after attack and informative to those who want to help. When you enter the cafe’s quiet little space, it is hard to feel the bleakness of the situation. Beads jingle softly against the glass windows and one whole wall is covered in books. Opposite the windows hang a selection of colorful clothes, while the remaining space is adorned with artwork; impassive female faces gaze calmly at the customers.

The cafe, which opened in December 2014, gives off a vibe of relaxed, quiet contentment — and not just contentment in the narrowly capitalist sense of the consumer feeling taken care of. When we went, my partner and I did feel looked after, but that’s not the point. The point is that the staff themselves were not stressed — their main aim is not to serve you as quickly as possible. There is only one waiter, Vivek, who is also their accountant. He is gracious, but it is clear that he is not there to provide a “service.” It’s more an exchange of kindness — but one that doesn’t stop them from whipping up a bowl of pan-fried noodles to die for.

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Sheroes Hangout Cafe is owned by the Chhanv Foundation, which operates from Delhi. Formed in 2013, Chhanv began as a call to stop acid attacks, and has now evolved into a forum and support group for survivors. The cafe is another successful attempt on their part to create a space where survivors can both create economic agency for themselves and reach out to more people. On our second visit I met Ritu, the activist who supervises the cafe on behalf of Chhanv, and who is an acid attack survivor herself. Here is the translated excerpt of a short interview with her.

Dipsikha: What kind of traffic do you get?

Ritu: People see our page on Facebook, while others hear about it from those who visited. Then there are those who follow our website. It’s a slow but steady trickle.

Dipsikha: Is it profitable?

Ritu: It wasn’t at first. The first eight months were a really bad struggle. But it has picked up since — the last five months have seen a lot of people come in.

Dipsikha: Tell me a little bit about the clothes that are on sale here.

Ritu: Rupa, our friend and another survivor who works with Chhanv, designs clothes. So we decided to stock some of her creations out here. Others have donated books for the library and look after the furniture and so on. Although I am the one who formally supervises it, the fact of the matter is, everyone at Chhanv looks after this cafe of ours. All of us at Chhanv Foundation own it together.

Dipsikha: Your menu has no prices. It’s pay-as-you-like, right? How does that work?

Ritu: This cafe was formed so people could be made aware of the fact that acid attack survivors can be okay and in charge of their own lives. More than profit, we want to create awareness. Our society treats the survivors as people who must be made invisible — we wanted to show them that it could be another way. The financial considerations came after that.

Dipsikha: Have people ever tried to exploit that?

Ritu: Maybe around two percent of our visitors leave without offering anything.

Dipsikha: Why Agra? Is it because of the Taj Mahal?

Ritu: No. It’s because there are so many survivors here. Women get attacked in Uttar Pradesh more frequently and viciously than most other places in India.

Dipsikha: Tell me about the name Sheroes.

Ritu: For some strange reason people keep insisting that only the men are heroes. Why not women too? So, we decided to tweak the word “heroes” a little.

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After I interviewed Ritu, I sat down and spent the next couple of hours there. That’s another thing about Sheroes — they never ask anyone to leave. People come in and hang out for as long as they want to, and they can do it for free. In a tourist hub like Agra, where every single thing from a bottle of water to a taxi ride becomes a matter of frantic overpricing and haggling, it is impossible to explain what a strange and soothing contrast this is.

It’s amazing what one space like this can do to a town. Sheroes made me feel so much safer and cared for as an Indian woman travelling in Agra: The harassment, leering, and entitlement is so pervasive in the city that it is almost easy not to notice it after a point. That only serves to highlight the difference this place has made — not just to the survivors who are now empowered agents of their own income, visibility, and space, but also other women — all of us, in fact — who are conditioned to apologize for occupying the places we do and for looking the way we are.

Sheroes opened a branch in Lucknow, another city in Uttar Pradesh, on March 8 — International Women’s Day. If you are in either of the two towns, please go and hang out with the Sheroes. But if you can’t make it to Uttar Pradesh, you can contribute from afar — and you can experience a small measure of the calm I felt in Sheroes, just knowing that someone’s out there helping those who need it most. Sheroes Cafe isn’t just kickass people in a beautiful space. It’s also battling the myth of the “unseeable,” “inappropriate” body that pervades our cultures at so many levels when it comes to women. That’s worth drinking to.

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All photos by Andrew R. Taylor, used with permission

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