The Writer’s Cafe, located in Gopalapuram, Chennai, has bright, sunny interiors. Its large glass windows allow dappled sunlight to fall on the wooden tables enabling the inquisitive customer to peek into its kitchen. The menu covers a range of Swiss-inspired pizzas and pastas, and is easy on both the tummy and the wallet. The sunlit, airy feel of the space is reflected in the attitudes of the people who run it, a majority of whom are women burn survivors.
Started by M Mahadevan, the proprietor of huge restaurant chains like Hot Breads and French Loaf, the Writer’s Cafe employs seven women burn survivors in its kitchens, and donates 100% of the proceeds to the The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) – an NGO that works toward the rehabilitation of women burn survivors. More women are currently being trained to join the Writer’s Cafe and its future endeavours. Plans are in the offing for a second outlet in Adyar, Chennai and a third in Church Street, Bangalore. The association with PCVC began when Mahadevan decided that merely donating money every month wasn’t a sustainable solution. So he set up the Writer’s Cafe with the express goal of rehabilitation of women burn survivors.
- I managed to talk to three of the women – Puneetavalli (29), Maria (22) and Manjula (43), who worked in the confectionary, bakery and the hot kitchen respectively. They were kind enough to sit down with me for a brief chat, where I spoke to them about their experience of working at the Writer’s Cafe.
“After the injury, we thought our lives would be over“, said Maria. “They do not give jobs to people like us.” Puneetavalli described her desperate search for a job. She’d applied for positions as a housekeeper and at tailor shops. “They talk to us on the phone and are interested in hiring us. But as soon as they see us in person, they tell us that the position is no longer available.”
Women burn survivors often find their post-burn lives extremely hard, even after immediate danger to their lives has been thwarted. Reintegration into society and with family is tainted by stigma, and their entire existence is often reduced to their facial scars. In my previous article on the prevalence of domestic abuse hidden in the injuries of women burn survivors, another survivor had spoken about how she could not even continue her work as a flower seller at the market because she was told, “Who would buy flowers from such an ugly face?”
After a six-month training period at Winner’s Bakery and work at Zara‘s, the women joined Writer’s Cafe. Here, they say, no one treats them with disrespect. “We’ve got a new lease on life,” says Manjula, who is now able to care for her son who has learning disabilities despite being a single mother. Maria is proud of the self-reliance this job has provided her. She no longer has to ask anyone for anything, and is able to buy herself anything that she wants.
- “We have been encouraged us to see the place as our home,” they say, smiling. When I ask, in hushed tones, if they’ve faced any challenges working here, their vehement “NO!” almost makes me feel silly for asking the question. Here, they do not feel any of the stigma associated with their injury. The customers too, they report, are kind and sensitive, and often ask to take photographs with them, to which they happily acquiesce.
Some of them took time to warm up to the needs of a service-based job. They were uncomfortable with working directly in front of people. So, the management quickly came up with a solution where they introduced a glass partition between the kitchen & the cafe space, thereby giving employees room to gradually get comfortable with the work. Over time, many of them voluntarily started taking up the role of a server.
The three women I talked to spoke of the positive impact their employment was now creating in the burn survivors community. PCVC brings new survivors to visit the cafe and see these women who are employed and self-reliant. The employed women become a source of inspiration for other victims, who are often struggling with their mental health. “They see us and realise that they too can be like us, and there can be life after the injury,” says Maria.
- My experience in the Writer’s Cafe as a paying customer was great – the food was delicious and very affordably priced. I’d urge Chennaiites to check out the restaurant the next time they’re looking for a place to eat.