A cafe of one’s own

আমরা অদ্ভুত /’amra odbhuth’/ ‘We are queer’. And there is now a café in Calcutta for those who know or imagine themselves to be odbhuth/queer: the Amra Odbhuth Café, in which people of various hues gather to talk about, and work on, dismantling identities and transforming them on the ground, at homes and offices, in the streets and markets, on buses and metros.  It is not easy, this breaking and making – and so is this café not a place of easy refuge or leisure, though it aspires, among other things, to build a shelter for the homeless and threatened queer, especially older trans people – with mattress, sheet, towel, food for each, but most of all a place to find a sense of security and belonging in – wrought from every drop of sweat shed and every rupee hoarded through personal- and crowd-funding.  So difficult is this space of coming together, in fact, that even on Café Special days, when the room is crowded and humming with bodies and voices singing, dancing, talking, eating and drinking, agitation and exasperation often mark interactions that teeter on the edge of explosions, both of love and of discomfiture.

The café nestles unobtrusively at a short walk from the 8B bus-stand in Jadavpur, Kolkata, in a somewhat-dilapidated, aged house that becomes, through occupation, as queer as queer can be. It does not (yet) open every day. It invites people in – of the queer community and some allies – to share laughter and tales of immense hardship, to perform and listen and sing and draw and sell their own art and design work. And to raise funds for astoundingly worthy projects like a shelter home for homeless, especially older, members of the transgender community in the state, who have nowhere to go when even their paltry earning days are done, and an emergency fund for queer/trans people who may fall sick or suffer accidents with no one able to bail them out financially.

The Amra Odbhut team, in fact, is particularly invested in trans people who are not ‘at home’ in Calcutta, in different senses of the term. The Café, set up – with not a little help from many friends in the larger queer community – by some members of a trans led organization Samabhabona working for LGBT lives and rights in West Bengal, operates in tandem with it but is also a separate entity.

In the Café’s ambience of intertwined joys and miseries, reflected in its scores of framed queer film posters, murals on room and stairway walls painted by in-house artists in bursts of talent and colour offset by warm muted fairy light strings, handloom cloth draped on windows and falling like sheets of a waterfall from a carved wrought iron lampshade hanging in an anteroom with a narrow divan that waits to sleep the first inmate of the dreamt-of shelter home soon.

The group that runs the place cook up a summer storm at the fund-raiser and sell exotic dishes – aam gondhoraj (mango-cape jasmine) fish fry with mint yogurt dip, reshmi kabab, chicken in a basil-green mango reduction with rice, gondhoraj mohito – seductive as culinary experiments always are. Unexpected sauces, spices and smells to go with an apparently-innocuous house in a regular, quiet, middle-class neighbourhood that has reconstituted its own boundaries to declare itself off-kilter, not a hearth that gathers around it just a brood of young and old related merely by blood.

Bursts of unpredictable colour in paint and posters, cushions and rugs, in two or three rooms with freshly whitewashed walls and a cozy verandah surrounded by trees make up an unusual, and rather disarming, café. Strings of fairy lights create havoc and magic as dusk descends.

As the Café Special fund-raiser commences amidst some confusion, beautiful laughing sorrowing people take shape and substance and voice and movement almost in a dream. Sandeepta’s willowy dancing body in a billowing cream skirt is almost unbearably beautiful in sinuous relief against a relentlessly red wall. Such unbearable-ness folds into itself both a lightness and heaviness of being, shifting and sliding from one state to another with every glide and swoop and dive of movement. The sigh that wafts through the room at Sandeepta’s final freeze carries, collectively, the pleasure of immersion in liquid beauty as well as sorrow at its temporality.

Grit-anger-sadness-joy-love-rage overflowing, unable to be contained within a mid-sized overcrowded room, oozing from under the doorframe and down the stairs onto the street along with the cat who stayed for a while among the music, dance and seething emotions, and then slunk away to lie on the hot sweating asphalt outside.

Suddenly, the teeming room explodes in talk. Tales of everyday perils of being queer in a city and among people who are mostly queerphobic. Anecdotes about growing up in families in denial, but a place that refuses to be a mere ‘refuge’ for the odd lonely queer wandering in, wants to shun elite polite conversations about ‘lgbt politics’ and get down to the business of living and working and performing and creating and selling and trading skills and products, and dreaming concrete dreams of housing

To create a home out of a café, in fact, rather than the dime-a-dozen cafés blossoming in residential homes in the city now, that is the Amra Odbhut dream – but an অদ্ভুত home, a home reverberating with queer love, pain, hunger and anger.

So much energy, passion, doubt, uncertainty, grit, investment of time and affection and thought in the room as evening falls. No fancy people, no smart British/American/European accents (except for the few foreigners who came and stayed…), some heartfelt, heartrending stories of growing up trans, some unwarranted interventions and righteous advice, a bit of anger and frustration, much humour, affection, flirtation, beauty, colour, light.

Pinky-di’s difficult tale of abuse and violence and penury while growing up trans. A moving intervention from Bappa-da, a long-time trans activist who now has serious health problems with no money and no one to turn to (whom the Café now provides a home for – ever since he fell ill a few days after the fundraiser gathering). Some aggressive questions and comments from a queer person who claims the proud privilege of parental support and dismisses ‘whining and complaining’ – to an outburst of disagreement and displeasure in the room, and an burst of animated argument, emotion, empathy.

Pinkydi

Even as the air settles like a blanket of heavy steam upon sweltering faces in pre-monsoon Calcutta, Amra Odbhut Café spins dreams of love and shelter, economic independence and political organizing, reaching beyond the city to towns and villages in Bengal, hoping to start queer community centres that are not NGOs, to attempt to mesh needs with rights. To begin to document trans cultural histories, through art and music and song, bringing them to the Café, preserving and perpetuating them. To create an emergency fund for queer people in distress, apart from providing shelter, a home, for the elder in the community. To build alongside a self-sustaining space where earnings can be generated from within. To organize for a trans labour union, and a trans sex workers union in Bengal. To start a children’s Café – working to build a young LGBT force through music, dance, film, working under a banner of hope for the future, ‘Amra Nuton Jouboner i dyut’/’We are the harbingers of a new Youth’.

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There is so much energy and so many plans, as yet contingent upon how much crowd-funding will yield for such dreams, with a wish to avoid entering fund-based politics. The passion is unmistakable, and infectious. Financial contributions are beginning to come in, though substantial piles will be needed to even start the dozens of projects milling in the heads of team members at Amra Odbhut. They can be reached at [email protected] to know how any one of us can make a dent and a difference to their plans.

For some, like me, it is a first visit to this very queer, very bold, very lovely, very fraught space – as queer, bold, lovely and fraught as the people who people it, both insiders and outsiders. One must keep returning, to listen, to talk, to participate in the quiet, tentative, tough, endangered and immensely grounded work that the Amra Odbhuth team are embarked upon; they may well be the harbingers of renewed hope for the queer – and particularly trans – community in Bengal who are most often invisibilized and alienated, ill-treated and abused. It is a wonder that the Café has brought so many of the community together already in laughter, raging, cooking, dance and song. It is this wonder that must sustain the unionizing for trans factory workers and sex workers; this wonder that will enable a room for trans elders to rest in – and perhaps another room for queer children to play in.

It is the wonder – compounded of love and struggle and a seething politics – of being queer differently in an everyday of normative indifference.

 

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Brinda Bose Written by:

Brinda Bose teaches English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is co-founder of MargHumanities

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