A café in the City of Joy provides the LGBTQ community and allies a colourful social space.
Alternative sexualities and identities beyond gender binaries find themselves at a difficult situation in India. With ambiguous laws and a social fabric that is largely non-accepting of queer people, India can be a hostile place for those belonging to the LGBTQ community. However, there are also people from within the communities and allies who provide safe, non-judgemental spaces of expression. Kolkata, the eastern Indian city, is home to a café that serves such a purpose.
Amra Odbhut, which literally translates to We are Queer, is located in the Jadavpur area of the City of Joy. The name changed from Adamant Eve to Amra Odbhut, which is also a phrase in the Bengali song, ‘Amra Nuton Jouboneri Dut’ by Rabindranath Tagore. “We chose this name for many reasons; first of all to reclaim ‘odbhuth‘. Secondly, once we wanted a more accessible space in the Kolkata context, we figured that a Bengali name, one that reminds everyone of the famous song by the same name which speaks of being odbhuth and vibrant for a new movement, was quite apt,” stated a member of the collective that runs the space.
Started by a bunch of friends, this is a space that opens up on events and special occasions as of now. The member of the Amra Odbhut collective stated, “Around early 2016, we were having some meets to discuss LGBTQ issues and potlucks in friends’ homes to bring the community together to perform and celebrate identities. We started approaching cafes for performance spaces once a month, but, they wanted us to run the content by them since they had ‘high standards’. We did not want content to be hierarchised or censored based on standards of acceptability.” The café idea was then born, and with the initial mode of operation as a pop up, December last year saw the idea come to fruition.
The menu of the café shifts with events. However, the member informed, “The basil ham cheese grilled sandwich, bacon salad and mandarin mojito (non-alcoholic) are frequent. We also serve desserts like strawberry chocolate muffins, chocolate ganache cake and lemon yogurt cake. Apart from this, you have the usual options for coffee. Recently, we also had a Bengali New Year themed event, where we served a platter with the city favourites; paturi (dishes cooked in leaves), mochar ghonto (banana flower), aam pora shorbot (raw mango shake), kasha mangsho (meat preparation) etc.”
A safe space for the queer
The café’s vision and intent is clear. It is to serve as a “space for LGBTQ artists to work and showcase their art, a place for performers and anyone who wished to drop in and work in a safe space”. As for challenges, the member said, “The main issue is that the upkeep is expensive and we have bigger plans with the space that we aren’t yet able to fulfil on a student’s/part time salary. So, the financial hurdle is possibly our biggest issue at this moment.”
The café has so far stayed out of danger. They recently hosted a poetry evening with gender non-conforming writer, entertainer and performance artist, Alok Vaid Menon. “It helps that so far we have only had community and friends visit the cafe. So, no issues in the neighbourhood yet,” states the member, optimistically adding, “If we face problems in the future, we will find a way to tackle it and move forward.”