In a narrow byline of South Kolkata, minutes away from the activist hotbed of Jadavpur University, a decrepit house is slowly waking up from deep slumber. It looks like the many hundreds of houses in the city that have been left to gather dust and daydreams. But this one is different.
Up the stairs, past walls damp with fresh whitewash and bedecked with fairy lights and miniature sketches, two young women are giving shape to a dream – a space where members of the LGBT community can meet, exchange ideas, without being judged, persecuted , pressured, or intimidated by authority. A place where “queer and trans voices get together, laugh, perform and celebrate identities”.
Amra Odbhuth, as the café-collective is called, takes its name from a well-loved Rabindra Sangeet that celebrates the energy and uniqueness of brave new generation. “We wanted a Bengali name because it is important for us to reach out to people who may not be comfortable in English but still want to engage with the community and contribute to the conversations,” said Nandini Moitra, an activist who along with her partner Upasana Agarwal, a student of Jadavpur University, has set up the cafe-collective.
It is not a restaurant, or an extension of your average college canteen, said Agarwal, “but a place where you can talk about queer and trans films, art, enjoy performances and readings”. “It is meant to be casual, and free from the NGO politics that brings its share of issues related to authority and agendas.”
Lack of understanding
Moitra, who studied in Bengaluru at Christ College for a bit, found Kolkata to be far more inclusive than she expected it to be. “College was not a great experience for me. Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai do have places where you can meet more of our kind. This city does not have any space like that. There are cruising spots, yes, and maybe a few places where you can get to meet some others from the LGBT community. But it is less class conscious than any other city. Bangalore is all gift-wrapped. The queer and trans scene here is quite democratic.” Which is why they felt the need to position the collective as more than just a physical space.
“The most active, mainstream members of the community in most cities belong to the English-speaking elite,” said Agarwal, who had also driven the Take Back The Night Movement in Kolkata. “We have had people here who say they would love to watch the many films on the subject or read the literature available in the vernacular. Also, people need to understand that homosexuality is not a Western import. It has been a part of our culture for a long time.”
Kolkata has often celebrated its queer and trans voices – some of the city’s finest filmmakers, artistes and actors have been vocal and visible members of the community. But it has shown lack of empathy and understanding as well. In 2015, the country’s first transgender principal, Manabi Bandopadhyay, took charge at a girl’s college in Krisna Nagar, 89 km away from Kolkata. More than a year later, she resigned, citing stiff resistance and non-cooperation from a section of the teachers and students. Her resignation was not accepted and she continues with her challenging task.
Moitra and Agarwal were part of an earlier initiative with the LGBT community that fizzled out after the founding members had a fallout. The duo, however, stayed with the idea, till they chanced upon the old house on Ibrahimpur Road in Jadavpur, that belonged to Moitra’s mother. The ground floor room is taken up by the caretaker’s family, and the first floor and the terrace are now a canvas for the couple who are also artists. For now, there are posters and prints on the walls, lots of fairy lights, mats, cushions and a giant screen for the film sessions. There are plans to convert the garage into a place for craft pop-ups and a wall of books and art. The idea is to create a self-sustaining model for the community and also stop the artists from being exploited.
The couple believes the queer narrative has been dominated for too long by middle-aged men – it is time to change the script. Which is why everything from the art to the cinema and even the conversations will need a fresh, young perspective. The youngest member of the collective is 17, the oldest 34.
On the opening night of Amra Odbhuth cafe last week, the couple and their friends were overwhelmed with the turnout. People travelled from far-flung outskirts. The house was buzzing with conversation and music. The food was a hit. “My mom was here helping us out,” said Agarwal, who along with Moitra churned out stuffed chicken breasts, vegetable au gratin, chocolate ganache cake, tarts and other goodies. The cafe is not open all week, and for now, the doors will open perhaps a few times a month, with invites travelling by word of mouth and on social media.
The young couple are gung-ho about the future of the collective and the idea that could travel, but are careful about not drawing too much attention to the physical space. It is a dense residential area where houses share more than just the walls. But so far, other than the usual Bengali idle curiosity about the people walking in and out, they have not encountered anything unpleasant. And they hope it remains that way.