In eastern India, coffee shop breaks HIV stigmas

In eastern India, coffee shop breaks HIV stigmas

NEW DELHI: When he founded Cafe Positive in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, Kallol Ghosh had one goal in mind: To give those he employed a sense of purpose and improve their standing in life.

Ghosh’s cafe is run exclusively by young people living with HIV. “For me, Cafe Positive is not a restaurant but a movement,” he told Arab News.

“HIV positive people suffer from lots of prejudices on the part of the society and people like us find it difficult to adjust with them, and the idea of cafe is an attempt to give these people a sense of purpose and acceptability in the society.”

He opened the cafe in 2018, inspired by a trip to Frankfurt, Germany, where he visited a restaurant run and staffed by people with HIV. While Cafe Positive remained mostly closed during COVID-19 lockdowns, now it is back on track, and Ghosh, a 56-year-old activist who also runs a shelter for HIV-infected children, is planning to expand the business.

“They need employment, and the cafe is an attempt to give them standing in life,” he said. “I plan to open 30 more cafes across India to create larger awareness about HIV positive people.”

The Indian Ministry of Health estimates that more than 2.3 million people in the country are living with the virus, which attacks the body’s immune system. More than 150,000 of them are minors. Most of them receive antiretroviral treatment, which is provided for free by the government.

The therapy decreases the total burden of HIV in affected people and maintains function of their immune systems. But the drugs may have side effects, especially in children, which Ghosh says increases the likelihood that they miss school days.

“It is important that after 18 years we provide them some skill development programs,” he added.

At his cafe, they get a chance to become independent.

One of his seven employees, Deb Burman — name changed as Indian law protects the privacy of HIV-positive persons — has been working at the cafe since it opened.

The 20-year-old earns more than $150 per month, which allows him to make a living in Kolkata, feel accepted and have hope that in the future he will settle down “as a normal human being.”

He said: “For me the cafe is a hope and I feel happy that I have been working here. The cafe runs fine and lots of people come here, and they enjoy coffee and burgers here. The customers know that we all are HIV-positive. This acceptability is important for us.”

As Ghosh plans to open more Cafe Positive outlets across India, his initiative is welcomed both as an inspiration and a means to community empowerment.

“This cafe in Kolkata should motivate entrepreneurs in other cities to create similar facilities,” said Jayana Kalita, author of “I am HIV Positive, So What?” — a book that narrates the story of Pradipkumar Singh, an HIV-positive Indian athlete who fought stigmas and became an international bodybuilding champion.

“While I believe that the society at large is now more aware of HIV per se and the hardship this community faces is less compared to the scene a decade back, a lot still needs to be done to make life easier for these people,” he added. “They don’t need sympathy but social acceptance.”

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