Arpan: Food For The Soul

Café Arpan, India

Madhurya Sai Amirapu on September 14, 2018 in Food & Shelter

A.E.I…O.U and sometimes Y. On the entrance of a quaint little café, nestled in Juhu, Mumbai, are the words Acceptance – Empowerment – Inclusion. This is exactly what we owe the differently-abled community. Why? Because it’s time society accepts them as its own, adapts to them and learns to benefit from their set of gifts.

Café Arpan is a recent addition to the area’s F&B scene and is already making great waves since its official inauguration in August, 2018. What sets this cozy café apart from the other increasingly innovative eateries is the social cause it caters to. Café Arpan is a one-of-a-kind employment opportunity for people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDDs). On sitting down there one will have the rare but fortunate chance to be cooked for and served by adults with Autism, Down’s Syndrome or other Developmental Disabilities.

It serves from its menu, a collection of fresh and inventive dishes such as their Airport Wala Special Sandwich, Videshi Vada Pav, Exotic Kachumber Salad and Lemon Iced Chai to name a few. Not only does the establishment exude quirkiness and comfort, but it serves as a remedy for the lack of job opportunity for these intellectually and developmentally challenged adults. Which in turn is the result of an acute lack of awareness regarding their conditions and capabilities.

Ashaita Mahajan speaks on behalf of Yash Charitable Trust, whose brainchild the café is. The trust’s vision is to significantly improve the overall quality of life of such individuals. The work involves their integration into society as citizens of dignity and significant independence. “What happens in most cases is, people with such disabilities are made to stay at home, are institutionalized or enrolled in workshops. Here at YCT, we believe in a different model. We encourage a more inclusive approach and thus facilitate them to work as responsible adults in an appropriate environment. All our beneficiaries work with us.” The café is the snowball effect of the Trust’s Arpan Dabba Service, which owing to the success it met with, demanded the expansion, restructuring and diversification of their services. They truly believe that life has more in store for adults with IDDs than what is currently presumed.

The driving force behind this socially driven café is Sushama Nagarkar, a clinical psychologist with a PhD in Special Education. And much of the inspiration behind the force comes from her daughter and Ashaita’s favorite most person in the world, Aarti Nagarkar, who is autistic.  Ashaita’s voice is all awe when asked about Aarti, “Words can do no justice to what I truly feel for her. She has the most amazing personality. One of the things that endears her to me is her fine-tuned perception. When you look at someone like her, you would be quick to think that she doesn’t understand other people’s emotions and such. But let me tell you, that she is the only one who knows when I’m feeling blue even when I’ve done nothing to communicate my irritation or sadness. That’s when she is extra caring with me and she knows to make those small gestures, the ones that count, such as holding my hand, summoning up our inside jokes or giving me a sudden hug, regardless of what mood she is in.”, she says, trying to explain the love. “We also share a special bond over music and incidentally it is Aarti who loves taking to the stage and me who has stage-fright.” Aarti is also a trained Hindustani classical singer, pianist (among other instruments) and is currently learning opera. Which is safe to say more than we can say about most of our friends.

As to the adaptation process in the cafe, as one would be wondering, Ashaita says, “The workers are involved every step of the way, right from the buying of groceries, prepping of the ingredients, cooking food, making drinks to serving of the dishes. Yes, there is a good deal of hand-holding involved. But they become familiar and sooner or later most of the work becomes second nature to them.” They are also made sure to receive the required training be it hygiene or customer care while being accomodative to their special needs. It involves working to their strengths rather than pointing out their weaknesses.   She explains, “It is about believing in them. Many a time there is no inability but instead deep-seated trepidation and it becomes our job to support them as required.” She provides an example, “We have an employee Sudha, who was scared to take two steps alone and now walks back and forth in the café serving customers.”

A business model such as Café Arpan requires a number of specific sensitizations and systems in place in order for it to flourish, which the team is well equipped with. There is continuous innovation and improvisation that goes on behind the curtains. No two team members are the same and it takes a dynamic approach to their needs and the café’s needs to maintain a sustainable environment. They have to know what to allow and what not to allow, what to emphasize and what to let go of; such as when it comes to their behavior -one employee insisted on saying Arpan café instead of the other way round. Also the staff automatically greet people coming in with a handshake even when their training taught them otherwise, then Ashaita and the others realised that some natural instincts need not be curbed. The process is extensive and laced with necessary forbearance but is also exponentially rewarding.

Ashaita says it takes the help of many enterprising volunteers to guide such an establishment towards success and is grateful to the various people who’ve contributed with their time, resources, expertise and money.

Café Arpan provides its customers with a wonderful experience. Along with its appetizing food, it serves a need-of-the-hour awareness. Ashaita says about the eye opening, “Customers often want to pop up in the back and see who is doing the cooking. They end up seeing people there, who they would’ve previously deemed unfit for such work.” It is then their surprise that garnishes the dish. Many end up connecting with the staff so well that they become hungry regulars at the place.

The team members have found in Team Arpan a true safe haven. It is a place of nurture that allows them to be themselves, while prospering with self-respect, and that is the fulcrum upon which the balance is maintained. They end up exceeding expectations at work all the while enjoying the opportunity to work as well as the work itself. “We have a young male employee who comes in early to turn on the lights and turn the sign, and he loves to stay till we close the shutter. Another team member started crying because she couldn’t come to work in for a week.”

The team members greet their customers from the heart and often end up receiving handshakes and hugs. Aarti often breaks into a song on the request of a customer, when in the mood. “We want our customers to leave their misconceptions at the door and treat the staff as adults. We’d like them to return for our food, service and the unique ambience, but not out of pity.”, explains Ashaita.

The atmosphere is one of tasty tolerance and lip-smacking love. They bring with them a refreshingly genuine air. They haven’t undergone years of societal conditioning, which leaves them sincere and filter-free in their approach to everything. Ashaita says they too refrain from screening their true personalities. And this, along with the food and drink, is what the customers relish.

Differently abled doesn’t mean they aren’t abled, but that they require a different approach as to their education, training, and overall care. In other words, individuals with such disabilities are capable of becoming equally abled, it is the journey which takes a distinct course. Awareness, fortitude and immense compassion on our part go a long way in helping them realise their true potentials.

Ultimately it is our differences that make us special and our ability to function in harmony even more so. It’s our duty to be more accommodating even in mainstream society. And this is the message the inspiring team at Café Arpan and the other Yash Charitable Trust initiatives (see Tarang) are spreading. We wish them the greatest success with some fries on the side.

To read more about the inspirational work they are doing, visit Café Arpan today!

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