Shyama (name changed) serves us coffee with a sweet little smile, giving no hint of the hells she’s waded through to get to her current road to self-sufficiency. From a battered wife whose husband beat her over the head with a pestle and left her for dead, to a homeless person struggling with life conditions and mental illness, she’s seen some of the worst life can do. Today, though, she bakes and serves food at her workplace and has a place to stay, some money in hand, and a chance at making a life with dignity.

The coffee, I’m pleasantly surprised to see, is strong, excellent, and generously sized, not to mention far cheaper than the prices I’m used to in comparable cafés in Kolkata. We’re at Crust & Core, a café and bakery with a difference. I didn’t know what to expect, as I made my way to this café in a by-lane near Chetla Police Station (19/1 Pitambar Ghatak Lane, Chetla, Kolkata, Pin 700 027). I’m not too familiar with the area and it took me a moment to find the place, being a little off-the-beaten path as it is. The café’s location makes it harder for people to notice the place, and they have almost no walk-in commerce from people just seeing the place and coming in to check it out. However, given the circumstances, this is the best they can afford.

This illustration is a combination of a photograph and an extract from the article. The photograph shows the entrance to the Crust & Core café, which is located on the ground floor of a building with more than one storey (the balcony of the first storey above the café is visible). A short sloping and ridged ramp made of cement leads up from the street to a small iron gate, which is flanked on the two sides by a low-rise wall, several potted plants on both sides of the wall, and three decorative street lamps (two to the right of the gate and one to the left). The gate opens on to a small enclosure, which has a couple of steps that lead up to a glass door of the café with an open sign hung on it. The door offers a glimpse of the interior lit up in a golden yellow hue. Outside, the door is flanked by two windows with ornate grills. The walls and windows are painted in shades of white and off-white. There are two decorative lamps fixed on the walls. Right above the glass door is a rectangular backlit signage that carries the text “An Iswar Sankalpa initiative” in the centre, with the café address and phone number below it. The café logo is printed prominently on either side of the text. The signage is flanked by two air-conditioners fixed on the wall. In the foreground, above a brick structure adjoining the café, is a circular signage with the café logo – the signage is fixed to an ornate pole arm and hangs over the street outside the café. The photograph background (right hand side corner) shows a neighbouring house and some trees. The extract accompanying the photograph says: “Crust & Core aims to facilitate common ground. Not just across political worldviews and activist movements, but also across the invisible and yet ever-present lines of a neuro-typical majority versus people living with mental health concerns. The café’s founders say, and I have to agree, that ‘It’s easy to ignore, otherize and un-see people who’re different from you when you’ve never had any interaction with them in the first place.’” Photo courtesy 'The Food Seeker' blog

Photo courtesy ‘The Food Seeker’ blog

Though I had some idea of the background of the place, I wasn’t sure whether I’d encounter a usual patisserie-like setting or something different. The place is ‘cute’ to say the least. Small, cosy, with well done and well thought out interiors, the vibe is very much that of an informal hangout or adda. And yet, it’s so much more than it appears on the surface. I first heard about it from my friend Pawan, as we brainstormed for a new series of ‘food-type’ pieces for Varta. When he told me of a café that was a project started by an NGO and run by once-homeless women survivors of mental illnesses or psychosocial disabilities, I was instantly intrigued.

My visit is meant to be a sort of recon mission and it yields so many feel-good vibes. The coffee and food are both excellent, the menu is quite diverse (with a variety of pastries, cookies, savouries, breads and beverages included), the portion sizes healthy (and that’s important to the equally ‘healthy’ me who’s sick of bite-sized food portions being served as entrees), and the prices well on the low side. They also have home delivery options within a limited geographical area, and even do catering in the format of food boxes for small events.

What I love most about the place though is its homey hangout vibe. And it’s nice to know that this is intentional. Rinku Soni, Assistant Secretary at Iswar Sankalpa, the NGO that supports and runs the café, says, “This is the vibe we want. The whole idea is to create a safe, inclusive, comfortable place where people can come to socialise and exchange ideas.” Accompanied by all the excellent goodies the café team dishes up!

Both Rinku Soni, and Sarbani Das Roy, Secretary and co-founder of Iswar Sankalpa, agree that their aim is to facilitate common ground. Not just across political worldviews and activist movements, but also across the invisible and yet ever-present lines of a neuro-typical majority versus people living with mental health concerns. They say, and I have to agree, that “It’s easy to ignore, otherize and un-see people who’re ‘different’ from you when you’ve never had any interaction with them in the first place.”

The easiest and most pleasant way to remove the stigma against both homelessness and psychosocial disability is to facilitate interaction between groups that the world sees as falling on opposite sides of a fence.

The mission of Crust & Core, therefore, isn’t simply serving good food and making a profit. It’s not even simply to help, train and employ once homeless women from the NGO’s shelter home who have battled or still live with severe psychosocial disabilities. In fact, it’s a much larger, much more inclusive and far more difficult goal. What Rinku Soni, Sarbani Das Roy, Iswar Sankalpa, and the amazing team of café Crust & Core are trying to do is to erase mistrust, discomfort, incomprehension, suspicion, stigma and erasure itself through the simple means of effortlessly bringing people together.

This photograph is focussed on the Crust & Core café counter. Several of the food items – desserts, savouries and breads are on display, kept in trays inside two large glass enclosures. Two staff members can be seen busy behind the counter, serving a customer standing in front of the counter with their back to the camera. One of the staff members, a woman who is likely the chef, has her hair covered in a white stretchable cap. A food packet and a tape dispenser are kept on the counter. A large framed picture of baked goodies occupies the wall behind the counter, bathed in golden colour from the lights above. Three large circular and decorative trays are fixed on to the wall in a row right above the picture. A little above the picture, to the right, is a large display of the Crust & Core logo. Almost right behind the staff members, the entrance to the kitchen is partially visible. To the left of the staff members, a microwave oven is kept on a shelf in the wall just next to the counter. Photo credit: Rith Das

Photo credit: Rith Das

From its inception in February 2018, the café has provided people with psychosocial disabilities a space to ‘function’ within what’s seen as ‘normal’ society. Women, women with mental health concerns and homeless women are often labelled with a string of adjectives that serve to actively exclude them from social spaces and relationships. They’re perceived as dirty, dangerous, and incapable of independent thoughts and lives. They’re routinely deprived of social opportunities and from education, training, work and economic independence to basic dignity itself. So the café’s emphasis is strongly on employment, choice, agency and dignity. Perhaps it’s easier to just give someone some money or feed them for a short time. What Crust & Core is trying to do is to impart skills, instead, so that the women can regain some of the control over their life and self, ensure an income and the possibility of future employment wherever they may go, and a sense of self.

For the Crust & Core team members, the cooking and baking skills are hard earned – cooking, because it seems like a natural progression of the gender role to the women supported by the NGO, making it easier for them to feel confident that they can learn skills and be better at it; baking, because it’s formulaic and repetitive, therefore easier for them to follow even on bad days when their mental health concerns are acting up, or when they can’t focus or concentrate too well. The focus remains on choice, so while 20 women started the training, many dropped out as they felt no interest or felt like it was beyond them.

The café chooses to address the stigma around mental health conditions without a lot of academic noise or posturing simply by letting people in and having them see, hear and talk to people they’d otherwise have not known or would’ve overlooked and ignored. The founders urge people to not just simply order boxes as a way to ‘help’ but to actually, physically visit the café. The aim, after all, is not simply to give the women some way to earn, but to return their snatched-away self-esteem and reinforce the fact that they’re also equally a part of society. Thus while Iswar Sankalpa welcomes donations and sponsorships, because money always helps, Rinku Soni and Sarbani Das Roy request people to make the place a regularly visited hangout instead of just sending in a sum of money to the NGO.

For Shyama and her colleagues, the encouragement to interact with the customers, and very subtly the other way round too, can be a huge step on a gradual journey towards self-sufficiency. When Shyama joins us at our table, she speaks about her life before and after Crust & Core. It’s amazing to listen to her. We also hear about some of the other women associated with the café. Most are survivors of horribly abusive marriages and were driven out of their homes by circumstances. Life on the streets did nothing to help or heal their traumas and agonies.

This photograph shows the author of this article Jia Mata in conversation with Rinku Soni, Assistant Secretary, Iswar Sankalpa at the café. They are seated at a glass-topped table with cups of coffee and tea in a small open space just outside the café near its entrance. The lights at the entrance light up the seating space in this late evening shot. Mobile phones of the two individuals can be seen kept on the table, as also a copy of the Annual Report of Iswar Sankalpa and two packets of cigarettes and a match box that belong to the author. She also has a pen and note pad open on her lap. Next to where the two people are seated is a small wall with potted plants and an iron railing, beyond which one can get a glimpse of the street on which the café is located. Photo credit: Rith Das

Rinku Soni, Assistant Secretary, Iswar Sankalpa (seated on the left) in conversation with the author. Photo credit: Rith Das

I’m not insular, in any way, and I like to think I’m aware of mental health issues, and the conditions women who suffer them have to face. I like to think that I’m concerned about what happens to so many of these women when they’re driven out of homes and onto the streets. I like to think I have some idea of how the system deals with them, sometimes further victimising them and sometimes infantilising them and taking away all their agency and choices and dignity. But listening to Shyama and speaking to her truly brought home some of the depth of the privations they’ve had to face.

This in turn makes me even more appreciative of the effort Crust & Core is putting into making the women self-sufficient, getting them back on their feet, training them with saleable skills for now and the future, and making sure they have hope, and the possibility of a life of agency and dignity. And I’m doubly glad that I’ve made the long trek from Garia to Chetla.

Needless to say, I’ll be going back, again, and again, and I highly recommend the place to everyone. Go – not just for the food which is very good, not just for the lovely ambience, not just for the pocket-friendly prices – go to Crust & Core to encourage the effort, show support, add a percentage of your money to their cause, for the adda, go because it is so, so worth it!

About the main photo: Some of the Crust & Core team members pose inside the café (inset shows café logo – the logo text says “Crust & Core – Crafted with Love”). Photo credit: Rith Das