When I wrote this article, it was nearly my second year in Kolkata after arriving from Cape Town, South Africa, and the city had amazed me with innumerable surprises. My good friend, Pawan Dhall, invited me for breakfast at the Sip N Bite café off Lake Road in South Kolkata. When he said that the café was managed by people with intellectual and development disabilities, I jumped at the chance as I feel strongly that we should support organizations that empower people and break down prejudices.

We were greeted at the door by Dr. Amrita Roy Chowdhury, a woman who glowed both inside and out with enthusiasm. It’s funny how people who give back to our world always emanate their passion through every pore in their body. Roald Dahl said, “If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” Amrita was one such person and she spoke with much enthusiasm about the work Sip N Bite was doing to empower people with autism and other intellectual and development disabilities.

Positive energy is always contagious when you are amongst such people. Soon we were having the time of our lives as we learnt about the work of Sip N Bite and its associate body Transcendent Knowledge Society, a Kolkata-based non-profit started in 2015 that works for education rights and social empowerment of both young people and adults with intellectual and development disabilities. Among other activities, it runs a day-care centre for children with intellectual and development disabilities in the Tollygunge area of Kolkata.

This combination photograph shows some of the breakfast fare served at Sip N Bite. On the left is a serving of stuffed ‘parathas’ cut into four portions, accompanied with some pickles and mango chutney on a plate, along with plain curd in a small bowl. On the right is a serving of cheese omelet with fried chunky potatoes, buttered toast and a slice of cake, all placed neatly on a plate. To the top left of the photograph on the left side is the Sip N Bite logo. It consists of a circle in blood-red colour with an uneven black outline. Inside the circle is the Sip N Bite name written in three lines. The text is in black and stylized to appear as hand-written with a mix of letters in upper and lower case. Photo credits: Duncan Rice. Logo credit: Transcendent Knowledge Society

Some of the breakfast fare at Sip N Bite (inset shows Sip N Bite logo). Photo credits: Duncan Rice

Kolkata is not known for its early breakfasts, and as a westerner who is used to breakfast at 7 am, it was a welcome treat to have a restaurant open so early. Sip N Bite is a bakery and catering unit located at 13A Jatindas Road, near Lake Market, Kolkata, Pin 700 029. It serves breakfast from 7 to 11 am for the walkers and runners who visit the Dhakuria Lakes nearby as well as to lazy people like us who arrived in a taxi. After 11 am, the Sip N Bite team becomes busy with preparing lunch for a nearby school canteen.

It was lovely to chat over a strong cup of masala chai. For me though the best bit was to hear about the amazing work of Sip N Bite. It has an interesting menu that evolves as the Sip N Bite team members pick up new culinary skills. I must say my aloo paratha was one of the best I have had in India and it came with an extra surprise of sweet mango chutney. Pawan chose the cheese omelet which arrived with beautifully fried chunky potatoes, buttered toast and a slice of cake. In true Indian fashion, we stole (sorry, shared) from each other’s plates.

There is something about food prepared with compassion. It seemed to taste even better knowing the story behind Sip N Bite. A group of mothers of children with intellectual and development disabilities started a vocational training centre for their children in 2009. Amrita approached them in 2017 for a collaboration to start Sip N Bite. She said “I wanted to support the mothers’ initiative to create learning opportunities for their children. When we started discussing possibilities, we felt that many of the youth at the vocational training centre weren’t employed gainfully enough. We thought of starting Sip N Bite as an enterprise that would train and better prepare the youth for life beyond the vocational training centre.”

She elaborated on their graded approaches to facilitating employment for people with disabilities – supportive, assisted and open, depending on the degree to which an individual is able to undertake tasks and operate independently. “There can be no single approach that works for everyone at any given point of time. The café and the school canteen are examples of assisted employment.”

The staff members at Sip N Bite not only prepared the food with care, but were also trained in office operations and as waiters, making the experience wholesome to say the least. And the price, that’s the best bit – where can you get beautifully presented food, which is helping others, at a range of Rs.40-120 per item?

Quote: I was surprised to hear that initially there was some opposition from the neighbourhood community when the restaurant opened. It goes to show that our world is still a funny place when it comes to difference. This venture is breaking down these prejudices and the more we have and support such places, the better our world will be. The local community has now embraced the eatery and its diversity. Some of the staunchest supporters Sip N Bite has are the traders at the nearby Lake Market, from where the eatery sources many of its daily requirements.I was surprised to hear that initially there was some opposition from the neighbourhood community when the restaurant opened. It goes to show that our world is still a funny place when it comes to difference. This venture is breaking down these prejudices and the more we have and support such places, the better our world will be. The local community has now embraced the eatery and its diversity. Some of the staunchest supporters Sip N Bite has are the traders at the nearby Lake Market, from where the eatery sources many of its daily requirements.

Amrita informed us that Sip N Bite had become so popular that they were now catering all over Kolkata. As an example, in a few weeks’ time, they were to be part of a mammoth operation at Jadavpur University, with a 100-strong staff. For events such as this, everyone is trained in a specific task depending on their ability. Pawan suggested that the Jadavpur University assignment sounded bigger than even MasterChef, and this it would truly be and better because the cooking would have purpose. Hats off to Sip N Bite for giving so many people an opportunity and bringing more diversity into our communities!

We hadn’t walked or run, as many of their clients do. But after this amazing breakfast Pawan and I rolled out the door with satisfied bellies and glowing hearts! Next time we’ll have to walk home instead of using the taxi.

Read earlier story on Transcendent Knowledge Society’s work Autism Eye-opener by Aparajita Dutta in the April 2017 issue of Varta here – Editor.

Closure alert! The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has resulted in Sip N Bite closing down at the Jatindas Road address. The café may open at a new address in future. For services currently available, please call at 0091 98303 45212 – Editor.

About the main photo: The Sip N Bite team in the centre with parents, mentors and well-wishers. Photo courtesy Transcendent Knowledge Society.