Chetla: The warmth of the smile she serves with the iced lemon tea is enough to make someone's day. Looking at 21-year-old Haripriya Koiral, it is hard to imagine that the joy her face conveys could ever be blighted by pain.
Haripriya, star worker at the Crust & Core cafe located in a lane beside Chetla police station, was until a year ago a distraught and distant young woman unable to come to terms with her inner turmoil.
She had been found by a police team on a bench near New Market, not knowing where the next minute would take her. It turned out that Haripriya's uncle had brought her to this new city from their hometown in Maharashtra and abandoned her.
"I love to bake. I want to sign up for a baking course," she told Metro on Wednesday, making no secret of her aspiration to find a permanent job in a patisserie.
Crust & Core, which opened in February, is a shot at a happier future for Haripriya and 11 other women battling depression, schizophrenia and other mental health problems.
The cafe operates under the NGO Iswar Sankalpa and employs inmates of its Chetla shelter, 90 per cent of whom have psycho-social disabilities. "Crust & Core has given a fresh lease of life to the mind champions in our shelter," said Rinku Soni, assistant secretary of the NGO.
Twenty-two women had been trained for more than a year by professional chefs before the project took off. "Most lacked confidence and were unwilling to learn. Ten opted out midway," Soni said.
From pastries to pastas, the cafe stocks an assortment of savouries that can also be ordered online. It opens at 1pm every day except on Mondays and serves customers till 8pm.
"We let them work at their own pace. It's a huge thing that they are enjoying the work," said Sarbani Das Roy, the secretary and co-founder of the NGO.
The 12-member cafe team has duties assigned based on their social and other skills. "I don't want cafe duty. I get uncomfortable there. Here, at this kitchen, I am happy," said Sonamoni Chatterjee.
She had been found malnourished and delusional some years ago after being trapped in a traumatic marriage.
Activist and entrepreneur Mudar Patherya, whose company helped create the interiors of the cafe, said he was proud to be associated with the project. "This is such a heroic venture. It's a challenge giving so many empty lives a new direction."