As dusk arrives, Cauvery hurries to her vantage point from where she can spot customers coming out of the bus stand. She leans on a Maharaja-era lamp post, her evening companion for years now. As the men file past, some throw a quick glance, some teasingly enquire why she has not been able to hook anyone yet, a man stares at her and decides it is too early for action. Being a hooker has been Cauvery’s profession for as long as she remembers.
After the nightly stake out, she wakes up to another day of clearing tables and washing plates at Ashodaya Hotel. It is a restaurant she runs, along with other male, female and transexual sex workers. The proceeds go towards the welfare of sex workers and the education of their children.
“The restaurant was started on 1 December, World Aids Day, and is managed by Ashodaya Samithi, whose board members are sex workers and transexuals. It is not to provide them with a new life, but to remove the social stigma they face. Community members who volunteer to work here are not barred from practising their profession,” says SV Sreeram, deputy director, Disha, an HIV project in collaboration with Ashodaya and University of Manitoba.
The idea was born when Ashodaya entered a World Bank competition that sought innovative projects to benefit marginalised groups. The contest saw over a thousand entries. The restaurant idea was among the final 26 awarded grants last year. And now, it makes anywhere between Rs 4,000 to Rs 45,000 a day.
Sreeram says the restaurant has changed the common man’s perception of sex workers. They may have initially visited the restaurant out of curiosity, but the regulars have developed a healthy respect for the community. “After media reports, women employees of the city corporation stopped coming for a couple of weeks. Now, they are trickling back,” he says.
The owners of a restaurant across the street, too, are supportive despite competing for footfalls. As is a delegation from a private MNC bank, who have promised to give the restaurant catering orders. A small clock with the bank logo jostles for space amid a line of framed deities with flashing lights behind the cash counter. Retired government employee KB Ramappa is a regular. “I know about their plight. As I cannot help them in any other way, paying for coffee here helps to educate their children,” he says.
Ashodaya has roped in a professional cook, Raju, who has no qualms sharing space with the community members who help him. “They are as normal as you and me. We only have to start understanding them,’’ he says. While Raju and his assistants get paid, the community members volunteer for a nominal wage. “They get paid a pittance here. If you compare what they get for six-eight hours of work here, they can earn the same within minutes on the street,” says Bhagyalakshmi, a sex worker.