Jul 2, 2008

Coffee & Aids

Ashtad Dadachanjee is a young chef with spiked hair, thin stubble and two earrings. Often, fashionable college students stare at him suspiciously or walk out of his breezy vegetarian eatery on Dhole Patil Road in Pune immediately after entering. But Ashtad has learnt not take this personally. It's one of the typical reactions that his bold black T-shirt or the certificate displayed proudly in his suggestively named hotel ‘69', receive. ‘HIV-positive', they both declare unabashedly. Of the diners who stroll in for a bite and then discover the branding, some are curious; others look shiftily at one another and yet others hastily leave. To those who stay on and order, Astad and other waiters ask politely, "Have you gone through our brochure?" The said brochure is on every table with a helpline number. The black coasters inform the coffee-sipping crowd that it cannot get AIDS by kissing or touching. A bookmark inside the bill tells them how the disease actually spreads. For those wondering why a restaurant should put itself in peril thus, the story goes back to when Ashtad was working at an Italian restaurant in Pune where an employee was sacked for being HIV-positive. Ashtad quit in protest. One day in 2006, while lunching on pasta with his actor and AIDS activist friend, Hans Billimoria, the duo came up with the idea of an initiative called ‘Wake Up Pune', envisaged as a coalition of NGOs and individuals spreading awareness about HIV and AIDS in Pune because it ranks among the top five HIV-prevalence cities in the state. HIV-positive, for members of this initiative, is a certificate. "It means being positive about educating themselves, spreading awareness and reaching out to those affected," says Billimoria. Three restaurants—apart from 69, there are Post-91 and Soul in Koregaon Park—two corporates and various other businesses have received this certificate after a training session that involves in-depth discussions and field visits. "If an HIV-positive person sneezes, the others cringe when, in fact, the victim has more to fear if others sneeze, as his immunity is low," says Billimoria, who wants to break the stereotype of the disease as confined to lower sections of society. Through street plays, live gigs and red-ribbon sporting waiters, the group tries to bust famous myths about the deadly virus. The certified restaurants organise short films and plays, and once a year, Hotel Soul invites HIV-positive people and aspiring volunteers to have a common meal. "Here, we realise all that HIV-positive people want is a normal life," says owner Sean Davidson. Indeed, Ashtad hopes to help them achieve this by going beyond the ‘HIV-positive' certificate on the walls and actually employing people who are living with HIV in his restaurant. He is currently waiting for the National Aids Control Organisation guidelines on this. To further their cause, volunteers have to grudgingly rely on celebrities, who sometimes land them in embarrassing situations: a finalist of a talent show actually went up on stage once and declared "The next time you go to the barber, be careful of the knife. It can cause HIV" when he was told to say the exact opposite. Ashtad recalls being followed by six men in Mumbai while walking down a Khar lane with his HIV-positive T-shirt on. "They later told me they were gay and wanted to know more about HIV," he says. Pune, though, is yet to achieve this level of curiosity. When asked about the future of awareness levels, Billimoria only shrugs. "I don't know," he says, wishing he could be positive about this one too

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