Navi Mumbai eatery's transgender staff finds a life with new opportunities

Mar 04, 2018, 15:25 IST | Anju Maskeri

Shunned by society, six trans-women have found jobs sans judgment at a Navi Mumbai cafe

Mahi Malini Pujari says initially she would avoid interacting with guests, but has now grown more confident
Mahi Malini Pujari says initially she would avoid interacting with guests, but has now grown more confident

Last year, restaurant manager Josein Fernanda found herself in a tough spot when a colleague spotted a bodice and a bunch of padded bras in her bag while they were working on a cruise liner in Goa, where she was working as a manager. The 44-year-old, born a boy in Mumbai's Lamington Road area, says she has always felt like a girl and would clandestinely cross-dress. But, it was a secret that Fernanda had zealously guarded until then. "My boss called me and said, 'I don't want this news to leak. So stop indulging in this.' Well into my 40s, I had reached a point where I couldn't conform to society anymore. There was an overwhelming sense to come out of the closet," she says. Fernanda resigned from the job and returned to Mumbai, liberated but uncertain about what the future held.

Shonali Mude, a former runner-up at Miss Trans Queen 2017 joined in January this year. Mude, who might have in another gender made it as a model or an actor, says jobs for transgender are limited. Having gone to auditions at fashion weeks, Mude says she had no luck. She now works as a floor attendant
Shonali Mude, a former runner-up at Miss Trans Queen 2017 joined in January this year. Mude, who might have in another gender made it as a model or an actor, says jobs for transgender are limited. Having gone to auditions at fashion weeks, Mude says she had no luck. She now works as a floor attendant

Being in the public eye
When we meet Fernanda on a weekday afternoon at Third eye Cafe, located on the ground floor of Palm Galleria Mall, Navi Mumbai, she is sitting near the bar with her laptop. The wall facing her reads, 'Be the Change You Want to See'. Wearing a black blazer with slim fit pants and glinting earrings, Fernanda - formerly known as Innocento - has finally embraced change. She chanced upon the cafe while browsing through YouTube, and got in touch with the owners. She now proudly identifies herself as a woman. Along with her, five other trans-women found their lives transformed when were hired as staffers at the restaurant. The cafe currently has six transgender employees, five of whom work as table attendants, while one works as the manager. The restaurant employs around 20 persons.

Josein Fernanda - formerly known as Innocento - finally came out of the closet on learning of this job in January
Josein Fernanda - formerly known as Innocento - finally came out of the closet on learning of this job in January

"As the name suggests, the restaurant was launched with the intention of providing the third gender an opportunity to lead a more respectable life," says co-owner and architect Nimesh Shetty, who started the venture with his partners Prasad Shetty and Nitesh Kandarkar. Nimesh, 27, conceptualised the cafe almost six years ago while working on an architectural thesis around building a community centre for the transgenders. As envisioned, the cafe would be part of the centre. He even conducted a survey to understand whether people would visit a place like this during the thesis. "A lot of people said yes, we accept the third gender. But, are you willing to accept your sister or closest friend as a transgender? That's when people fumbled. This is something we want to work on," says Shetty, who hails from a family of hoteliers.

A typical day
At the restaurant, we see Mahi Malini Pujari, 24, on her feet taking orders and interacting with guests. She's aware of the reaction her presence normally invites - raised eyebrows, unflinching stare, giggles and sometimes nonchalance - but she has learnt to take it all in her stride. In fact, when a bunch of guests arrive, she's the first to guide them to the table and make them comfortable by offering water and exchanging pleasantries. "Initially, I wouldn't utter a word to the guests. I'd take orders and do clearances. I didn't have the confidence to initiate or a hold conversation," says Pujari. The make-up is minimal, just enough to make her look fresh-faced. The 24-year-old worked at Arzoo Foundation, a de-addiction and rehabilitation centre situated at Palghar. Before that she would beg on the streets and in trains. "I joined the hijra community in Bandra after I left home. I didn't even complete my Std X because my parents gave me an ultimatum: 'either I behave like a boy or leave'," she says. Pujari chose the latter. She now lives in an apartment provided by the owners, in Vashi along with the other staff. While the response from the hijra community to her choice of a new career has been fairly encouraging, her family has still not accepted her. "I've let it go," she says.

Know your food
In almost two months' time, Pujari has upped her social skills and also memorised the menu. A part of the credit goes to Fernanda, who the staff treats as 'didi'. "Of course, they need to know how conduct themselves in public. Along with that, she must know the food that we serve here and what goes into its making like the back of their hand. The guests always check with the server first," says Fernanda.

Spread over eleven pages, the menu is extensive with sections separating Italian, Oriental and Indian cuisine. Currently, the restaurant doesn't serve alcohol but it's in the pipeline. We order the beetroot falafel made with parsley pesto, tahini yoghurt and pomegranate for R199. The portion is impressive and scores well on the taste front. "Many come here for the novelty value. But, they'll return only if the food and service is good," says senior staffer Shonali Venkatesh Mude, a former runner-up at Miss Trans Queen 2017, who joined in January this year. Mude, who might have in another gender made it as a model or an actor, says careers as a transgender are limited. Having gone to auditions at fashion weeks or even advertisements, where she'd have to portray a woman, Mude says she had no luck. "I wanted a job where I'd get a steady income."

A group of women sitting next to our table have dropped by from Nerul during lunch hour to celebrate a colleague's birthday. That's the overt reason. The real one is to experience what's it like to be served by transgender staff. "I don't mean to treat them as specimens, but we wanted to experience this. I'm happy that we're finally getting to see them in mainstream jobs. Till now, you would see them begging inside trains," says Divyani Fulzele, who works at an IT firm. When they're about to leave, they compliment Mude and promise to return. This time for the peppy vibe and the food. "Compliments work as a confidence-booster. While I'm more educated and experienced than the rest, there was a trepidation about how it'd pan out. But I like coming to work," smiles Mude, who lives with her partner in Khargar.

Setting an example
In 12 months, owner Nimesh Shetty has interviewed over 600 transgenders for the job by seeking help from NGOs and transgender activist Gouri Sawant. "Actually, it's they who interviewed me because they had more questions than I did. It's natural, because they are leaving their comfort zone and for an all-new territory," he adds. He admits some quit the job within weeks because of adjustment issues. "It's a high-pressure job, where sometimes you clock in 10-12 hours. Some couldn't deal with that," he says.

Shetty feels the challenges of being transgender are different from what gay men or women face. "Here, we are talking about survival. Many get thrown out of the house when they come out." For now, Shetty is hopeful that the restaurant will inspire others to follow suit. "We don't want to capitalise on this as a gimmick. The goal is to inspire."

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