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Serving up hot meals and hope

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Thousands throng the Mysore palace daily, the city's main tourist attraction. But few notice an eatery located just outside the spectacular palace. For Hotel Ashodaya looks like any other that dot the perimeter of the palace walls. Customers come and go, and the staff serve and behave the way they do in a hundred other such joints.

What most do not know though is that Ashodaya is a revolution in itself, perhaps the only restaurant to be run by sex workers in Karnataka. Located on a winding street in Devaamba Agrahara in the old Mysore area, the people who run the place do not hide their identity, nor do they make a song and dance of it. "All kinds of people are in the restaurant business, we being the latest, " is their reasoning.

Though Mysore may seem sleepy by current urban yardsticks, it is a city that's historically been open to experiments. How many know that even before Thomas Macaulay's epic 'Minute on Education' in 1835 set off bilingualism in India, in the princely town, the Maharaja's School was already teaching English?

The hotel, a unit of Ashodaya Samithi, a sex workers-led and managed NGO, opened over a year back with assistance from the World Bank. The wonderful thing about Ashodaya is that customers seem to be indifferent to the profession of the people who serve them piping hot idlis and dosas with a cup of piping hot filter coffee.

Lakshmi's been a sex worker for years now. But in the last one year her routine has changed. She comes to the hotel before dawn, checks the rations for the day, scans the opening balance, and gives instructions before leaving. The treasurer at the NGO sees empowering sex workers as "namma kelasa" (our work). Says Lakshmi, "I'm a sex worker and I've no qualms about saying that, " even as she takes a closer look at the lunch menu for the day.

This social transformation did not come easily. The scene for sex workers in Mysore isn't very different from anywhere else in the country. They face similar hardships and many starve too, " because the customers cheat us, " 40-year-old Vijayamma says. There are practical problems that are universal to the profession like middle-aged sex workers with dwindling incomes falling on bad times.

The 'hotel solution' to the woes of the sex workers sprang from a community kitchen, that catered exclusively to sex workers. Started in 2006 to provide lunch and dinner to about 50, it later extended its activities to supply food to the workers in Mysore's industrial estates. Though workers recognised them, they continued to buy food from the kitchen. Emboldened, some of the sex workers trained to be cooks. As luck would have it, a hotel operating out of the building where the NGO was located, downed shutters. The sex workers decided to take it over. "We got Rs 1. 5 lakh in assistance and took the risk. And the response from society has been really heartening, " says Akram Pasha, deputy director of the Ashodaya Samithi, a male sex worker and the coordinator for the hotel project.

People working in the hotel like Thimmachar, the cashier, sees no major differences between his present and previous employers. With 30 years experience in the hotel industry, he says, "These people too are professionals. " He has a point. For they issued an advertisement when they needed a cook. They speak the lingo of hotel management. "There's a demand that we expand our business to catering. . . We are planning to take the help of experts in hotel management from Chennai to operate the business, " says one of them. The hotel's dreaming of sustaining itself without any external aid and is already turning in a tiny profit.

There's a bit of corporate social responsibility going on too. Part of the hotel's revenues is diverted for the care of the terminally ill at the NGO's Mandya centre.

Today, there's a perceptible change in the way the sex workers look at the world around them simply because society is treating them differently too. Customers of Ashodaya treat them with dignity, talk to them politely and even call them 'M'am, ' an entirely new word and courtesy hitherto unknown to them. All of which make the sex workers feel they are part of the mainstream. "That is what we are fighting for. We don't want sympathy but only acceptance by the society, " says Pasha.

Ashodaya leaders say there are some 6, 000 sex workers in six districts of the old Mysore region with about 2, 000 in Mysore alone. Which means there's a definite need for more Ashodayas. There are plans to start a cooperative bank. Ashodaya has opened a window for Mysore's sex workers, hopefully the door to better integration with society will soon be thrown open too.

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