A buzzing South Bombay café has a hundred-year-old story behind it
A mention of a ‘home’ or ‘orphanage’ might put you in mind of sad-eyed children, Dickensian squalor, or (in these times) abuse. But the home at Seva Sadan lives up to the high charitable ideals with which it was founded. Comprising a home for girls, schools, a teacher training college and a café at one point, Seva Sadan is an NGO that has a wide and varied history. Regulars will remember their café ‘By The Way’, best known for its Parsi food. The food was delicious and provided their girls with hands-on training for careers in the hospitality industry.
Some would be upset to know that By The Way isn’t around any longer. But there’s good news too. It’s sprung up in a new avatar – a Tea Villa Café outlet – that now employs 6 girls from the NGO!
Not just an NGO
We’re curious to see what By The Way’s new avatar looks like. On the day we visit, Tea Villa Café is full of chattering patrons and is a bright spot on a sedate street. The menu is on trend – bagels, burgers and Lebanese food keep company with premium coffees, teas and desserts. A large table is finishing lunch as we order, and many of the other tables are full. We wonder if the patrons know the stories of the buildings around them.
A home at last
It’s said that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shadows they will never sit in. Seva Sadan is proof of this. Philanthropists Shri Behramji Malabari and Shri Diwan Dayaram Gidumal set up Seva Sadan more than a hundred years ago to help destitute women. The early 20th century was a period when widowed and destitute women were exploited. They lived under harsh and repressive circumstances, and were often doomed to live out their lives in solitude and distress.
Behramji Malabari and Diwan Dayaram Gidumal’s tree is still bearing fruit. In 2017, their NGO Seva Sadan carries forward their commitment to emancipate, educate and empower disadvantaged women.
Many of the girls are brought in as orphans, or when they lose their only caregivers. They are looked after just like family. The girls are encouraged to develop skills, confidence and learn how to be self-sufficient.
Juhi Goswami recalls the positive difference that Seva Sadan has made in her life. “Seva Sadan has been my home since I was 9 years old. I was in 5th standard back then. When I had come here I was absolutely clueless about the English language. I used to stay in the village so I was really timid. They not only took care of my formal education but also enrolled me in singing classes. They showed confidence in my ability to achieve something. Here, I get to concentrate on both singing and studies. Now I know everything.”
Juhi seems to have developed a keen interest in cooking after working with Tea Villa. She says, “I like to learn how to prepare cold beverages here. My favourite thing from the menu is the Kit-Kat shake.”
Spread your wings
Seva Sadan provides a home to around 100 girls and women in need. Many of the girls who come to them face difficult personal circumstances at a very young age. Seva Sadan has managed to smooth over what would have been a difficult period in their lives.
Pooja Kamble, a resident of the Seva Sadan home was brought to the NGO after her father died. Pooja was at a very vulnerable stage of her life, and recalls that the slightest of things made her cry. However, the support she received from her teachers and the staff at Seva Sadan helped her immensely. She fondly remembers Sheetal Mummy, the matron, who took very good care of her. Seva Sadan has moulded these girls into strong young women, and has incorporated values like self-sufficiency in them, she recollects, ‘Sheetal mummy said that if I want to go to college I will have to earn the pocket money by working in the kitchen. I have developed a knack of cooking thanks to her. I aspire to pursue hotel management in the future.”
Today, Pooja’s skills as a cook have brought her to the bakery section of the Tea Villa Café. “The training process is good” she says, “They teach us very nicely. I really enjoy making puffs. It feels good to be self-sufficient.”
It’s not just cooking. The girls are given vocational training in various courses like tailoring, embroidery, beauty, baking and other skills that are in demand in the market. This ensures that they will have a marketable skill to earn an income for themselves in the future. Hemangi Pawar, a young girl living at Seva Sadan in the ‘70s had a dream of becoming a doctor, but she couldn’t afford to study medicine. Hemangi chose to study nursing instead, and she rose to become the Sister-in-Charge of the Neuro-Surgery Theatre at Nair Hospital in Mumbai!
Women standing proud
Their influence extends even to women who are not residents of their home. Khairunisa came to By The Way cafe through Kotak Education Foundation’s vocational training programme – Unnati. She came in search of a kitchen job at the restaurant, but fate had other plans for her. “I wanted to work in the kitchen but thanks to my lovely smile I got a job in the restaurant!”, she beams. She has a pleasing smile and a way with customers. “I have worked with By The Way for the past 3 years. People identify me here. I give them good service. When they visit again they ask about me. It feels great! I feel empowered working here, it feels good to be independent.”
If Seva Sadan’s walls could speak we are sure they would have a lot to say. Every day is a busy one for their staff. How do they keep a handle on everything that’s going on?
Ayushi Jain, Administrator at Seva Sadan stresses that the organisation is committed to transparency in its operations. Even when it comes to donations, “There wouldn’t be even a mismatch of a 50 paise. Whatever donation comes in kind as well it goes directly to the girls.”
Donors understand the mission behind Seva Sadan’s programmes, but underestimate the costs of maintaining their large premises "It’s a 108 year old building… we have to maintain it because it a home for all these girls, so we can’t have colour chipping or plaster coming off the paint. It’s not good for their health”, says Ayushi. She feels the old building needs to be maintained since it’s a home for the girls, even though the funds required for doing so may be high.
The next one hundred years
Ayushi is fond of the girls at Seva Sadan and provides them constant encouragement, “Payal was quite shy and used to be very nervous. I always encouraged her to speak up. When the members used to greet her I could actually make out anxiety from her face. After joining Tea Villa I can see a tremendous change in her in just three weeks. I mean the way she confidently speaks to the members, the guests and all that’s really overwhelming. I can really see the change. It’s so good to see.”
We can feel the positivity of the girls at Seva Sadan envelop us as we leave Tea Villa café. We hope their tribe endures, and keeps going strong for the next hundred years!