Brewing beyond just coffee in hill town

Life convicts manage the cafe

Brewing beyond just coffee in hill town
Puffs of white clouds rolling down densely inhabited hill terrains, caressing passersby with an invisible hand and then gently gliding away with the cool breeze often leaves many mesmerised. Look all around snow-clad mountains in the backdrop of tall deodar trees--the picturesque view of the queen of hills, Shimla, from the plateau-like ridge is breathtaking. And if it is hot coffee to give you company, you couldn't have asked for more.

A lot is happening over coffee these days in Shimla, erstwhile capital of the British Raj days. One side of the ridge is a newly opened “Book Café” that one would be excused for having ignored or overlooked at first look. Like many book cafes topping up with snacks and sizzling hot coffee in the capital town, this one too looks much similar, in fact, a lot understated sans the glitz. But this cafe is hogging the limelight for one peculiar variation it has from the rest.

It’s a book café-cum-snack bar run by jail inmates, to be precise by life convicts. If the thought starts to frighten you, don’t be, for there’s no reason to be deterred. In fact, this eatery is gaining far more footfalls and doing brisk business than many would have expected. For now, two life convicts--46-year-old Jai Chand and 36-year-old Yogi Raj-- are managing much of the front end and back end business at the cafe.

Snacks and food in bulk are made at the kitchen inside Kaithu Jail in Shimla every day. So, it’s effectively jail food that is being served to tourists at the cafe. Ask astrologers or believers of faith to know how auspicious jail food could be at times to wean away ill-luck. But surely that isn’t the reason this cafe is doing good business.

Jail officials say the initiative will instil positive sentiments among inmates that will be conducive to reform them in the long run. The two, they say, were chosen out of many other inmates on the basis of their expertise and good conduct. After the routine roll call every morning, the two are ferried to the Book Cafe. At 8 pm the two are back in the jail once the cafe is closed for the day.

Burgers, cakes, biscuits, pizzas and more baked in the jail kitchen are being savoured by tourists. Beyond just the taste of good food and coffee, locals visiting the cafe say they like spending money at this cafe as it fills them with some degree of compassion, rightly or otherwise. A mini-library stacked with magazines, comics and books is there to add to the flavour while relishing hot coffee. The outlet is being run in collaboration with the local civic corporation and the jail authorities.

Jai Chand was sentenced for abetting his wife’s suicide some 8-years ago. He has a 16-year-old son who can now meet the father during the day at the cafe. Jai Chand regrets the unfortunate turn of events in his life. His son scored well in the class XII examination and he is a bookworm. Jai Chand used to work at a local hotel at Manali. His talent as a chef at the hotel helped him win this assignment at the cafe.

His junior buddy Yogi Raj was an electrician convicted in the murder case years ago. He now relishes the open air at the ridge every day like never before. The jail officials are aware of the calculated risk they have taken by “freeing” life convicts during the day. But they ensured adequate checks and balances before this plan was rolled out. In fact, not far away from Shimla is an experiment more or less similar that is taking place since long in Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh.

A small jail in hill riverside town follows a rare drill every day to reform inmates. At this jail, convicts, some who have committed murder, are “freed” in the morning and moved to a nearby market where they work in shops and offices. It’s a strict 9-to-5 arrangement that helps convicts not only earn a living but also reform themselves while being in the midst of society. For sometime now, this jail has sobriquet “open jail”. The market in the area is a free place.

Convicts hard-sell garments, make profits out of grocery sales and a lot more. If officials are to be believed, some inmates even worked in private factories. The dawn-to-dusk arrangement outside the jail leaves prisoners with an added sense of responsibility, say officials. Some have even managed to own a shop in the market.

So far, jail officials are yet to come across an incident of a convict fleeing. But not all inmates get the privilege to be freed every day. Hardened criminals, rapists and those with history of heinous crimes are kept indoors. The open jail concept would not have succeeded if the shopkeepers were not large-hearted. Inherent in this concept is the liberty that families of convicts get by meeting their loved ones who have been locked inside the four walls of the jail. Sundays are off days. The next day, for sure, must be eagerly awaited.

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