Aditi Verma sits at her café’s counter and alternates between reading a book — Arabian Nights: large print — and writing out bills. Above her, there is a sign that bears her name: ‘Aditi’s Corner.’ Bright green plates of paratha and pav bhaji stand out in the nondescript Navi Mumbai mall, on the top floor of which Aditi’s Corner is nestled. I begin to introduce myself, but Aditi stops me and puts a menu in my hand. ‘First you eat, then we’ll talk,’ she insists.
23-year-old Aditi, who lives with Down Syndrome, opened the café in January 2016. She used to go to her parents’ office, located in the same building, and help with data entry, but she was soon bored. The chai vendor intrigued her more than the excel sheets, and she felt inspired to start a café instead. With her family’s help in setting up the place, Aditi’s Corner began, under Aditi’s management. ‘I manage the whole café, the billing, keeping track of the stocks. I like the work I do a lot,’ she tells me.
Although Aditi loves to cook at home, she does not cook at the café, ‘…because the customers who come here, they might not like it. I’m a little slow here. At home it’s fine, but not here.’
Aditi’s parents are a big part of her story, and she asks me to go down to their office and talk to them. They have been given strict instructions to keep their afternoon free. Mr. and Ms. Verma cheerfully recount the changes they have seen in Aditi since she began managing the café, from the fluency of her communication and her self-taught English, to her sharp business sense (‘She doesn’t like holidays now. She complains that holidays mean revenue loss,’ they laugh.)
The Vermas do not gloss over the challenges that Aditi faced growing up. Neighbours would tell the family that their non-disabled son was good, but it was a shame about their daughter. Many called Aditi ‘mad’. At Aditi’s kindergarten, the teachers ignored her and the other children mocked her because she couldn’t speak yet (developmental milestones are often delayed for children with Down Syndrome). She spent her early school days lying under a bench and crying. Their doctor then suggested that the family enrol Aditi in a ‘special school’, where she got close attention from her teachers and thrived.
Aditi’s parents, on the other hand, decided that they would treat Aditi no differently than they treat their son. Aditi’s father reflects that for children who live with Down’s Syndrome, it is often not their inability, but their parents’ fear that stops them. This fear is something that the Vermas, as parents, slowly learned to get over. Aditi developed her own way of responding to the stigma — ‘If someone’s making fun, don’t cry. Just say, yes, thank you sir. Let people say what they want.’
As I eat the freshly-cooked aloo paratha of my dreams, I observe Aditi relay orders to the two men working in the kitchen and carry plates of simple food to the lunchtime regulars seated at plastic tables on the landing. She talks to a group of six middle-aged men, calling each one ‘bhaiyya’, asking them how they like the food, whether they’d like some water, do they need any more pao? I’m struck by how, well, ordinary the café is. But a number of media outlets have described the story of Aditi’s Corner as extraordinary, because of the fact that Aditi lives with Down Syndrome.
When I ask her about the media response, Aditi admits it surprised her. ‘I have no idea how the media coverage came about. No idea at all. I don’t know how my name became so big.’
Aditi’s father tells me about her latest media stint — an episode on Zee TV’s Maggi Kitchen Journeys. ‘That Sunday, we opened the newspaper to a half page ad by Zee World with her face. I couldn’t believe it,’ he laughs, a mixture of awe, incredulity and pure pride on his face.
I had watched the episode, and while Aditi and her mother were their charming selves, I felt a little uncomfortable about the theatrical music and over-the-top dramatisations, just as I did about some of the other media coverage that Aditi garnered: This 23-year-old owner of Navi Mumbai cafe has defied Down’s syndrome to get on with life. True inspiration! A 22-year-old girl suffering from Down syndrome runs a cafe in Mumbai. What are we saying about Down Syndrome when we call the condition something that people ‘suffer from’, or something to ‘defeat’? When we transform someone who lives with Down Syndrome into an inspiration, a spectacle, for simply living?
Phrases like ‘overcoming a disability’ put the responsibility on disabled people to work harder, when what we should really be focusing on is how society needs to change, notes Simi Linton, a disability rights activist and writer. As she says, it makes disabled people internalise the exhausting notion that they must always do more, and it makes non-disabled folks complacent with the way things are. It is not Down Syndrome that Aditi had to overcome, but the way our society frames, treats and fails to accommodate for people who live with Down Syndrome.
Yet, while I hurried to differentiate myself from the journalists who had covered Aditi’s story, it quickly became clear that I was more focused on making myself heard than listening to Aditi herself. While Aditi says she doesn’t want to be defined by her Down Syndrome (‘I want to move beyond it’), she also says that the media coverage makes her feel good. It has given her and her family immense confidence, motivation and validation. The menu proudly states, ‘One of the only few restaurant [sic] run by a special person’. Aditi is in control of her own narrative.
Further, Aditi does want her experience to motivate others. ‘My dream is to make this café big.’ She wants to employ others who live with Down Syndrome and similar conditions. ‘I want to give these children a new platform. I want to motivate them and make them see that children who are at home, they can come out. When everything’s closed, they get shut inside. They get bored. They don’t get opportunities. But when you open the gate, they can come out.’
Aditi’s excitement for the future is infectious, and in my own haze of thoughts, I leave without paying for my food. I realise only after I am home, and call her up immediately, embarrassed and apologetic. ‘It’s ok, ma’am, you pay me the next time you come.’ And with that, I promise to return to Aditi’s Corner.
Zarah works on issues around gender, sexuality, disability and technology at Point of View, Mumbai.
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal