Murmurs of Change in the World’s Oldest City

A vegan café in Varanasi is an unlikely stronghold of feminist solidarity.  
Murmurs of Change in the World’s Oldest City
Everyone seeks some sort of solace in Varanasi, and the city’s many, many cafes, are often a good place to find it. Photo By: evgenii mitroshin/Shutterstock

Thousands of tourists from India and around the world have many reasons to come to Kashi, often called the world’s oldest living city. Some come to experience the “real India”, some to wash their sins away, and yet others come here to die in hopes of achieving moksha. I travelled to Varanasi for a little bit of everything: the dusty beige ghats leading to the Ganga; the ancient labyrinth of streets scattered with bone-thin, orange-clad sadhus; the saffron-yellow thandai; and of course, the thick, shiny white lassi. But while walking around the city’s old-stoned alleys, I found something beyond the expected.

While on a morning exploration for good coffee, I stumbled upon the welcoming red-and-white gates of a vegan place called Aum Café in a narrow cobbled lane, its walls slapped with drying cakes of cow dung. Though Varanasi’s vegetarian street food is justly famous, I never expected to find a vegan café—I had to find out more.

Inside, Aum was a serene, homely café—strikingly, managed by an all-women crew. Uttar Pradesh is often perceived as a highly patriarchal state, where women remain mostly indoors as homemakers. In my loitering among the rush of people and vehicles in the city, I couldn’t help but notice the thin visibility of women in its streets. Aum Café, with its decision to only hire women and to empower women, is an aberration. It also represents a change that is slowly taking place in this male-dominated society.

Shivani Verna Johnson, a yearly visitor from California, decided to open Aum Café in 2007 with Sangeeta Awasti, as a solution to her constant stomach problems when in India. Sangeeta was her Hindi teacher’s wife and the only person who could satiate Shivani’s stomach without causing it to rumble.

“I only knew how to cook Indian food, not the kind of food tourists might prefer to eat,” Sangeeta told me. “But Shivani said she’ll teach me. All she wanted from me in return was to teach her how to pray and Hindu rituals.” Sangeeta, 53, is the manager of Aum Café, which now serves everything from great coffee to pizza, waffles, and even an eggless omelette.

Murmurs of Change in the World’s Oldest City 1

Aum Cafe (top) is a refreshing change of pace, and food, in Varanasi. With a welcoming ambience (bottom right), and its women-only team (bottom left), the cafe is quite popular. Photo Courtesy: Aum Cafe/facebook (top), Photos By: Shreya Kalra (bottom)

Managing the cafe has been an empowering experience for this mother of three children. Sangeeta is the first woman in her village who finished school, let alone college. To be financially independent makes her proud. “I want other women to progress, just like I got an opportunity to move ahead in life,” she said.

The café started with and kept an all-female staff until 2010. But those early years were filled with tension, as husbands began having problems with their wives’ independence. Sometimes, they even came to the café drunk, causing a ruckus. Sangeeta and Shivani decided to hire men, and the cafe ran with an all-male staff until 2017, when they decided to revert to only women employees. “The boys wouldn’t maintain the place well or clean properly. Instead, they would be talking upstairs with the customers,” said Sangeeta. “They were lazy workers.”

The current employees seem more ambitious. There’s 18-year-old Madhuri Biswas, who is here to learn more skills and English in the hopes of becoming an air hostess in the future. “I feel proud to be earning for myself and standing on my own two feet,” Madhuri told me.

Another staffer, Seema Tiwari, has worked at Aum Café for three years. She began working against the wishes of her husband and in-laws, but she’s earning so that her four kids can go to school and have better opportunities. Seema and her husband never went to school, but she smiles widely now because “she’s happy to be financially independent”.

Madhu Gaur, 28, never went to school either. She’s been working at the café for less than a month, and told her in-laws about her job just a few days before I met her. “They told me to stay in the house. My husband works in Mumbai and doesn’t send money, and neither do my in-laws in Gorakhpur,” Madhu told me. “I need to work, otherwise what will my children do?” She wakes up before 5am, makes breakfast, and sends her two kids to school before arriving at the cafe at 7am, all so they can have a better future.

There was a palpable solidarity among the staff at Aum Cafe. Though the context is starkly different, it reminded me of the solidarity I saw online, among women responding to the #MeToo movement. In Varanasi, it often feels like time has rebelled against the ordinary laws of physics. But the women at Aum Café are a reminder that progress can take place in one of the oldest places on the planet, without it relinquishing the mystical charm that attracts thousands every year.

  • Shreya Kalra is an independent journalist currently based in Toronto. She’s written for VICE, Ricochet, OpenDemocracy and The Wire, among others. Her travel philosophy is to head out with a plan.

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