FACE TO FACE with Bhagyashri Vartak

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Meet Bhagyashri Vartak. She is one of the most dynamic, positive-minded personalities I have ever met. She works as a Special Teacher and Supervisor for the speech-and-hearing challenged over the past 25 years in Mumbai. She teaches at the Rochiram T. Thadani School for the speech and hearing impaired. This is an interesting and dramatic departure from her conventional qualifications that comprises a degree in commerce followed by a diploma in business management and a short course in journalism. But her interests lay elsewhere, so she did a course for the Hearing Impaired and also completed a course in sign language A and B levels, and is currently waiting to complete the C level. What drew my attention to her is that she has successfully trained and mentored some of her ex-students to join the service staff of a restaurant and a bar in Mumbai. The restaurant is called ‘Mirchi and Mime’ while the bar is called ‘Madeira and Mime’. She has also written and composed the ‘silent’ national anthem for her students at the RTT School. Shoma Chatterji in conversation with Bhagyashri Vartak.

What motivated you to move towards training and also working with the speech-and- hearing impaired?
I had a wish to contribute to society and that is why I chose this field. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction knowing that I have achieved my purpose. Some of my students and their parents thank me for giving them the reason for living with dignity that the parents had never imagined when their handicap was discovered. Looking at their bright and smiling faces gives me satisfaction nothing else would have done. I am very proud of my association with them and feel overwhelmed by the affection shown to me by my ex-students.

You have initiated this beautiful programme of training and placing some of your students to man the service staff in the restaurant called Mirchi and Mime. How did this happen?
One day, I was approached in my school by two young men – Prashant Kasar, CEO and Director and Anuj Shah, Chief Operating Officer and Director who run Squaremeal Foods Private Limited in Mumbai. Mirchi and Mime and Madeira and Mime are their brainchild and they run it very efficiently. They met the director of the school, Amar Asrani and explained their project of employing youngsters who are hearing challenged in the service staff. Mr. Asrani liked the idea and greenlit the project. I decided to accept this new proposal and took it up as a new challenge for the benefit of my ex-students.

How did the ex-students respond to the idea?
The response was very positive. They realised that this would help them stand on their own feet, boost their self-confidence and would help them flow into and with the mainstream. Socially also, they would be recognised as productive individuals who are not burdened under their handicap. This would help them communicate and socialise with the mainstream which was the main purpose of the project. I was helped in this by my close friend Rujita Patil and Shubhada Satpute, who is the Assistant Headmistress of my school.

How did their parents respond?
We showed the parents a video film on a similar restaurant called Signs. They were convinced but had the usual worries of how their daughters would come home late at night, or, how would their son work in a bar or in a restaurant. These doubts were patiently explained by the owners who assured them that their wards would be taken care of and their safety would be of prime importance. Other significant things such as salaries, perks, concessions, shift hours, conditions of service were explained to them patiently by Prashant and Anuj. Anuj explained that the service delivery was designed keeping in mind the limitation of speech and hearing.

What did the training comprise and how did you mentor them?
The training programme had four modules – life sciences, job readiness, simple English and service skills. It went on for eight weeks within a classroom situation, followed by three weeks of floor experience with friends and family posing as customers.

How different is it serving guests and customers in a main- stream restaurant along with other colleagues who do not have any physical challenges? Please explain.
All the servers in Mirchi and Mime are speech and hearing impaired. The sequence of service manager interventions is designed to ensure seamless interaction between the customer and the server. I serve as the conduit between the restaurant management and the serving staff, while I continue as mentor to my ex-students who seem really happy to discover a new meaning in their lives.

How many of the speech-and-hearing impaired are employed at the two restaurants now?
They had initially appointed around 25 service staff which included students from my school and also from the job fair organised by the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped. Sadly, the restaurant industry is not spared the politics and one-upmanship that sustains around us, including the corporate sector. The causes are varied and cannot be individualised. Especially when parent support, character and ego play an important part. However, compared to other players in our industry, the drop-outs in these restaurants have been extremely low.

Did you try to find out why some students who were work- ing here had dropped out?
So far as my observation goes, some left because of long working hours. The other reason is since both the bar and the restaurant are very popular, they are called upon to work overtime which is a very big issue for those who live very far away like New Mumbai, Dombivli, Virar. That was one reason why they left their jobs. I think without hard work you cannot realise one’s dream. Some of them did not understand the meaning of hard work, nor did their parents. So they left their jobs. A few also had a drinking problem. The owners have kept a room for late night working staff. As their mentor, I discuss their problems on a one-to-one basis and try to solve them.

How are the customers responding to the service staff?
We have had an overwhelming response from the customers, who need to book beforehand to get a place. The customers have been most supportive and appreciative and encourage the efforts that we have taken to open such a restaurant. Besides, there is a special menu card designed with sign language that is handed to the customers when a speech-and-hearing impaired server is serving them, which mainstream customers can decipher easily. The staff who are still there are happy and extremely committed to their work, and a few have also gained promotions and increments.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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