(NOTE: This article can also be found in the Hindustan Times here)
In the waning light of a May sunset, at a rooftop cafe facing the Qutub Minar, a young man talks about a cousin who was confined to a room for years and burned with cigarettes for coming out as gay. His audience, a group of college students, listens closely.
On the far side of the cafe, two women sit together picking at potato wedges and making awkward first-date small talk.
Anywhere else, they would have looked incongruous, but at Chez Jerome – Q, said to be Delhi’s first LGBTQ cafe, no one blinks an eye. The so-called abnormal is normal here, and judgment is meant to be left at the door.
Since Chez Jerome opened, it’s hosted speed dating events for straight and queer couples, ladies’ and trans men’s nights, discussions about LGBTQ issues, and meetings with queer artistes.
Waiters swish by, taking orders and placing empty glasses on a counter over which a large rainbow flag is draped. Behind the counter, on the door of the bathroom, the usual stick figure of a man or a woman has been replaced by a figure that’s half-man, half-woman. It is labelled “WE DON’T CARE”.
The sun sets and all of a sudden there’s music. The Qutub Minar glows in the night sky. The students break into dance. One of the young men is wearing a long embroidered purple skirt. A glittering rhinestone necklace peeks out from below the collar of another boy’s checked shirt. A huge neon green turban is perched precariously on the head of a young woman. They sway joyously, unselfconsciously to the beats of megahit Hindi pop song Kala Chashma.
A man with a big tray of drinks and a bigger smile ambles towards the customers, takes their orders, and introduces himself. His name is Sambhav Dehlavi and he is owner, head chef and maître d’ all rolled into one. If you seem to want company, he’ll sit down with you, share a cigarette and tell you how he set up Chez Jerome last year to create a safe public space for the LGBTQ community.
Are there not already places in Delhi where queer people can hold hands or dress the way they want? There’s difference between being tolerated and being welcomed, Dehlavi says, between feeling like an outsider and feeling at home.
“When you enter, you realise that you’re free here,” says 18-year-old Nitish Anand, who defines himself as gender-fluid and asexual. ”Your choices of being different are okay.”
Pulkit Sharma, a 19-year-old Delhi University student who identifies as queer, says the cafe serves as a “safe haven” and represents a “giant leap” for the city.
It’s an idea that took shape as Dehlavi backpacked across Europe a few years ago and worked as a chef to pay his way. Every city he visited boasted a vibrant queer culture with at least one public space for the community.
In India, where sex between people of the same gender is outlawed and where queerness is normally shunned, Dehlavi feels the need for spaces such as Chez Jerome is even greater.
He is quick to point out that exclusion is not his aim. “I want this to be a safe space for women, too,” Dehlavi says, “for anyone who wants to be part of an inclusive culture.”
Even Dehlavi’s menu is a study in unconventionality. It’s a free-wheeling assortment of foods from across Europe: France’s famous croque monsieur; a version of the Spanish pincho, strips of meat and potato tied to garlic bread and topped with cherry tomatoes; Greek omelettes with feta cheese, baby spinach leaves and chopped red onions; and a white Italian pizza with Dehlavi’s personal twist — a layer of potato chips and cream cheese.
And there’s more left off the menu that Dehlavi will whip up for you if you fall into conversation with him. Like its customers, Chez Jerome offers more than meets the eye.