Never before has the condom been debated upon in Chandigarh as much as it has this May. The reason: the recent opening of the Condom Bar by the Chandigarh Industrial and Tourism Development Corporation (CITCO) in the Kalagram Arts Village Complex on the Chandigarh-Shimla highway.
A full-fledged watering hole, the Condom Bar offers customers the works - from a mug of chilled beer for Rs 30 (US$1=Rs 45) to a well-spiced Bloody Mary at Rs.70; and from a large peg of Antiquity for Rs 45 to 100 Pipers at Rs 60. There are also soft drinks and snacks aplenty, including north Indian favorites like 'kalami kabab', 'tandoori chicken' and 'paneer tikka', all at affordable prices. A vegetarian 'thali' (platter) in the adjoining Rasoi restaurant can be ordered for just Rs 50. And, while you are at it, you can also order some condoms.
The Condom Bar is a first-of-its-kind venture that helps in raising AIDS awareness and encouraging safe sex. The idea of starting such a bar occurred to Jasbir Singh Bir, Managing Director, CITCO, during his travels abroad. He went ahead with the plan, fully aware that it would raise many eyebrows. "Someone had to take the lead and I decided to do so. It is high time we shed our hypocrisy and see what the ground reality is. We need to encourage condom usage rather than be embarrassed about it," says Bir.
The target, according to Bir, is the middle class and even the lower middle class. He says, "The elite are aware and visit the posh bars and getaways around the city. It's the middle class and people from rural backgrounds that frequent the CITCO complex in Kalagram. What has made me happy is that the response has been tremendous and many young - married and unmarried - couples are frequenting the bar. I chose this place because it is on the highway and is easily accessible."
As you enter the bar, the brass lettering on the door announces 'Condom Bar' and prepares you for the message, as does the big mascot of a condom, surrounded by the HIV/AIDS red ribbon insignia. This logo is actually a motif that appears all over the bar: on the tumblers, T-shirts and other souvenirs, and on the uniforms of the waiters. But that's not all: the backdrop of the bar has a mural made of hundreds of condoms. Sex is the theme of the paintings on the walls and tablemats: 'Enjoy Safely', 'Don't Just Get On. Get It On!' and 'Protect Yourself, Protect Others' announce the mats.
Of course, there is no gender divide and condoms are available for both men and women, with the UT State AIDS Control Society supplying the condoms. And if you have bought your contraceptives and had a peg or two, you could shake a leg in the adjoining disco where the DJ spins some foot stomping numbers.
However, there are many opposing strains that can be heard. Says theatre director Rani Balbir Kaur, a prominent senior citizen of the city, "While we do need to raise AIDS awareness, such openness is only going to encourage lust and licentious behavior among the young." Adds Avnish Jolly, a doctor who has been running an AIDS Helpline for several years in Chandigarh, "We are not yet culturally ready for such a place. What we need to do is create awareness at the grassroots. Condom-usage cannot be developed without cultural development."
However, officials herald the bar as a positive move towards raising AIDS awareness. Sonia Trikha, Project Director, UT State AIDS Control Society, who supports the effort, elaborates, "The opening of the Condom Bar has served the purpose of breaking the taboo on talking about sex and condoms. What is more significant is that this effort has come from a government agency... At present, we have kept Deluxe and Nirodh condoms, taken from stockists. But we propose to keep all kinds of brands, including extra-lubricated ones for homosexuals."
Explains Bir, "We are seeing permissive behavior all around us. There are surveys showing that as many as 60 per cent of schoolgirls are indulging in sex. Young corporate professionals are living a permissive lifestyle. With the development of the IT city, 15,000 young professionals from other cities will be descending here. It is well known that weekends see young people getting together to de-stress, drink, dance and indulge in sex."
As the debate rages, the bar draws large crowds, roughly between the age group of 20-40. Evenings are particularly busy, with people lined up outside. Says A.K. Malhotra, manager of the bar, "We have a home theatre screening a movie on AIDS, produced by the National AIDS Control Association." CITCO also plans to hold an annual 'Ms and Mr CITCO' contest at Kalagram. Adds Bir, "We will invite the NGOs working in the HIV sector to identify potential participants, irrespective of their HIV status."
Incidentally, Condom Bar was inaugurated by Pooja Thakur, President, Chandigarh Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. "The Bar serves the purpose of demystifying sex and the condom. I am all for creating awareness about AIDS at every level so that no one meets their end like my husband, a truck driver, who died of AIDS."
It is estimated that the local Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGI) has as many as 1,500 HIV+ people receiving treatment. There are an equal number of such patients in the surrounding areas of Punjab and Haryana. As many as 155 children are among those receiving treatment for HIV at the PGI.