The 52-year-old Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place may be shutting down. About a fortnight ago, a national daily broke the news in this oh-tragedy-is-so-beautiful headline: “The coffee aroma is fading away”. The report described the coffee house, situated on the third floor of the rundown Mohan Singh Place shopping complex, as a “thinking man’s favourite haunt”.
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It is not certain that the coffee shop will actually close. The place is plagued by controversy. The management, run by a Soviet-era organization called the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society, claims the coffee shop is not making enough money. However, quite a few regulars have rejected this argument. Along with charges of financial irregularities, they have accused the cooperative of no longer wanting to run the show. The rumour is that this prime location could be leased to McDonald’s or some such fast-food chain. Another version suggests that it was the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) that asked the cooperative to pay the dues and shut shop.
But why so much fuss? After all, this is a rather shabby coffee house frequented by retired old men.
Just look at the three sitting areas here—an inside hall, a corridor and a terrace. In the summer, no pedestal fans are provided outside. The corridor, too, remains muggy; there are three manholes just next to it. In the hall, the windows and ventilators are forever closed, fans move slowly, sofas are torn and there are no curtains. “We may as well die of asthma,” says Naresh Gupta, a retired government employee who has been coming to the coffee house for 20 years. “It’s as stuffy as Tihar jail.”
Then what brings him here?
A waiter at the Indian Coffee House. Mayank Austen Soofi
“This is something we cannot answer,” says Gupta, sitting with his three friends.
Indeed, quite a few regulars confess that they don’t come here for food, which is “just ok”; not even for the coffee, which has “become too watery.” It is probably just a habit for them.
“Indian Coffee House has a sociocultural significance,” explains Gupta, “It’s a necessity, a home away from home.” S.K. Mathur, a regular since 1976, fears that if the place closes, it might mean the end of their friends circle too.
But if, say, McDonald’s opens in its place, couldn’t they still gather here?
“The Indian Coffee House is an institution; it has helped in formulating social and political opinions in the country; it used to be frequented by intellectuals,” says Gupta. “A fast-food joint can’t replace that.”
“You know, M.F. Husain would come here,” snaps another gentleman, refusing to give his name. Gupta points out, “Even Lonely Planet has mentioned Indian Coffee House in its India guidebook.”
Soon, another regular joins the adda. Ashok Jain has been coming to the coffee house almost daily since 1957. Back then, the café used to be in what is now Palika Bazaar. Later, it moved to Janpath and then shifted to its present site at Mohan Singh Place in 1975.
“Are you aware that all revolutions came out of coffee houses?” Jain asks as he sprawls on the sofa.
“Yes, he’s right,” nods the unnamed gentleman. “In 1975, the news of the Emergency first broke out here in this coffee house, even before Indira Gandhi could’ve made an official announcement.”
“But why would you care?” he notes sullenly, staring at the slow-moving ceiling fan. “Imagine, they banned smoking in the entire coffee house!”
“See, this is how the management is killing the place,” Mathur shakes his head slowly. “In Europe, they even allow people to smoke marijuana in cafés.”
Will the coffee shop really close? “No, no, no,” Jain exclaims, his arms flaying. “It’s a conspiracy by some members of the cooperative and we will not let it happen”—a hint at another revolution. Mathur adds, “We’ve met the chief minister; she has said that the coffee house will stay.”
For regulars it’s an easy place to unwind with friends. Mayank Austen Soofi
In fact, these regulars are also members of an organization called Coffee Consumers Forum, which has sent a letter to Sonia Gandhi urging her that “the Cultural and Intellectual hub of the country be saved and in the meantime the Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Parliament Street, New Delhi & the Joint Secretary Registrar, Agriculture & Cooperation Department, Agriculture Ministry, Krishi Bhawan, New Delhi to dissolve the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society Limited and appoint an administrator”.
Somewhere in this bureaucratic gibber jabber, this appears to be a last-ditch effort to turn back the clock and make the coffee house what it once was—a Parisian-style café where writers, painters, musicians, philosophers and politicians engaged in verbal duels, where the sofas were not torn, where the china was not chipped, where windows weren’t closed, where the coffee wasn’t weak, where there were not one but two air coolers.
“Each evening, we gather here,” observes Gupta, “and leave only when the waiter comes at 8pm to switch off the lights.” Adds Mathur, “We have nowhere else to go... nowhere to unwind.”
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