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Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Indian Coffee House: The ambience is free

Once the haunt of intellectuals and celebrities, it has managed to hang on with the support of loyalists

The first thing that hits you is the heat, barely held in check by the whirring fans suspended from the deep maroon rafters of the recently restored Franco-Tamil heritage building that houses the Indian Coffee House on Jawaharlal Nehru Street in Puducherry.

Next is the scent of hot coffee—a dark, bitter brew with milky undertones, borne in thick ceramic cups by men clad in grimy white (the trademark red turbans and cummerbunds have been dispensed with here)—that envelops you in its languorous embrace.

Formica-topped tables and plastic chairs in a particularly unattractive shade of brown have replaced the cane furniture of yore, but the lime-green walls and cerulean trimmings haven’t changed. Neither has the menu, displayed on an old-fashioned blackboard.

The food is decidedly unpretentious—there is coffee (hot and cold, no frappes, mochas or cappuccinos here, thank you), some south Indian snacks, some basic desserts, a few rice-based dishes and French toast (Bombay toast, if you will) that award-winning writer Yann Martel is believed to have supped on while he created Piscine Molitor Patel and Richard Parker. Admittedly, some of the listed items have rather adventurous spellings, venilla ice cream (vanilla), badam gheer (kheer) and rose gheer (kheer) to name a few, but the menu appears exhaustive enough. There is even that popular concession to health, green tea.

“I have been working here since 1979 and much of what we serve remains the same," says Andaswamy, one of the waiters. “Our customers are very happy with what we offer and don’t want anything else."

Nino, a patron, agrees. “I have been visiting Puducherry from Italy since the ’90s and I always eat here. Not much has changed over the last 20 years; it still has that old-world charm and the waiters are very friendly," he says between bites of creamy, mustard-studded curd rice (Rs30). “The menu hasn’t changed much either. The quality of the food is great, the prices are low and I never fall ill when I eat here."

A sense of belonging

The Indian Coffee House was started in the pre-independence era by the Coffee Board under the British and functioned that way till the mid-1950s. Then, disaster struck. A large number of the hitherto operational centres were closed down and scores of people lost their jobs.

Enter communist leader A.K. Gopalan, who with the help of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, mobilized the retrenched workers, encouraging them to establish Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Societies. The first one opened in Bengaluru in 1957, before spreading to the rest of the country, including Delhi, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Punjab.

“We are found in at least 18 states of this country," says T. Balakrishnan of the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society, Kannur. “In Kerala, there are two societies—the Thrissur society and the one in Kannur. The Kannur society has branches in six districts—Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad, Kozhikode, Malappuram and Palakkad. The Thrissur branch covers eight districts."

There is no standardization across the coffee houses, he adds; their menus vary across states and depending on the societies that runs them. “The same cup of coffee that is Rs8 in Kannur is priced at Rs20 in Jabalpur. The menu is also very different; what you find in a Kolkata outlet is not the same as the one in Kerala or Karnataka."

Whether it is the masala dosas of Puducherry, the banana fritters of Kannur or the chicken kobiraji cutlets of Kolkata, one thing remains unerringly the same. “We keep costs low and offer great quality," says Balakrishnan. “We elect representatives from among workers to spearhead the managing committee so there is a sense of ownership."

Shashi Tharoor, member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram and former Union minister, agrees. “The coffee house offers a cheerful, unrushed atmosphere; good snacks and better coffee at highly affordable prices and lively, conversational and often well-educated waiters who behave as if they have a stake in the enterprise, which they often do, since the coffee houses are cooperatives and often the waiters are members, not just employees," he says. “I have been a frequenter of the coffee houses in three places: Kolkata in my high school days, Delhi in my college days, and Kerala as an MP. The waiters at the coffee house in Kolkata were famous for their views on everything from the Vietnam war to Jean-Luc Godard’s films; the ones at the Delhi University outlet were often indulgent of students who could only afford one cup of coffee but needed a place to sit and chat. The ones in Kerala combined both these qualities. The coffee house became the nation’s locus for both coffee and conversation."

The persistence of memory

Coffee and conversation. There are many who have gravitated towards Indian Coffee Houses in search of these. Artist, media personality and politician Pritish Nandy recounts, “I grew up in Kolkata and so my memories of the coffee house there centre around two venues—the iconic one on College Street where every political and cultural movement of consequence began and the smaller one on Central Avenue where the left-wing intellectual elite gathered."

The College Street coffee house, he says, was where he met almost all his friends. “I was a rookie in my first year in Presidency College and I remember sharing coffee with poets like Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay, who later became known as one of Bengal’s finest and most popular novelists. Shakti, who I consider one of the three greatest poets of the post-Tagore era, a few years later sat in the coffee house and translated my poems from English into his amazing Bengali, and Sunil wrote the introduction to the book Pritish Nandyr Kabita, which Ananda Publishers brought out," he says.

He reels out a list of people he remembers meeting at the College Street coffee house—Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Jyoti Basu, Shombhu Mitra and Badal Sarkar. “All the amazing writers, poets, novelists, thinkers, philosophers of Bengal came there. Age was no barrier. I spent time in both coffee houses whenever I could get away from work, which was rare. The friendships I made endured," he says.

Delhi-based writer Sreemoyee Piu Kundu admits that her earliest impression of the College Street Indian Coffee House was through her mother, an alumnus of Presidency College. “At that point, the college was at its academic zenith and the coffee shop was a stone’s throw away from the college. All the great minds of Calcutta, the thinkers of that time, the local celebrities would go there. My mother would tell me stories about missing classes and heading to the coffee shop hoping to catch a glimpse of actor Soumitra Chatterjee, directors Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen. It was the hotbed of the Naxal movement. I remember my mother telling me how exams were cancelled because of a shootout there. The coffee shop stood for the exuberance of youth, well-known faces—it played witness to political change. And I inherited all these memories from my mother," she says.

Ghost of its former self?

Though the Puducherry coffee house is housed in a heritage building, scant attention was paid to its preservation till recently. “This was once one of the most popular eating joints here but unfortunately it underwent a lot of wear and tear and wasn’t maintained properly," says Ashok Panda of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), a non-governmental organization that restores monuments and heritage property, adding that it took nearly five years to restore the place.

To make it worse, there was talk of the place being a loss-making unit, rumours that were strongly dispelled by T. Murugan, the honorary president of the Indian Coffee House Workers’ Cooperative Union (The Hindu, 29 May 2008). But it isn’t just a phenomenon specific to the Puducherry outlet. The Connaught Place Indian Coffee House in New Delhi was also reported to have been making serious losses and defaulting on rent (India Today, 27 September 2009). Luckily, thanks to loyal consumers, both places have managed to hold their own, but similar issues have cropped up in the recent past with outlets at Dharamsala and the one in Bengaluru.

Sreemoyee admits to being rather disappointed with her first visit to the Indian Coffee House her mother had waxed so eloquently about. “After I got admission to Presidency College, my mother took me to the coffee house on College Street. I was in my late teens at that time and had been exposed to shopping arcades and other coffee shops by then so I wondered what she saw in this place. It seemed so old and shabby compared to the places I had visited," she says. “The ethos, ethnicity and soul of the city had changed since my mother’s college days; this place was a ghost of its former self."

The late Manna Dey, a frequent visitor to the coffee house himself, mourned the decline in his popular song, “coffee houser shei adda ta aaj aar nei" (the chat sessions at the coffee house are no more), but the legacy remains.

Pritish Nandy agrees. “I am a product of that coffee house culture," he says. “I have patience with every ideology, can listen to every voice, however angry or hysterical it may be. I understand politics, art, music, theatre; I understand hope, justice, imagination, trust because I grew up there and met some of the finest thinkers of that time and shared their thoughts and ideas and understood what it was to be young, brave, creative. They encouraged me to become who I am, who I wanted to be. I learnt more in the coffee house than I learnt at Presidency College. I made more friends there than I made anywhere else in life. It taught me what the open mind was. It taught me what it was to be Bengali, and therefore Indian. It was my home, my college, my university. It was the library where I sat and read the books of life, where I found so much that it will last me an entire lifetime."

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