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SALUTE TO THE COFFEE HOUSE
- Conversation and enlightenment

Surfing the internet, I came across an essay by a Swedish writer on the social significance of my favourite stimulant. Jacob Norberg’s “No Coffee”, published in Eurozine (www.eurozine.com), explores the role played by the café in modern European society. Following the German thinker Jürgen Habermas, Norberg argues that to drink a cup of coffee in company “signifies the opportunity for people to talk to each other beyond the constraints of purpose-governed exchanges”. In the home, the church, and the workplace, the people one met were social superiors or inferiors. On the other hand, in the coffee house humans met one another as free and sovereign individuals. “When the members of the bourgeoisie meet for coffee,” writes Norberg, “they convene as participants in true humanity: they claim not to represent a particular constituency or interest, but to embody a universal community.”

Reading this essay set me thinking of the coffee houses I have frequented over the years. To begin with, there was the Coffee House at the University of Delhi, where I studied (or at least was enrolled at) between 1974 and 1979. I was at first affiliated to St. Stephen’s College, an institution which embodied both intellectual excellence and social snobbery. To escape the latter, I decamped every evening to the University Coffee House. Here came students from other (and allegedly lesser) colleges, all seeking a place where one could meet as unmarked individuals. To eat in the St. Stephen’s College café was to identify with a certain social class; to restrict oneself to the Miranda House café was to leave out of one’s purview the male half of humanity. In the University CH there were no such constraints — consequently, the conversation was of an altogether superior quality (the quality of the food, and of the coffee, was another matter). It was also multilingual. One heard, at various tables, Hindi being spoken, also Bengali, Assamese and Tamil, and, of course, English.

In between my first and second years at university, the Emergency was proclaimed. When I returned to campus I found the CH a somewhat altered place. It had been rid of the politically inclined students; these mostly from the Jana Sangh (which then supplied the office-bearers and activists of the Delhi University Student Union). The place was still full, there were still boys and girls, and one still heard many of the languages of the Eighth Schedule. What had changed was the decibel level. The students spoke in hushed tones, and restricted themselves to romance and sport, eschewing politics.

The Emergency lasted just under two years. In that time, I visited the CH, on an average, four or five times a week. One went, as in early modern Europe, to cultivate company. One did not go there alone. But in these extraordinary times, there was an exception. Through the period of the Emergency, a table in the room had a single occupant. He was middle-aged, had a goatee dyed brown, and wore spectacles. As I write this, I can picture him sitting there, silently tucking into his kheema dosa. One sat as far away from him as possible, on the grounds that anyone who came alone to the CH was there on fishy business. It was rumoured that he was a RAW agent, sent by his masters to sniff out and report back on any signs of dissidence or discontent.

One should be grateful for small mercies. The Emergency saw a RAW man or two posted in the University CH. But it disposed altogether of the great Coffee House that existed in the heart of Connaught Place. Open on three sides, this CH had been an epicentre of the movement against political corruption led by Jayaprakash Narayan. Now JP’s adversary, Indira Gandhi, had it bulldozed and erected a shopping arcade in its place.

In early 1977, the Emergency was lifted, and the political prisoners released from jail. The University Coffee House became a venue for political discussions more intense than any held there previously. Hindutva ideologues and Marxist theoreticians came together in an unlikely alliance that aimed to unseat the ruling Congress in the forthcoming elections. (At the time, the Congress had held power at the Centre since Independence.) As we apolitical students sat drinking coffee and eating idlis, the radicals of Left and Right went around distributing leaflets and shouting slogans against Indira and Sanjay Gandhi.

Not long after the Janata government came to power, I shifted allegiances — from St. Stephen’s College to the Delhi School of Economics. The D School Coffee House was (and still remains) a special place. The coffee was tasteless, the wadas cold and damp. But the conversation was surpassingly good. The topics excluded romance and sport as well as politics. The names bandied about in the University CH were Bob Dylan and Bishan Bedi and Jayaprakash Narayan; here, they were (the Nobel prize winning economists) Robert Solow and Simon Kuznets and (the trendy French theorists) Claude Lévi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu.

I was a student at the Delhi School at the very end of its golden age. The departments of economics and sociology were still world-class. Amartya Sen had left for England and M.N. Srinivas had retired to Bangalore; but Sukhamoy Chakravarty and André Béteille remained. There were also other brilliant scholars on the faculty — such as A.L. Nagar and Kaushik Basu in economics, and Veena Das and J.P.S. Uberoi in sociology. Both departments had active research programmes.

While the formal learning took place in the classroom, the wisdom of the Delhi School faculty found collective expression in its Coffee House. What they said in class or what they had recommended students to read were discussed and debated around its damp tables. Now my allegiances were divided, and my time too. During the day, I went to the D School CH for enlightenment; in the evenings, to the University CH for conversation.

I should take a bow now to a Coffee House which I knew only fleetingly: that which is located on Col- lege Street. Although I spent six years in Calcutta, these were lived in the far south of the city. The place where Satyajit Ray planned his films and Ashim ‘Kaka’ Chatterjee planned revolution, I visited, on the average, once a year. In any case, as a non-Bengali, I am scarcely in a position to write about it.

The coffee houses I knew in my formative years were different in sensibility from the European café. They were seedier, for one; the discussions were more intense, for another. Now, in ripe middle age, I frequent a place that may more properly be called ‘bourgeois’. This is Koshy’s Parade’s Café, located on St. Mark’s Road in Bangalore. Recent migrants know the place as ‘Koshy’s’; older residents, as ‘Parade’s’. At any rate and by any name, it is fantastically popular among all classes of Bangaloreans. Lawyers come there, also college teachers, and playwrights, and politicians. Even the odd software titan and Test cricketer has been spotted here.

When I am in town I go to Parade’s once or twice a week. It lies across the road from Bangalore’s best sweetshop (K.C. Das) and down the road from India’s best bookshop (Premier’s). A stone’s throw away is the Chinnaswamy Stadium. One usually combines a visit to Parade’s with some other errand; buying roshogollas for the family, for example, or a book for oneself. But the place has some attractions of its own. These include a courteous staff and an irrepressibly gregarious owner. And the stimulants on offer are superb.

Unlike the cafés I used to frequent in my youth, I often go to Parade’s alone. The choice is voluntary. When one is twenty, one goes to a coffee house for the conversation; when one is fifty, the quality of the coffee matters too.

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