| The House of Commons, on Chittaranjan Avenue, shut for the past 13 years. Picture by Amit Datta
In the early 50s, a tall man with a commanding presence used to be a familiar figure on Bentinck Street. The man was none other than Satyajit Ray, and his destination used to be none other than the famed House of Lords of the Coffee House at 5, Chittaranjan Avenue. This may surprise those who think that the Coffee House was always the dump it has turned into. Actually, this used to be the original hot and happening place, long before that phrase was coined.
It is, however, expected to turn around, and by the year-end, it could gain a new lease of life. After a few years of litigation, the Coffee House and the landlord of the building in which it is housed have struck a deal that will allow the House of Commons to be repaired and reopened.
In the laid-back 50s, the Coffee House, both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, used to be the favourite haunt of intellectuals and film-makers, theatre people, cinematographers and scriptwriters of renown. If one is to start naming them, it would sound like the Who’s Who of Indian cinema and theatre.
The Coffee House opened in 1942 at its present address. The 33-member Coffee Board was a statutory organisation constituted under the Coffee Act VII of 1942. During World War II, the Coffee House shifted to Albert Hall, on College Street.
In 1952, many employees were retrenched, says sales officer Gautam Kumar Roy, his ‘office’ a table in the cavernous House of Commons, where coffee beans are stored in huge sacks now. That was the year when the College Street Coffee House formed a cooperative of its own, and the Chittaranjan Avenue Coffee House came into its own. This is the period when the Coffee House enjoyed its heyday.
Liveried and turbaned waiters served freshly-cut sandwiches, cakes and nuts, and the coffee grounds and beans on sale were as famous as the decoction. The décor was pleasing to the eye. Utpal Dutt and Tapas Sen frequented the House of Commons.
It was going downhill, says Roy, but its fate was sealed, when, in 1990, a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling of the House of Commons, injuring one person. It was closed, and has remained shut since. The House of Lords operates, but who would want to drink dishwater here' In 1994, the Coffee Board lost its monopoly on the sale of coffee and things went from bad to worse.
Now it operates on a ‘no profit, no loss’ basis, and Roy claims the Coffee House still sells Rs 10,000-15,000 worth of decoction and coffee grounds daily. Against a sale of Rs 35,000 worth of coffee grounds alone per day in 1990. But a new circular has instructed the Coffee House to perk up sales.
So, let’s hope that instead of paying through your nose for some exotic concoction at some coffee shop, middle-class coffee lovers will, once again, get a decent cup of the brew for Rs 5 only.