Indian Coffee House. Picture by Amit Datta
One of the biggest hits among popular Bengali songs is Manna Dey’s Coffee House-er shei addata aaj aar nei. Now that the College Street Coffee House has turned 50 — it had existed before, from the 1940s, but in 1958 the Indian Coffee Workers Co-operative Society, which still runs the place took it over from Coffee Board — maybe the song should get a cover version from a budding new talent.
“Coffee House-er shei addata aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei...(Where has the Coffee House adda gone? Where have those golden evenings gone?)” Dey mourns — and goes on to list the terrible ends that have befallen the protagonists who enact the past: “Goan guitarist D’Souza is in his grave, Roma Roy is in a mental hospital, cancer is spreading fast through Amol’s body…”
It is tempting to see the song as an elegy on the institution of Coffee House itself and the mourned as emblems of the departed spirit of the place. One can imagine Nikhilesh, Moidul, Roma Roy, Amol and Sujata, who would “sometimes discuss Bishnu Dey, sometimes Jamini Roy”, at a table, their voices soaring, temperatures rising, cigarettes burning, going on noisily, endlessly, pointlessly, forever. That is the great Coffee House adda, another institution of Bengali life.
There is a lot of noise over Coffee House turning 50, too. Adda after adda, with big literary names thrown in, is being held. And one thought an adda just happened. The place has recently been done up, mainly with terracotta tiles and lights, and what looks like an empty exhibition space for paintings along the balcony wall.
In the new Coffee House, on a hot April afternoon, the hall downstairs is buzzing like a beehive, packed with perspiring bodies, young and old, under the faraway gaze of a Tagore portrait where the poet is dressed up as Valmiki. A steady, heavy drone and thin wisps of cigarette smoke — the ban doesn’t work here — rise from the hall to the balcony above. No poet seems to be anywhere. Not that poets are required to give off a red light or go beep beep, but if they were around in significant numbers, surely something would tell?
Then why are we celebrating Coffee House still as a cultural institution?
The first answer is easy. Whenever an institution turns 50, there is a birthday party. Many Bengalis believe that the top three Bengali institutions are Tagore, Ray and Coffee House, which, of course, is actually called Indian Coffee House and is not on College Street, but off it, on Bankim Chatterjee Street.
Such is the power of illusion.
So there is a party. But what to do at that party?
Look back and capture the golden moments, to be framed and hung in the gallery of Bengali culture.
There is a lot to look back on. Writer Sunil Ganguly, a regular since 1951, describes the early days.
“The poets had their own table, the short story writers theirs, and the film-makers their own. Artists Prakash Karmakar and Bikash Bhattacharjee and playwright Mohit Chattopadhyay would be around,” he says. Ganguly remembers chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in the crowd as a young man. A Kodak moment.
There were interesting out-of-towners. Poet Buddhadeva Bose had directed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to Coffee House.
“One day these two shahebs (Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky) appeared, Ginsberg shouting: ‘Where is Shakti? Where is Sunil?’ ” Another Kodak moment.
Ganguly, in fact, had converted Coffee House into the office of his magazine Krittibas. Another Kodak moment. Krittibas, with which were associated his contemporaries Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, was radical: it wanted to usher in a new language of writing, free as much of Tagoreana as of any colonial hangover.
Writer Nabanita Dev Sen remembers her first visit in 1956, with poet Pranabendu Dasgupta, to the table where Sunil, Shakti and Kabita Singha — the rare female figure in a group of angry young men — sat. Nirmalya Acharya, who worked on his magazine Ekshan at Coffee House, would sit nearby. More Kodak moments.
Then the young guns of the Fifties and Sixties began to grow old. And all that was left was the past, while the Eighties, Nineties, pizza, sandwiches and snazzier coffee places came up.
Ganguly says he stopped going from the late-Seventies, for “we had agreed that older people should stop going there”. (Which hasn’t really happened.)
Stopped in time
It seems the place, as a cultural institution, hasn’t gone anywhere since then. But the noise remained. And the memories. And the number of little magazines did not slump.
The birthday party is also about memory, says Dev Sen. It is a fruit of Bengali sentimentality, she says. “Ma bolite praan kore aanchan — it’s that kind of sentimentality.” Ganguly agrees that only old timers like him are keeping the memory alive.
But memory is also about forgetting. Was it a great cultural institution ever?
Some disagree vociferously. “All this talk is bhooter goppo (a cock and bull story),” says Raghab Bandyopadhyay, writer and publisher. “No culture was generated out of Coffee House. The place had some functional advantages. People (including poets) could meet there and work.”
As for the writers, Bandyopadhyay and young poet and Coffee House regular Anirban Mukhopadhyay agree that Shashadhar Datta, the author of the Bot-tola (cheap paperback) series Dasyu Mohan, also wrote his books here.
And for every Sunil Ganguly and Nabanita Dev Sen, there were hundreds of others for whom Coffee House was just a cheap place to sit in.
Former journalist Achintya Chatterjee was a regular during the late Sixties and early Seventies. He remembers the Coffee House stars — the post-Apur Samsar “star” Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Shashthibrata, the author of the “bold” autobiographical novel My God Died Young. Poet Benoy Majumdar sitting alone in a corner.
But Chatterjee puts aside any personal intellectual claim to Coffee House. He was there for the coffee. Because of its economics and the service by turbaned waiters in slow motion.
Which is the first practical reason to celebrate the 50th year.
“A cup of coffee cost three annas. The milk and sugar were served in separate pots. One cup of coffee could be split by two persons. One person would drink from the milk pot. The waiters did not mind,” he says. “The most important thing was that the waiters never rushed you.”
The waiters did not even mind the little magazine man who would sit for hours and not order anything. Instead, he would be irritated if the waiters wanted to take orders.
So under the benign gaze of the waiters, turbaned, moving in slow motion, never rushing anyone, the adda continued. So did the aantels, who moved from Sartre, Neruda and Borges to Garcia Marquez, Derrida and Calvino with time. Some, of course, from the Nineties, wear kurtas with Jibanananda excerpts and sing too much Rabindrasangeet.
It is mainly the coffee and the men who serve them, then. Says a man in his 50s: “I was more a Chittaranjan Avenue Coffee House fan, both Lords and Commons. The aantels in these two establishments kept to themselves and did not have any evident burning desire to save the world/run down the US/express a vociferous opinion on everything they knew nothing about, or had gleaned at second-hand.”
The coffee at College Street was an enduring experience, he says. “The crowd was not.”
The hot April afternoon is gliding into a hot April evening. The waiter finally brings the coffee and the chicken sandwiches to the balcony table. The coffee is not bad. But the chicken sandwiches, at that price, are a dream.
Long live Coffee House.
BUT OLD ADDA DIES HARD...
A group of high court barristers, advocates and senior counsels, back at the Indian Coffee House
recently after three or four decades, couldn’t get over the shock of the cigarette smoke “that would stick to our shirts for hours” not greeting them in.
“You could smell the Charminar before you entered the building,” said Gour Roy Chowdhury, looking around him for some reminder of his Goenka College days. “No smoke is good for health, though it might be the opposite for nostalgia,” quipped the 65-year-old bar-at-law. They were stumped to see posters on the stairway replaced by terracotta artefacts and the average age of customers up significantly .
Barrister Binoy Shankar Sinha Roy had planned the visit. The members of The Club 60+, a part of the Bar Library Club of Calcutta High Court, who came dressed in their official robes, soon settled down to adda on the second floor, where three tables were joined.
“We would get into grim consultations to decide if we could afford an Afghani Chicken between the four of us,” said ex-MP Ashutosh Law, who was a regular in the early ’60s as a student of St. Xavier’s
College and later the Calcutta University College of Law. “I used to come here so often, before, after and in between classes, that my father once told me that I should spend the night here too,” he added.
“Don’t go too deep into your past,” a septuagenarian told his friend. “Then you will come running to me to save your marriage in court... and at this age too!”
The two-hour adda session ended on a fulfilling note when advocate Tapas Gan Chowdhury recognised 70-year-old Mohammed Sahabuddin, a waiter here since 1959. Their eyes moistened. “The crowd now is very indifferent. We shared a close relationship with the youngsters earlier,” said Sahabuddin.