Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Indian Coffee House: Towns Unlimited

This post has been lying in my mail box for quite a while. I was motivated to re look at this genre of eateries by Alex Paul. My memory bank had a store of visits and memories of Indian Coffee Houses, visited a few years ago in Delhi University, Shimla and the latest one was in Chandigarh in 2006. I could not get myself to write about them without revisiting one and going through the experience.

A little bit of background, Indian coffee houses were set up by the Coffee Board in the 50s were handed over to the employees to form worker cooperatives in various regions in 1957. The strongest representation was and is in Kerala with now over 60 Coffee houses, serving also local cuisine. In all there are close to 300 coffee houses (some going extinct, faster than we sip our coffee), owing to market conditions and change in consumption and just the change in the idiom.People like Rabindra Nath Tagore, Amartya Sen and many many legendary patrons have commiserated over coffee and eats in the now halls of gloom.

Quite honestly they have an old world charm, with turbaned and liveried waiters, with cummerbands and crisp white uniforms serving crisp dosa, omelette and cutlet.The Delhi or the northern chapter has, the following coffee houses, Delhi CP (next to Rivoli cinema),two in Jaipur, two in Chandigarh, Shimla, Dharamshala, Ludhiana and three in the NTPC power plant in Badarpur. They have shut down, three in Delhi University, One in Srinagar, One in Chandigarh.

We should run a campaign of save the India Coffee House and its culture, before they are extinct and fossilised and along with them will go reams of stories and brewing of cultures and sub cultures. You ask anyone today who is older than 40 and nearing 40 they will have pet Indian Coffee House Story, my father a travelling salesman for over 40 years, till he was too old and become CEO has several of these stories. So does my mother, Delhi University, Miranda House and one of the first National woman athletes in the 50s has several and yours truly has a few.

Most memories are of the early 80s at the D School (Delhi school of Economics) Indian Coffee House in the early 80s of sambar vada, cutlets, coffee,sandwiches, strangely none of them ever stocked chicken it was vegetarian or only mutton, true to this day, at least in the Northern chapter. The memories of our visits to the coffee houses in Shimla and Chandigarh to live up to my dear wife Praveen, who is very reminiscent and nostalgic with her memories of her visits and good times, kind of finding her childhood memories and taking our daughter (Detective An), to enable material for future memories.

Now for my latest revisit, Entered the second floor of Mohan Singh Place (also colloquially called Mohan Singh Palace). On the second floor with seating are for a hundred in the covered halls with an open terrace were a rave party for a few hundred can be held, its enormous. Shantanu, (my latest partner in crime) walk in and seat ourselves near the cashier/manager.

We absorb the atmosphere, the manager, Janak Raj (from Kerala), joined this particular coffee house in 1972. He has been with them for 36 years and recently became the manager. He has stories to tell, this coffee house opened in 68. The one, where Palika Kendra is was shut during the Emergency in 1975 (breeding house for revolutionaries and reactionary groups ??). The mother ship was at Janpath then called Queensway.We order to a polite Bhure Singh from Moradabad.

We order, Idli Vada, one each (with their signature chutney and sambhar), tomato sandwiches, a single veg cutlet, a single mutton cutlet (comes with their pumpkin sauce masquerading as a tomato sauce) and the most expensive thing on the menu, mutton biryani. We end with a special coffee each (for some strange reason special, means more milk in North India, all over India and perhaps all over the world... Latte is more expensive. Milk is premium subliminally , hence more expensive.

The ticket was Rs 170/- for the two of us. Bingo ! Lucky again well under Rs 100/- and we ate well, were served and had stories of the yonder by Janak Raj and Bhure Singh.In an era of Cafe Coffee Day, Barrista, Gloria Jeans, Bean Bag and Starbucks knocking on our doors. Will an endearing institution of the Indian Coffee House survive. A bit like the recreation of the Amul cooperative. Wish them the best, true socialists in heartless capitalist world, wish them loads of luck. God Bless

No comments: