KOLKATA, India – In one of the cafes, asking for chai is inviting a look of searing contempt from the turbaned waiter, as if blasphemy had been committed: it’s called the Indian Coffee House, stupid.
In the other cafe, only chai is served, slowly cooked over a charcoal fire in the same dark kitchen for 103 years with the silent concern of performing an old ritual. The history of this place, the Preferred Cabin, is visible in the layers of soot covering the walls, in the arched windows which filter the light in a soft aura of yesteryear, in the small attic above which is an open cellar. for all the broken chairs under a legendary client who lost his temper during a heated debate.
The two cafes, just a five-minute walk from each other in central Calcutta, may be different in the caffeinated drink they offer. But they are bound by their common role in fueling a century of political argument, revolutionary plots and endless gossip in a city at the heart of India’s rich intellectual tradition.
Both can be found in the College Street area, the bustling area home to some of Asia’s oldest universities. The alleys are cluttered with small bookstores, the city’s enormous appetite for knowledge production spilling onto the sidewalk. On any given day, loudspeakers are blowing out sounds of protest – by a union, a student group or a political party.
Kolkata wears its past on its sleeve like few other cities, from its round yellow taxis to its dilapidated trams. The two cafes are both museums of nostalgia and part of an essential, even addicting, daily life for many.
“I organize the operating hours so that I can do it here,” said Dr Jayanta Ray, 70, a gynecologist and dedicated Coffee House customer.
Zahid Hussain, the manager, has worked at the café for over three decades. “I’ve done it from A to Z here – everything from service to cooking,” Hussain said. “Except for sweeping.”
When the cafe closed for months during India’s two waves of Covid, patrons like Dr Ray, who has frequented it for 40 years, were eager to return.
“His wife kept him under house arrest,” one of his friends joked, “until he received his second vaccine.”
Friends come to the Coffee House to celebrate birthdays, to dissect recent football games, and even to host an annual on-site blood drive – “very caffeinated blood,” Dr. Ray joked.
But most of the time, customers from both cafes come just to talk for hours about anything and everything. There is a word in Bengali for this unrestricted conversation: “adda”.
“Adda is something that goes unnoticed – because it is so much a part of our daily life and an integral part of being a Bengali, ”said Dr Nabamita Das, professor of sociology at the University of the Presidency in Kolkata who wrote his doctoral thesis on adda. “And when you think of adda, you think of adda integrally related to the adda space – you mean the adda Coffee House, the adda Favorite Cabin.
Some of Bengal’s favorite icons are said to be holding adda at the Coffee House, from legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray to Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen in economics. Many of the city’s intellectual giants spoke fondly of how coffee and conversation shaped their worldview, comparing each table to its own literary salon.
Among the dozens of paintings hanging askew on the walls of the Coffee House is a life-size portrait of a young Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most famous poet, towering over the brown plastic chairs arranged around the 40 tables. Between the paintings are “No-smoking Zone” signs, which could just as easily be seen as concept art in the smoky lobby.
“Formally and technically it’s a non-smoking area, but you see cigarette butts all around the floor,” Dr Das said. “There is almost like a silent consent among those who serve and those who come to the house not to have ashtrays on the table and yet smoke.. “
Balcony seating provides some privacy for intimate conversations and an overview of the scene below.
“I would sit upstairs sometimes and feel the conversations going up,” wrote Partha Ghose, a physicist and author known for popularizing modern science, in a collection of thoughts on the Coffee House.
At the Favorite Cabin, customers made their way before Sanchay Barua even put his lunch plate away and opened the doors of the cafe opened by his grandfather 103 years ago. Ganshan Das, a laborer, boiled milk over a coal fire in the dark back kitchen – as he has done for 51 years.
Half a dozen people, including an author writing his sixth book and a retired economist, had already taken their seats in different corners of the cafe.
As conversation buzzed around the room, the main topic of divided opinions was the fiercely contested state election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party ruling India doing everything possible to overthrow the leader. out of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Earlier in his life Mr Barua, 57, had tried his hand at selling stationery supplies but decided to join the family cafe two decades ago after his father died.
Repeated Covid lockdowns have taken their toll, reducing the operation to one shift per day after lunch. He cannot afford to pay for the labor required for longer hours. So, for now, he and Mr. Das are largely running things.
“I’m getting old too, so I don’t know how long this will continue,” Mr. Barua said. “It’s a dilemma.”
The loss of the café would be a blow to the cultural history of the city. Regulars – from independence fighters to writers who shaped influential literary movements to union leaders – had their favorite seats and brought their whims.
Poet and musician Kazi Nazrul Islam had his place where, at random, he would find inspiration for his latest composition and start hitting the top of the table and getting up to sing. The writer Shibram Chakraborty preferred to sit only on the low chairs near the cash register, in front of the window.
“If these chairs were taken, he would stay there and wait,” Barua said. “Or he would go and come back.”
While many patrons move leisurely between the two cafes, some, like Dr Ray, are purists, their loyalty strictly to one of the cafes and one of the drinks – though they insist that everything revolves around the conversation.
Dr Ray said he has tried the newest and fanciest cafes that have opened around Kolkata. Did he like their coffee?
“No no no!” he said.
There are some who do not see what it is.
Meghna Ghosh and Subrota De, both 20 and former high school mates who are catching up after two years apart, decided to visit the Coffee House. They said that while they enjoyed its story, the menu didn’t do much to them. The atmosphere either.
Compared to the new cafes in town, which Ms Ghosh said were “good for Instagram,” the Coffee House was – and here she had a bit of a hard time expressing her thoughts.
“This,” Ms. Ghosh said in English before switching to Hindi: “ye toh slow-walli cheez hai.” (“It’s a slow thing.”)
Mr. Hussain, the manager, is just as skeptical of the young people who walk through his doors these days.
“In the past, students came to spend time with their books. Now they all come for love – for dates, ”he said, the energy of his old uncle coming out.
Then he saw the bright side.
“Much love has started here,” he smiles. “And they come back to us with candy when they get married.”
Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee contributed reporting.