BANGALORE: There is something almost cerebral about sitting in a cafe sipping a cuppa with good conversation, or a good book for those who trammel the solitary path. I grew up in a pre-liberalization era when neon-lit chain coffee shops did not dot every single neighbourhood in the country. The American, British and European chains had still not made inroads into metros and most people had vague ideas about the pronunciation and spelling of expresso and cappuccino. My notion of cafes was derived from the old colonial tea rooms and coffee houses where I got the first whiff of freshly brewed coffee and also learnt that meeting for a cup of coffee was a leisurely activity that had little to do with the temperature of the coffee in your cup and more to do with the cash in your wallet that allowed you to order endless cups, the conversations that meandered over topics and issues with differing levels of engagement, the number of cigarettes remaining in your packet and time that was remaining to while away the in-between hours. I went to cafes to seek shelter and succour on rainy days, to kindle romances old and new, to strike up intellectual debates, to share confessions, to have tear-stained goodbyes, to people watch and to invigorate the body reeling under a late summer afternoon lassitude. Going backwards in time, there are cafes that I remember as milestones in my life.
College Street Coffee House
As a young student, peeling walls, grime, cigarette smoke, jholas, khadi kurtas and the occasional strain of guitar accompanied to Dylan songs had an unbelievable and near-irrational attraction for me. Thus the first time I ever stepped into the legendary College Street Coffee House, my own imagination sufficed to make this a place of unmatched atmosphere. Redolent with stories of the revolutionary Naxals who hatched their plots over cups of the famous coffee, artists and filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and Mrinal Sen who had adda (chat) sessions accompanied by mutton cutlets and the literary icons of the Hungry Generation including Shakti Chattopadhyay who used this buzzing space as a platform for hot debates, Coffee House is an indelible part of any Calcutta student's growing-up years. This coffee house fuels romantic notions of history and revolution and is a near time capsule of the 60s and 70s when flower power, anti-establishment struggles, protest literature and music was at its all-time peak.
A Tea Stall
As a wide-eyed rookie reporter, I have drunk cups of lebu cha (black lemon tea) and milky tea boiled beyond oblivion in a kettle that had probably been around since the beginning of time. Sitting on the grimy steps of old hardware shops under the magnificent arches of a quintessentially colonial building in Calcutta that housed one of the foremost papers of the country, it was this ever-bubbling kettle that was companion to many hours spent in the company of all manner of journalists, smoking cheap cigarettes and discussing a city in political disarray.
Flury's, an age-old tearoom in Calcutta's famous Park Street is the place that always made me linger over my cuppa. For a pastry shop that opened in 1927, this cafe has seen a changing world and its own rather remarkable journey has been from neighborhood confectionary to a decrepit colonial coffeehouse to a stylish cafe after the fashion of a turn-of-the-century European tea room done up in pink and a rich chocolate brown. This was a far cry from its earlier stodgy avatar as a dingy, cavernous room with air conditioning that would chill you to the bone. I saw the downed shutters on a holiday one summer. I was about to begin the process of mourning when I heard the whispered word "renovation" that was murmured by all who passed the mysteriously shrouded corner. And one fine day it reopened. The new Flury's straddled history and a modern chic. I returned to the city. I returned to Flury's and it became a place for endless conversations, bitter reminiscing, good-natured camaraderie, sweet romance, and maddening love. I lived out all my separate selves here – as a poor student scraping together just enough for that Viennese coffee; as a struggling journalist looking for a story; as a tourist introducing others to the delights I had known. I fell in love with my husband over cups of coffee in Flury's and made life decisions about leaving the city and all that I knew along with Flury's. Till date, I have never found a replacement.
A Parisian Cafe
As a traveller, I have joined the legions of map-scanning, Lonely Planet toting, sunblock wearing hordes who have sat in a cafe in the shadow of the Louvre in Paris. The love affair with the city has been as much about walking the streets by night as it has been about sharing space with skinny French women on the outdoor terraces of cafes in the August sun watching the world go by as we all sipped on our cafe au lait in comfortable silence. Paris was the city I had dreamed about my whole life and in those dreams, I was always sitting by the Louvre or the Seine, drinking black coffee, smoking elegant slim cigarettes, eating flaky croissants and talking to strangers about Sartre.
The Urban Coffee
Today, as an urban migrant moving from one city to the next, anonymous as I search for the familiar—the cafe that I can haunt. Since I have no emotional maps to refer to any longer, all I can do is break down the familiar into familiar tastes of macchiatos and frappes. Thus I have become a part of the floating population that lives in neon-lit chain coffee shops, drinking cups of characterless coffee and over-sweet confections in order to stave off being a legal alien.