The waiters won’t respond for several minutes until you realise that each serves only his assigned set of tables. And when your designated waiter will finally come to take the order, he will menacingly flood your table with more water glasses than you need and stare at you. You better be ready with your choices, or he will move on and not come back for several more minutes. It’s not the kind of place where you would take the girl you want to impress on Valentine’s Day. But that’s not the point of Indian Coffee House.
This old haunt in Sector 17 — in the heart of Chandigarh, as they say — is a place that you can visit with family for some lip-smacking South Indian fare and colonial-era cutlets after an expensive shopping spree; or with friends on a Sunday for cheap, sumptuous brunch; or even with workmates to discuss some silly Powerpoint presentation and bitch about your boss. It’s ideal for all that. But that, too, is not the point of Indian Coffee House.
It’s when you visit it alone in the afternoon and order two pieces of vada with some watery sambar and coconut chutney, take stock of your life and remember your high-school sweetheart; see your future in the old uncles whiling their time away at the next table, and visit places in your imagination; battle demons in your head and come up with ideas to change the world; and when the vada-sambar finishes, you realise you were never alone. The crowd’s noise was a faint background hum, and the place kept you company until you called for the bill. Quiet, comforting, non-judgmental love is the point of Indian Coffee House.
This Valentine’s column — a couple of days late, you’d say; but the Sunday just refused to come early — is dedicated to a place that smells of frying oil and burnt coffee beans, but whose aroma is as intoxicating as the poise of Ragini. Wondering who? Ragini is that actress from some bygone era who looks at you from a 50-year-old poster hanging on the Coffee House’s wall, on your right as you enter. There are versions of the cooperative-run Coffee House on the Panjab University campus and at the Sector-10 DAV College where I spent three wonderful, wasteful years of my life; but the ICH that remains an impish Chandigarh’s old-world icon is the one that opened in Sector 22 in 1964 and has been in Sector 17 since 1971.
It encountered a mid-life crisis, like we all do, around five years ago, when the withering blue walls were painted over with a garish shade of orange-meets-pink, and some of the heavy wooden chairs were discarded in favour of steel, the most impersonal of metals. ‘A modern spruce-up,’ said some newspaper headlines. Horrendous, said my heart.
With time, the familiar oil spots on the walls appeared again, and now the blue walls peep at you through some spots where the metrosexual paint has peeled off. The decorum amidst the din is back.
Nothing, however, dims the love of its connoisseurs, one of them worth a particular mention.
No, I won’t be talking about those communist poets and slimy scribes, the retired sarkari babus or even my father’s lonely friend who first introduced me to the place a decade ago. Neither will I tell the story of any famous people who have frequented the Coffee House over the years. No namesdropping.
The essence of the place is best described by that man who always sits on the table in a corner next to the billing counter. During snippets of conversations when we are both alone on adjacent tables, he always changes the subject when I ask his name. But he has told me that his wife died many years ago and he has married off his five daughters well. Retired from some Punjab government department, he now lives in an old-age home, not with any of his daughters. His legs shake as he walks, but he frowns if someone tries to help him. “I am perfectly capable,” is his favourite sentence.
Mostly busy sipping his coffee quietly or quarreling with waiters over one silly matter or the other, the rare time I saw this man smile was when I asked him what made him come to the Coffee House at the same time every day. “Let’s just say that we — Coffee House and I — are like old friends,” he said. More than just friends, I’d say. It’s like love.