Centuries ago, to be precise 1675, composer Thomas Jordan called out to those who delighted in wit and mirth as well as loved to hear such news that came from all parts of the earth to come to the popular rendezvous in his song ‘Triumphs of London’: ‘Go hear it at a coffee-house/ It cannot but be true.’ Such was the mood of social and political exchange associated with the coffee houses that in the 17th century, these enjoyed more fame than the present-day pubs of London.
The Indian Coffee House chain had its origin in the colonial times with the Coffee Cess Committee in 1936 and the 1940s saw some 50 Coffee Houses scattered in different Indian towns. These nearly closed down in the 50s until Communist leader AK Gopalan organised the Coffee Board workers to form a cooperative and run these joints.
The Indian Coffee House in Chandigarh was started in Sector 22 in 1957, and its move to Sector 17 in 1965 is heading mercifully towards its 60th year with its votaries having succeeded in thwarting attempts at its closure. This popular budget-friendly people’s meeting place has recently been included — with compliments and photographs — in London-based photographer Stuart Freedman’s new book ‘The Palaces of Memory: Tales from the Indian Coffee House’.
However, what Freedman missed out was the country’s lone political Haiku writer, who is regular at this city haunt for the past many years. Well, he is poet Manu Kant, usually seated in the first row close to a vintage poster of yesteryear southern film actor Ragini sipping the hot brew. From the near-extinct clan of ardent Bolsheviks, the bushy-bearded Manu sits reading or musing; join him for a cup of coffee, and a sparkling conversation on politics and poetry is bound to follow.
His interest in this pithy form of poetry that originated in Japan arose some 25 years ago when he came across a book of the classical Haiku in Moscow where he was studying television journalism. The past 15 years he has been composing his own Haikus. Although this form of poetry usually addresses the philosophy of nature, this city-bred poet composes political Haikus. “I am the only political Haiku poet in the country,” he says with a smile and adds, “But I have admired the Haiku verses of American poet Robert D Wilson and Croatian poet Dimitar Anakiev”.
Just a little taste of Manu’s poetry starting with the latest anthology ‘Mann ki Baat’: ‘dear Maoists don’t be afraid/look at Modi’s smile/it is all-inclusive’. The Red poet makes some scathing comments like: ‘Gujarat riots?/even the moon/has spots’.
Popular culture and Bollywood songs, too, are pressed into service of the Haiku as Manu says: ‘a perfect song/ for Mr Arvind Kejriwal/papa kehate hain badha naam karega’. It is the post-Soviet world that Manu is at odds with and he writes thus of the ‘firebrand’ Arundhati: ‘I dunno why/but Arundhati & Maoists/remind me of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs.’ Agree with Manu the poet or not, but one appreciates his courage of conviction in confronting new-age politics from his chosen political position. And what is his relationship with the Coffee House? Manu’s reply is: “I read most of the Marxist literature here in the Coffee House.”
The Jordan song comes back to one’s mind. The impulse is to go and hear it at a Coffee House. Well, 1,675 in London, 1,789 in France, 1,917 in Russia and 2,015 in India: Time marches on but the intellectual spirit of dialogue and dissent over a cup of coffee must continue. This perhaps is a way of building ‘palaces of memory’.