Nothing symbolises the difference between the Old India and the New India better than coffee. Once upon a time, Indians didn’t even care whether they were drinking instant coffee (watery and tasteless) or the real thing (strong and energising). Once, coffee epitomised a Leftie culture of talk and debate. People in government offices drank milky tea; intellectuals went to coffee houses to plan the revolution.
Now, we’re all coffee snobs. Our parents may have thought that Nescafé was coffee but we inhabit a world of cappuccinos (what the last generation mistakenly called espresso), ristrettos and café lattes. Young people will tell you why the coffee at Café Coffee Day is so much better than the Barista version — or vice versa.
And forget about the caffeine-fuelled revolution. These days, a coffee house is a place you go to discuss job hops and career advancements. There is nothing revolutionary about a cup of overpriced coffee. Instead, we treat it as a mark of liberalisation, of India’s entry into the global economy, as our way of declaring that we are prosperous inhabitants of a rapidly Westernising world.
The transition from intellectual-filled Coffee House to yuppie-infested Barista reflects the changes that India has gone through. When I was young, none of us ever had the money today’s kids have. Even adjusting for inflation, a couple of Barista coffees would have cleaned us out for a week. Not that there was anything like Barista in those days. Instead, meeting for a coffee was the only way most of us could afford to frequent the expensive cafes at deluxe hotels.
So, should we treat the invasion of the coffee bars as a signal that India’s gone soft, that the iron has been drained out of our souls, replaced by the empty husks of Colombian coffee beans?
I am not sure. I agree that most of the new coffee places are soulless, machine-made, industrial-chain operations. But, on the other hand, they are clean, the coffee is not bad, and at least they provide an opportunity for young people to sit and make real conversation in this era of Internet chats and Facebook lifestyles.
So, yes, I miss the romance of the Coffee House, the sense of revolution that lasted till the last cup of coffee was drained, and the air of frenzied intellectual debate. But life moves on, countries move on, times change, and revolution is no longer on the agenda.
For an era of prosperity and hope, bitter coffee seems sadly inappropriate. Say what you will about a giant café latte mug — but for better or for worse, it is the true drink of our times.