For all that it is — the raw, dried seeds of a fruit growing in mountainous areas in the tropics — coffee has had a remarkable physical and social progression. It moved beyond its place of origin, turning itself into a drink of choice with mythical enervating powers, gradually becoming the fulcrum around which society could live out its little tragedies and comedies.
The coffee house was its most ingenious vehicle, reputed to be first established in Istanbul in the 16th century, but which eventually found its way to every part of the world. As a place of chatter, propaganda and gossip, it was nonpareil — something that visitors to Delhi’s Indian Coffee House, about to shut down after 42 years, will surely attest to.
Not that coffee houses — or their modern, glitzy avatars — are a dying breed. More than before, they are organised, often as part of international chains like Starbucks or Costa, where the roasting and brewing that goes into the beverage is only a bit player in the larger cast that includes ambience and entertainment.
But if coffee hastened the peddling of news among traders in 18th century Britain, if it stimulated the grey cells of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir while they pored over their cuppa in Paris’s Les Deux Magots (or even Satyajit Ray and Co. as they argued in Calcutta’s College Street coffee house), the contemporary versions, well, just sell coffee.
The way we communicate, too, have changed. A peep inside any coffee parlour of the day will reveal less animated discussion over coffee, and more people hooked to their laptops and smart phones, the conversation having shifted to the absent reality from the present one.
But to the end that connections are still being established, today’s café remains as relevant as yesterday’s coffee house — a refuge for the body, and a trigger for the mind.