Roundabout: Is it adieu to the adda, or will Coffee House brew back its spirit? | columns | Hindustan Times
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Roundabout: Is it adieu to the adda, or will Coffee House brew back its spirit?

The old spirit of crusade and debate may just rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the India(n) Coffee House

columns Updated: Jan 07, 2018 10:59 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Cover sketch of Bhaswati Bhattacharya’s book ‘Much Ado Over Coffee’ specially made by Debashish Deb.
Cover sketch of Bhaswati Bhattacharya’s book ‘Much Ado Over Coffee’ specially made by Debashish Deb.

One does not quite realise when the change is happening, but once the process is gradually completed, it hits one fiercely, not just in the eye but deeply in the soul. In the first column of the New Year of 2018, it is inevitable to talk about change, look before and after, but certainly not pine for what is lost.

The task lies in understanding what is gone and what needs to be revived. Of course, it has to be done in a rambling roundabout manner lest the column loses even its faithful middle-aged readership.

So the theme is the ‘adda’, in its Bangla overtone because up north, adda is often the description of a gathering of gamblers, bootleggers or other such shady folk. Adda the Kolkata- style, pronounced ‘aadaa’, is freewheeling intellectual discussion on varied subjects, say politics, football, literature or art. The gathering could be a wayside tea shop, a bus stand or a railway station book kiosk and later in the Independent India, the chain of the Indian Coffee House through many outlets in different cities with the menu boldly pasted on the walls along with a smiling yesteryear actor Ragini, sipping a cuppa coffee, on a poster.

The inspiration for writing this little piece is an enchanting book by Bhaswati Bhattacharya, a senior academic based in Hague with Modern Indian Studies as her focus. The title of the book bordered in red is ‘Much Ado Over Coffee’ and the subtitle ‘Indian Coffee House Then and Now’.

It was a book kept away for months to be read at leisure, but life today has little time for reading, or leisure.

But it happened when a female friend of old days was visiting from New Zealand after couple of years. I wondered what I could show her on a foggy wintry evening that could warm our hearts to pick up the tangled threads of conversation. Yes, then it flashed that we could go to the Indian Coffee House branch at Sector 36 which opened in her absence.

The Indian Coffee House at Sector 36-D market in Chandigarh. (HT Photo)

Lo! The magic worked and soon it was like we had not changed nor the world around us. The Ragini poster was absent having gone out of print decades ago. However, the smiling familiar waiter in his green and white livery, ready to click a picture of ours, was cheery and so was the masala dosa and hot coffee.

Well, it is fine to pretend it is all still the same, we are just as we were. But the truth cannot be evaded long for the dreams have greyed and ‘the chattering masses’ are missing. It is this gnawing feeling of numbness that led Bhaswati to do this mammoth work based on oral histories, fiction and records of The Indian Coffee House. Open the volume and one comes across poster by the Coffee Consumers Forum of 2009 against the possible take-over of one of the surviving Indian Coffee Houses as it was unable to pay rent. It is a treat to read these posters the author found from BBC news archives. One quotes French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre: ‘Political Power comes from Coffee House’. Another says ‘Save Nine PM Maker’ with the PMs listed from Nehru to Vajpayee. The campaign was successful and yet another of its posters was: SAVE THINK TANK OF INDIA.

In the present times, Think Tanks are considered a nuisance or pests best got rid of by the threat of asking them to go to Pakistan. What is interesting is that Bhaswati found such little material that she had to turn to people who had been there and knew the way by heart. She calls the Indian Coffee House as the ‘adda’ the way through. One encounters writers, professors, doctors and others recounting their memories. The Coffee Houses that the author took up as case studies are those at Allahabad, Delhi and Kolkata.

In our city here, there are cafes with odd stools, more attracting the young and the old, who feel that coffee cannot be good enough if it does not cost a few hundreds. Where does the Coffee House’s humble cup of some 30 odd rupees stand a chance? There are other swanky places which boast of resurrecting the lost Coffee House culture with style. The difference between the commoner’s fare and these are that they will serve only to a certain class and not be egalitarian in nature.

The global Coffee Cafe chains are having a fine time but one yearns at time to be among many kind of people the old adda had, including a mad person or two, who felt quite at home there. When Bhaswati sent me the book, she said that she had not taken the Chandigarh Indian Coffee House. Just as well for that may give some occupation to a superannuated scribe like me. Bhaswati raises the question ‘Is the tradition of adda finally dead? Writer Subodh Sarkar confirms the demise but the book ends on a note of hope that phoenix-like something may rise from the India (Coffee House) as the global coffee cages have not been able to save the spirit of the old in their new creations.