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Punjabi by Nature: Cafés for public opinion

Even at the peril of it being labelled an elitist activity, I have not stopped my daily visits to the neighbourhood café in Sector 11, Chandigarh.

punjab Updated: Nov 28, 2016 22:41 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh
Hindustan Times
Indian Coffee House,demonetisation,Avinash Singh
People having food outside the Back packers café at Elante Mall , Chandigarh on Sunday.(Karun Sharma/ HT)

Even at the peril of it being labelled an elitist activity, I have not stopped my daily visits to the neighbourhood café in Sector 11, Chandigarh.

In other words, what is it that draws me day after day to the café in spite the threat of being tagged with such a maxim, which in the present context is almost equivalent to a slur? But who cares, because I know it’s not just coffee, food or lovely women but something else that is inviting about these cafés.

Obviously, I had some idea about the ‘what’, but the haze was lifted last week when Avinash Singh, a Boston-based researcher, came calling for a discussion on his dissertation.

Our conversation soon veered to different topics, one of them being the origin of the café culture and its role in helping shape and define opinions in Europe. His assertion that cafes played a significant role in opinion formation was enough to set me imploring more about my quest. Of how these coffee places were doubling up as public spaces for discussion, debate and competitive arguments rather than just being places for good conversation, and dating. That in the absence of dedicated areas for public debate, how, important a role these tea lounges and coffee places was playing in shaping public discourse.

The Indian Coffee House (ICH) was perhaps the first to offer such a space to intellectually and politically stimulated minds and became a stepping-stone in developing a culture for European style brasseries and tea lounges to make an entry. ICH attracted (it still does) people from all spheres of life where people debated as equals. Yes, as equals because the moment you walked in carrying an attitude, you became a ‘nobody’ in the café and were relegated to a mere coffee drinker.

Incidentally, the same goes for the café that I regularly visit for writing my column and books. Over the years, it has turned into quite a hub of stimulating discussions, be it political, economic, historical, legal, academic, financial, cultural or religious. And mind you, don’t dub these as farce and snobbish conversations, because, the folks out there are individuals with an equal vote and equal stake in the country.

In fact, many topics for Punjabi by Nature are a result of conversations at cafes across the world. One wonders how I’d have sustained this column for six years just sitting in the study. And I’m sure that the majority of café-goers, besides the ‘caffeine kick’, carry back some learning, which plays out in some form or the other in their lives.

Learning from such spaces can range from understanding the mood of the nation, people’s responses to religious and cultural ideas, gaining knowledge of trends in business and fashion and most importantly knowing more about people. What matters the most to them? The way citizens want their nation to progress?

All these topics usually form centre stage of all café discussions, and the latest one in Indian cafes I presume is demonetisation.

Last month it was the surgical strike, but I feel the currency one is going to last longer. It will yo-yo for some time between questions that whether it was the right decision or not, before it’s taken over by the Punjab elections. The kaun jittu debate. The point is that these debates matter, even if they remain footloose and reach no conclusion. They must become an integral part of our policy-making if our democracy has to function, survive and flourish. So what if they are few and far between in Parliament, we at least have cafés.


First Published: Nov 28, 2016 22:41 IST