Entering the Indian Coffee House in Allahabad at lunch time is like crashing a school reunion party: everyone knows everyone else too well and none of them knows what you are doing there. Wandering the city’s historic Civil Lines on a work trip last week, I go anyway. I know I am not expected, having already seen and rejected a charmless little room labelled as the “family section, Indian Coffee House” on the way to the “old, pink, church-shaped building” I’m told to look out for.
The main building is as old and decrepit as warnings imply, but with its gabled front and arched windows, it fits right in with the Colonial Gothic vibe of what was once the majestic capital of the United Provinces. Inside the long, narrow hall, everything is classic Coffee House: the high roof, the long fans, the peeling paint, the chipped wooden tables, the stainless steel plates, the unsmiling waiters in their all-white uniform, the clockwork rhythm of the bored manager pressing one bill after another down a rusted spike.
The hall is full of people—all men. Their hair is mostly gray; their shirts and kurtas white. Noisily they banter in large groups over tables overflowing with plates of dosa and cups of coffee. A few reorient their chairs to have a better view of my situation. But this isn't the first time I've been the only woman in a room full of men used to eating and drinking in exclusively male company. I’ve done this in the cave-like interior of the house of Lucknow’s original tunday kababs and in the doddering Ahmedabad dhaba famous for its dabba gosht. I have an only-girl-in-a-restaurant strategy now: spreading out in my seat, ordering the largest meal and taking my time over it.
I order mutton dosa, the priciest item on the menu. I can tell why it’s a big deal the moment it arrives on the table. Lying under the thick, deep brown skin of the dosa is a dark, crumbly-- and generous--layer of minced mutton, richly spiced and sharply flavored. It’s worth the 68 rupees you must pay for it.
In an interview about his long history in Allahabad, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra describes Indian Coffee House at its peak — from 1957, when it came up, to the end of the 1970s — as the place where “every Hindi writer, known or unknown, could be seen sitting at these tables”. Jawaharlal Nehru often dropped in for breakfast. So did Ram Manohar Lohia, catching up on the goings-on.
Like all Indian Coffee Houses, politics dominates the chatter here, from student elections in the university to the fate of ministers in the state cabinet. But most people in Allahabad will tell you the Coffee House is not what it used it be: a salon buzzing with Allahabad’s mighty intelligentsia—writers, poets, journalists, professors, judges, politicians.No local politician could rise to the national stage, the rumour went, until he had had a cup of coffee in its hallowed halls.
This place is now more in sync with Anand Bhavan, the Nehrus’ palatial bungalow (where Jawahar’s shelf of “modern” equipment for making tea and coffee is preserved as he left it), than it is with the rest of a rapidly changing city. Within a mile’s radius of the Coffee House lies the triumvirate that is redefining small-town leisure: McDonald’s, KFC and Café Coffee Day. Surrounding the institution on all sides are local fast food joints offering their takes on the “combo”: burgers, fried chicken and coffee.
In Allahabad, the fall of the Indian Coffee House has been synchronous with the rise of coffee. As the manager of a new “fast food-cum-multi-cuisine restaurant” that serves only coffee explained to me, hanging out doesn’t go with chai. A colourful poster by the entrance informs us that the place is the brainchild of “Raja Bhaiya, Cabinet Minister, UP”. Inside, a large oil painting portrays Raja Bhaiyya as a lapsed royal; wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, he’s straddling an obedient horse against the backdrop of the Allahabad Fort and a gently flowing Ganga.
The (Old) Guard Room
I go back one more time to complete the ICH ritual with a filter coffee. Before the evening’s “scene” comes to life, the place is markedly sadder. There are only a handful of men this time. Most sit alone, brooding over their coffee. They have the look of men who have spent a long day at the office: their foreheads creased, their checked shirts crumpled. Nothing hammers home the decline of the institution as much as a scattering of patrons visibly more tired.
Coming out of the building, I encounter the first guest for the evening’s adda, an old gentleman in a white kurta-pyjama-scarf. He is grumbling to someone he’s met at the door about the country going to the dogs now that Bata was selling a pair of hawai chappals at 500 rupees. Indian CoffeeHouse, I note, will live. In spite of all their smug entitlement, it counts on there always being old gentlemen in starched kurtas, with their enduring faith that Uttar Pradesh is the centre of the universe.
This story was contributed by Snigdha Poonam, a journalist based in Delhi. She has written for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian and Granta. She's currently working on a nonfiction book on the new small-town life in India.
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