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LANDMARK

Flavours of another era

KASTURI BASU

Strictly opposed to change, Kolkata's Coffee House continues to be a sure-fire draw.



Memorable: A visit to the Coffee House is an experience to cherish. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

"I AM entering Coffee House after 12 years," said my photographer-friend in an overwhelmed tone, as we stepped onto the dark, cobweb-and-smoke-filled, steep stairway. His camera was all set to capture the telltale signs of change at this more-than-50-year-old establishment; I knew he would find none.

Resonating with the sound of pattering feet of the students on the wooden stairs and heated discussions on Beethoven, Brecht or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, for hours over a cup of coffee, smoke from the endless number of cigarettes spiralling up to the ceiling high enough to contain at least three stories of present multi-storied buildings and a floor area to match its majestic columns, waiters in traditional uniform of spotless white and red and high, stiff hats, mixed aroma of coffee, fish fry and mutton Afghani and animated conversation between people whose ages are removed from each other by a decade — the same sights and sounds beckoned from every nook and corner.

Subtle changes

Except if you went close, the snatches of conversation revealed that over the years, politics, literature and music had acquired a subtle flavour of the next management entrance examination and IT units in the city. Old sweepers, who once preserved bills scattered on the floors because they contained complex mathematical calculations or poems on the reverse, hardly find anything of note. Waiters say they do not have to stop working now to listen to an interesting discussion. Those days have definitely gone but the Calcutta Coffee House has desperately held onto its flavours in the dark-brown walls; the stark wooden chairs and tables; white porcelain and steel cutlery.

I remember the first time I walked into the Coffee House with my father. I was trying to find place to sit to fill up the admission form for Presidency College and praying that I never have to enter either. My prayers were partially answered; I never had to return to Presidency College but Coffee House became an addiction. Alone and in groups, we would take a ramshackle bus across the worst stretch of city roads from the southern portion of Kolkata to College Street, in its central part, just to have a cup of coffee or nothing at all except hours of adda (chat). Even then it was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Now, almost a decade later, the need is more so.

Ask the students in the College Street area and all advocate a brief meeting here instead of a hurried lunch at the college canteen. Shamik Das, a student of Scottish Church College, feels he can be himself here. His friends, Aritro, Kaustav and Shaon, second him.

"It is a different experience sitting here and sipping a cup of coffee. It is an inexplicable feeling when you suddenly realise that these are the chairs where some of Bengal's leading intellectuals have sat. Besides, you can walk in anytime without bothering whether you are suitably dressed for the place," says Shaon. Excelling in its simplicity and stubbornly refusing to adopt any cosmetic change, Coffee House has managed to preserve this aura of tradition for at least a century.

Occasional demands from students to add new furniture to brighten up the place have always been briskly pushed aside by the older generation still an important part of the crowd. Arunava Basu, professor of Geology at Presidency College, says he cannot dream of a new look for Coffee House.

"Coffee House is what it is, largely because of the way it looks ... You just can't change anything here." Albert Hall, as the place was known before the present sobriquet was bestowed by the Central Government, was already a favourite with Rabindranath Tagore and Subhash Chandra Bose and could boast of a legacy of swadeshi meetings. A place that had carved out a niche for itself as the most popular adda joint was thus the easiest choice for the promotion of coffee in a city till then an excellent market for tea.

Heritage place

The coffee joint was started in its present form, under the Indian Coffee Workers' Co-operative Society in 1942. In 1947, the Central Government granted it the name Coffee House. Since then, the place has been rocked by numerous upheavals and plans to close it because of the loss it has been running at for years.

In 1958, with poets and writers held a candle-light `funeral' dinner, Coffee House was closed for the first time, only to re-open the same year with the government stepping in to prevent the destruction of a heritage place. Professors of Presidency College and Calcutta University had rushed off a special petition to the government!

Amid threats of closure clouding the establishment at intervals, its prestige as a cultural hub only increased with Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen being regular visitors. Old timers recount how Satyajit Ray would sit in a corner drawing a scene from a forthcoming film and Manna Dey break out into an impromptu song while trying to compose the next couple of lines or explain the song sequence to Soumitra Chatterjee, who despite his failing health and advancing years, still drops in.

During the Naxalite Movement of 1960s and 1970s, student activists used the place as a hideout. It witnessed many seminal meetings and even political murders.

Despite its aversion to cosmetic change, Coffee House trotted into the next millennium. Not that it has managed to maintain its ivory tower existence. The fast-changing face of Kolkata, the invasion of chic coffee parlours and the changing taste of the students with more money at their disposal have landed it in testing times.

Yet take a look at their platter: in spite of escalating costs and incurring a tremendous loss over the years they have kept their rates low. If you decide on a cup of coffee at the end of a four-hour adda, there is a range of coffees — mellow, sweet, caramel, chocolate, mild or spicy — between Rs. 10 and Rs. 12, samosas at two rupees, and plain bread-and-butter at four rupees. Even something as exotic as a mutton or Chicken Afghani is only Rs. 23 a plate.

All for the average student, comprising 70 per cent of the clientele, who still does not have much money to spare, the management would say. A singular instance perhaps, where the management has consistently been averse to increasing the prices.

The price list, the freedom to sit for hours at an empty table and the intellectual aura of the place have never really brought questions about the strategy for survival!

Café Coffee Days and Baristas have entered the student psyche; it is "cool" to "hang out" in these places with a date but it is infinitely more so to sit over a cup of coffee at the Coffee House and ponder about the intricacies of man-woman equation or the triviality of love. For a city always with a weakness for the cerebral than the cosmetic, this establishment, with its shabby décor and worn out walls, will always remain a cut above the rest.

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