At one of the Kolkata cafes in India, asking for Chai invites a wilted contempt from a turban-wrapped waiter, as if the blasphemy had been committed. It’s called the Stupid Indian Coffee House.
The other café serves only chai, slowly cooks over charcoal for 103 years in the same dark kitchen, and quietly performs old rituals. This place, the history of my favorite cabin, is a layer of soot over the walls, arched windows that filter the light with the soft aura of the past, and overhead in a small attic, an open underground vault for everyone. You can see that the chair broke under a famous customer who got hooked during a passionate debate.
Just a 5-minute walk from the center of Kolkata, the two cafes may differ in that they serve decaffeinated drinks. But in a city at the heart of India’s rich intellectual tradition, they are bound by a common role of fueling centuries of political debate, revolutionary conspiracy, and endless gossip.
Both are located in the College Street area, a bustling district with some of Asia’s oldest universities. The alleys are lined with small bookstores, and the pavement is filled with the city’s great desire to produce knowledge. At any time, the speaker will sound a protest by a trade union, student group, or political party.
Kolkata, like some other cities, wears its past, from round yellow taxis to outdated trams. The two cafes are museums that make you feel nostalgic at the same time and are an integral part of the addictive everyday life of many.
Dr. Jayantarei, 70, an obstetrician and gynecologist and an avid customer of coffee houses, said:
Manager Zahid Hussein has been working in a cafe for over 30 years. “I did A to Z here — everything from serving to cooking,” Hussein said. “Except for cleaning.”
When the cafe was closed for months between the two Covid waves in India, customers like Dr. Ray, who visited it frequently for 40 years, longed to return.
“His wife kept him under house arrest,” one of his friends joked, “until he got his second vaccine.”
Friends come to the coffee house to celebrate their birthday, analyze the latest football games, and arrange an annual blood drive on the premises.
But most days, customers at both cafes just come to talk about everything for hours. In Bengali, there is the word “ada” for that unlimited conversation.
“”Ada is often overlooked. It’s a part of our daily lives and an integral part of our identity as a Bengal, “said Dr. Nabamita Das, a professor of sociology at Presidency University in Kolkata and a dissertation on Ada. .. “”When When you think of Ada, you think of Ada, which is an integral part of Ada’s space — you talk about Coffee House Ada, your favorite cabin Ada. “
From legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray to economic science Nobel Prize-winning Amartya Sen, some of Bengal’s favorite icons hold Ada in the coffee house. Many of the city’s intellectual giants lovingly talk about how coffee and conversation shaped their worldview, likening each table to their own literary salon.
Among the dozens of paintings winding and hanging on the walls of the coffee house are life-sized portraits of the young Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most famous poet, placed around 40 tables. Overlooking the maroon plastic chair. The paintings are dotted with “non-smoking areas” signs and are sometimes considered conceptual art in smoke-filled halls.
“Although it’s a non-smoking area, both officially and technically, there are cigarette butts all over the floor,” said Dr. Das. “There is a sort of silent agreement between those who serve and those who come to the house to smoke without having an ashtray... “
Balcony seats provide a bit of privacy for intimate conversations and a bird’s eye view of the scene below.
“I could sometimes sit upstairs and feel the conversation lively,” wrote Partha Ghose, a physicist and writer known for the spread of modern science, in his collection of thoughts on Coffee House.
In the favorite cabin, customers broke in before Sanchai Balua cleaned up the lunch plate and opened the door to the cafe that my grandfather started 103 years ago. Worker Ganshan Das used a 51-year-old way to boil milk over a charcoal fire in the dark kitchen behind.
Half a dozen people, including the author of the sixth book and a retired economist, were already sitting in different parts of the cafe.
As conversations became more active throughout the room, the main topic of disagreement was for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the governor of India, to dismiss Prime Minister Mamata Banerjee, the incumbent leader of West Bengal. It was a fiercely contested state election that did everything possible.
Early in his life, 57-year-old Barua tried to sell stationery, but decided to join a family cafe 20 years ago after his father died.
Repeated blockades of Covid were sacrificed, reducing surgery to one shift a day after lunch. He can’t afford the necessary labor for a longer period of time. So for now, he and Mr. Das are mainly doing things.
“I’m aging too, so I don’t know how long it will last,” Barua said. “It’s a dilemma.”
The loss of the cafe will hurt the cultural history of the city. From independent fighters to writers who shaped the influential literary movement to trade union leaders, regulars had their favorite seats and brought their habits.
Poet and musician Kaji Nazururu Islam had a place to hit the tabletop, stand up and sing, randomly inspired by his latest composition. The writer Sibram Chakraborti preferred to sit only in a low chair by the cashier’s desk opposite the window.
“If those chairs are taken, he will stand there and wait,” Barua said. “Or he will leave and come back.”
Many of our customers wander between both cafes, but some are purists like Dr. Ray and are strictly loyal to one of the cafes and one of the drinks.
Dr. Ray said he tried a newer and more fashionable coffee shop that opened around Kolkata. Did he like their coffee?
“Number! Number! Number!” He said.
Some people don’t understand what all the turmoil is.
Meghna Ghosh and Subrota De, a 20-year-old former high school classmate who caught up for the first time in two years, decided to check out Coffee House. They appreciate its history, but said the menu wasn’t very useful to them. I didn’t feel the atmosphere.
Compared to the new coffee shops in town that Gauche said were “good for Instagram,” the coffee house was — and here she had a little trouble expressing her thoughts.
“This”, Gauche said in English before switching to Hindi. (“It’s slow moving.”)
Manager Hussein is also skeptical of young people who have recently passed through the door.
“In the past, students started spending time with books. Now they all come in for love — for a date,” he said, with the energy of his old uncle. It came out.
Then he saw the bright side.
“A lot of love started here,” he smiled. “And when they get married, they come back to us with sweets.”
Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee contributed to the report.