Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A Trip To The More Recent Past

India coffee house is the stuff of cosmopolitan legend. The great leaders of India’s independence movement and the philosophers of modern India dreamed, argued, and conspired at its tables throughout the (1950s and 60s). This coffee house was part of a chain, the most famous of which is in Kolkata, which was taken over by its employees in the 1950s after the British abandoned the venture. For the independence generation, the coffee house represents the center of a movement and a generation.

Accounts of the place’s degradation abound. Still, with every trip through Connaught Place the Coffee House crept into discussion. India Coffee House. A chance to sit at the same table as history, not see its objects behind ropes and glass, but simply to stare in thought at the same dull, stained, walls as generations before. Finally last May we found the perfect morning to make it happen. Not too hot, dry, and mostly fog free.

Khushwant Singh paints the Coffee House in Delhi as a kind of leftist farting man's club. But even this description of the place is generous. The wait staff’s tattered uniforms are not only fading but also crusted with weeks of food. The sadness in their faces is striking. Some chairs are missing backs and their leather is torn. The bathroom is difficult to find and when found, it is difficult to bear the stench. Rumors in 2009 were circulating that the coffee house would be closing down and management seems to have taken that to heart.

While there are a few older patrons sitting silent with their stories, the life that these walls once inspired is gone. It has been replaced by bureaucrats. 15 of them were huddled around a laptop on the veranda congratulating each other. The menu is extensive and the prices fine but most items aren’t available. Luckily the building does provided a pretty decent view of Connaught Place. But when the food finally arrived our group declared with enthusiasm, “Pathetic!”

I’ve eaten food served from a plate cleaned with roadside dirt just outside the toxic shipbreaking port of Alang and I still hesitated with the plate before me. Probably the worst of it, the coffee was bad.

I descended the stairs with the feeling of visiting a distant relative dying at the hospital. You know the place through its stories and you want to honor the life it hosted, but you’re pretty sure there is nothing left to say goodbye too.

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