At a time when cafés are increasingly putting up signs that declare they don’t have Wi-Fi, and encouraging people to talk to each other, there is one place in the country where the concept has worked very well for decades now — the Calcutta Coffee House. In fact, the place does not, even today, have any of the comforts of a modern-day café: no lounge chairs or bean bags, no air-conditioning, and yet the quaint coffee house on College Street has survived the onslaught of the passing years, and rampant competition, by keeping its prices low while sustaining an atmosphere for what it is best known for, perhaps after coffee, the adda.
From the busy Bankim Chatterjee Street, mistakenly identified by some as College Street, a narrow doorway, easily missed by newcomers, is access to this world where coffee and conversation flow, both equally stimulating. This is my first visit and I am accompanying my father, for whom, during his days at Presidency College, the hallowed portals of Coffee House was a favourite haunt, as it was and remains for hundreds of other students, teachers and visitors alike.
Coffee House, previously Albert Hall, was set up by the Indian Coffee Board in 1942 to promote coffee, but in 1958, the management decided to shut down the joint for it was not doing all that well. By that time, the Coffee House had established itself as a meeting place for intellectuals, and when it was proposed to close, its patrons shot off a petition to the government. The retrenched workers organised themselves into a Coffee Workers’ Cooperative and they still run the place guided by socialist values. During its heyday in the ’60s, the establishment saw stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Sunil Gangopadhyay, among others, frequent its nearly three-storey high premises, which now reverberates with conversations inspired by these very people and their works. You can hear the odd discussion about the latest hindi movie too if you listen carefully.
We are ushered in by a waiter in crisp white uniform with a stiff hat-style turban atop his head. On the lower floor, teeming with customers, a table is quickly cleared away and we are directed to a place by the high windows overlooking the bustling street we just came by. We make ourselves comfortable on the plastic chairs surrounding a square, straight-legged table as the waiter hovers about, pen poised to take orders. I check the menu to find the dishes I had been recommended to try: Mutton Afghani and Mutton Kaviraji, priced at Rs 60 and Rs 55 per plate respectively. We order one each of those, a plate of chicken sandwiches and two coffees. The bill is a total of Rs 230.
One of the greatest struggles of running the Coffee House has been the challenge of keeping the prices low. For several years the Coffee House has been incurring losses, and yet a proposed rise of single paisa in the charges here meets with resistance. To keep the establishment from sinking, the board members have tried expanding their franchise by opening branches across Kolkata, like the one at Jadavpur. Another strategy involves renting out the place for TV and movie shoots. According to reports the popular Hindi serial CID and the National Film Development Corporation booked the venue for shooting recently. The two Byomkesh films by Anjan Dutt and Arindam Sil, due to release this year, were also shot here, as were the earlier Byomkesh films in recent times. Even Dibakar Banerjee’s hindi film on the famous sleuth features scenes shot at the Coffee House. With all this, the facility can slowly expect to make a turnaround.
The coffee arrives in white porcelain cups and saucers. Shafts of light enter through windows high up in the ceiling, and illuminate the hall in a golden afternoon glow. The windows, we are told, were added during renovations carried out in 2006 to allow maximum use of natural light. At the same time the original wooden chairs were replaced by light, plastic ones, and electrical fittings were updated. Additionally, smoking is not allowed in the building anymore, we are told by the waiter serving us. As a consequence, the vendor at the entrance to the Coffee House now sells books also. In 1973-79, it used to be cigarette branch Charminar. Not much else has changed, says my father. That is to say, in 30 years nothing much has changed. Except perhaps the quantity of food served, which has shrunk, but is sufficient for an average appetite, and worth three times the money.
A constant influx of students heaving shoulder bags miraculously find a place to sit in the packed hall, while waiters shepherd other visitors to seats their trained eyes spot within seconds. Amid the level drone of conversation, there are cackles of laughter, cutlery tinkles, a professor studies notes scribbled on white sheets of paper, a young woman in a green, meticulously pleated sari and plaited hair sits opposite a young man in animated conversation; tourists with their guides film the commotion; a larger-than-life-sized portrait of Rabindranath Tagore hangs on the far side of the hall, head turned aside as if straining to hear the wide range of adda that goes on within these four walls.
I take in the sights and sounds of the place, which I may not visit again in a long time. And when I do, I am certain I will be bound to find that nothing much has changed. I hope that nothing changes.