December 15, 2019 8:15:28 am
The district of Chikmagalur, in the Western Ghats, is several hours by road from Bengaluru. We go up occasionally for a short break in a quiet coffee homestay. There is a special pleasure in returning there year after year. The children are older, we are older, the hills are older — but things still feel the same. The estate dogs recognise us and run up joyfully. The phone network still flickers. The air is crisp and clear. Coming from a rapidly changing city, we are calmed by the sense of unchangingness and stability. We know it’s an illusion — but a comforting one.
Earlier, on these visits, when the children were small, they would listen with wide-eyed interest to stories about the Western Ghats (1,000 miles of mountains, older than the Himalayas! Rare and endangered species! Flying squirrels, maybe even a flying lizard!). They would draw maps of the route and look out for birds along the way. The most important part of parenting may be to teach children to love the world — before they become immune to it.
Now, the boys are older. Now the boys are older. They cycle, play basketball, and retreat into their iPads; my husband grabs a nap; and I open my book. I often reread fiction on these visits. Like revisiting familiar places, there is a special pleasure in rereading. Through many months this year, I have been re-reading Leo Tolstoy. It is a form of self-discovery: you revisit not only the book but also many versions of your younger self. “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it,” said Vladimir Nabokov. One discovers the underlying shape of the narrative — reading it like a painting, according to Nabokov — only after one is done with suspense and plot.
Besides, one already knows what happens, so the mind can wander. This time, I am rereading Vivek Shanbhag’s novel Ghachar Ghochar (2015), about toxic affluence and patriarchy. It opens in a coffeehouse called just that — Coffee House. “The name hasn’t changed in a hundred years, even if the business has. You can still get a good cup of coffee here.” It is a spacious place, with old photographs that depict how beautiful the city once was. Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House. A mysterious taciturn figure, he presides with an ironic smile over the human dramas that unfold at the tables every day. “And who’s to say the gods cannot take the form of a waiter when they choose to visit us?”
The narrator notes that customers can sit for as long as they want — a rare thing in a city that is increasingly transactional. A space where men and women can meet, across the table, as equals — unlike the unequal power relations within the home.
A central theme of the novel is the corrupting nature of wealth. When the narrator’s father was a salesman struggling to meet his targets, the family struggled together with him; after they start a spice trading business, they become immensely successful — but at some cost. Deep cracks emerge.
Readers ask whether Ghachar Ghochar is set in Koshy’s or the Indian Coffee House. Both are Bengaluru landmarks. But despite the novel’s sly red herrings — the drinks, the slightly different clientele — I think it is the Indian Coffee House.
And the Indian Coffee House has a powerful story of its own, about workers’ collectivisation, solidarity and a different way of doing business. Coffeehouses had become popular in India during British colonial rule, but Indians were not permitted in them. An “Indian coffeehouse” was first opened by the Coffee Cess Committee in Churchgate, Bombay, in 1936, and then across the country. However, after Independence, in the 1950s, the Coffee Board decided to close them down. At this point, the Communist leader AK Gopalan led the formation of workers’ cooperative societies to take over and run these coffeehouses. The Indian Coffee House (ICH) was born.
The first of the worker-run coffeehouses, the Indian Coffee House in Bangalore, opened in August 1957. This was followed months later by coffeehouses in Delhi, Kerala, West Bengal and other parts of India. In Calcutta, the College Street Coffee House was a meeting place for artists, filmmakers and intellectuals.
From Jaipur to Jabalpur, the coffeehouses brought the taste of coffee to the tea-drinking north. The Indian Coffee House movement grew to 400 outlets across India, self-managed by 13 workers’ cooperative societies with an all-India federation. Kerala alone has 51 outlets. Trade unionist Nadakkal Parameswaran Pillai, who started working at the Ernakulam Coffee House as a daily-wage employee, wrote a history of the ICH as a workers’ cooperative movement. The book won the Abu Dhabi Sakthi Award in 2007.
In the newly formed nation, the ICH coffee houses offered good coffee, a bite to eat, and a welcoming space for conversation. Over the decades, they have remained affordable and egalitarian — there is no higher-priced air-conditioned section — even as the urban landscape around them has changed beyond recognition.
A different way of doing business; but, nevertheless, patriarchal. For all these decades, the ICH coffeehouses had no women employees, ostensibly because staff work until late at night. But this year, after a struggle, the first women employees were employed in Kerala — widows of ICH employees who have died in service.
Chikmagalur has a special place in Indian coffee history: it was here that coffee was first grown on Indian soil. Coffee beans were brought to India in the 17th century by the Sufi saint Baba Budan. On a pilgrimage to Mecca, passing through the Yemeni port city of Mocha, he tasted a dark, sweet drink called Qahwah. Somehow getting past the strict trade controls in Yemen, he brought back seven beans to plant in the hills of Chikmagalur.
A couple of centuries later, the British colonial rulers started the clearing of forests for Arabica plantations across south India. Coffee began to be transported on the months-long sea journey from the Malabar coast to Europe.
The coffee business plays an important role in pioneering Bandaaya (“protest”) writer Poornachandra Tejaswi’s Kannada short story Tabarana Kathe (The Story of Tabara), set in Chikmagalur. In 1987, Girish Kasaravalli made an award-winning film based on the story which film critic Theodore Baskaran rightly described as one of the ten best Indian films of all time.
Tabara Shetty lives in Chikmagalur. During the British Raj, he was appreciated for good performance. Since Independence, he has been shunted from place to place, and now works in the taluk office. His job is to collect taxes from the coffee growers. When they refuse to pay, Tabara is at a loss, as he has already written out the receipts in good faith. The amounts are deducted from Tabara’s salary. Meanwhile, his wife Appi, a diabetic (in the film, she works as a coffee picker), injures her foot. Tabara needs money for her medical treatment — but his pension is tied up in the mind-numbing red tape of the Indian state. Finally, when Appi dies, Tabara loses his mental balance. In its way as powerful as Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh, Tabarana Kathe is an indictment of unethical business practices and an uncaring state.
It is late afternoon — time to enjoy the winter sunlight. My thoughts return from the Chikmagalur of Tabara’s times to the present. The garden path has been repaired since we last visited. There is a nip in the air. The dogs run up to us, barking excitedly. There is a new pup in their midst. My husband and the boys huddle around the dogs, patting them and scratching their ears. I stand in the garden, watching them. In the distance, beyond the hillsides of coffee, is the forest, older than all of us — deep, mysterious and beautiful.
Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is a bureaucrat, currently based in Bengaluru
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