Coffee or Chai? At 2 Kolkata cafes, “Adda” is what is really on the menu

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KOLKATA, India – To ask for chai in one of the cafes is to invite a look of withered contempt from the turbaned waiter, as if blasphemy has been committed: It’s called Indian Coffee House, stupid.

At the other café, exclusively chai is served, slowly cooked over charcoal in the same dark kitchen for 103 years with the silent care of performing an ancient ritual. The history of this place, Favoritstugan, is visible in the soot layers that cover the walls, in the arched windows that filter the light in a soft aura of a bygone era, in the small attic above which is an open vault for all the chairs shattered under any large customer who got carried away during a passionate debate.

The two cafes, just a five minute walk from each other in central Kolkata, may differ in what caffeinated beverage they offer. But they are bound by their shared role in fueling a century of political argument, revolutionary planning and endless gossip in a city at the heart of India’s rich intellectual tradition.

Both are located in the College Street area, the bustling area that is home to some of Asia’s oldest universities. The alleys are full of small bookstores, the city’s huge appetite for knowledge production flows out onto the sidewalk. Every day, the sound of protests is heard in the loudspeakers – from a trade union, a student group or a political party.

Kolkata carries its past on its sleeve like few other cities, from its round yellow taxis to its antique trams. The two cafés are at once museums of nostalgia, and part of an indispensable, even addictive, daily routine for many.

“I arrange the operation times in a way so that I can get here,” says Dr. Jayanta Ray, 70, a gynecologist and dedicated Coffee House customer.

Zahid Hussain, the manager, has been working at the café for more than three decades. “I’ve done A to Z here – everything from serving to cooking,” said Mr. Hussain. “Except for sweeping.”

When the cafe closed for months during India’s two Covid waves, customers longing for Dr. Ray, who has been visiting it for 40 years, after coming in again.

“His wife kept him under house arrest,” one of his friends joked, “until he got his second vaccine.”

Friends come to Coffee House to celebrate birthdays, to dissect the latest football matches and even to arrange an annual blood tour of the premises – “high caffeine-rich blood”, joked Dr Ray.

But most days, customers come to both cafes just to talk for hours about everything and nothing. There is a word in Bengali for the unlimited conversation: “Add one. ”

Adda is something that goes unnoticed – because it is such a part of our everyday life and it is so integrated into the identity to be Bengal “, says Dr. Nabamita Das, professor of sociology at Presidency University in Kolkata who wrote her doctoral dissertation on adda. And when you think of adda, you mean adda that is integrated with adda’s space – you’re talking about Coffee House adda, Favorite Cabin adda. ”

Some of Bengal’s favorite icons would hold adda at Coffee House, from the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray to Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in economic science. Many of the city’s intellectual giants have spoken enthusiastically about how coffee and conversation have shaped their worldview and resemble each table with its own literary salon.

Among the dozens of paintings hanging obliquely on the Coffee House walls is a life-size portrait of a young Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most famous poet, who overlooks the reddish-brown plastic chairs arranged around the 40 tables. Among the paintings are signs “Non-smoking area”, which can just as easily be considered conceptual art in the smoke-filled hall.

“Formally and technically, it’s a non-smoking area, but you see cigarette butts around the floor,” said Dr Das. “There is almost like a tacit consent among those who serve and those who come to the house not to have ashtrays on the table and still smoke. ”

Balcony seating offers a bit of privacy for intimate conversations and a bird’s eye view of the scene below.

“I sometimes sat upstairs and could feel the conversations rising,” wrote Partha Ghose, a physicist and author known for popularizing modern science, in a collection of reflections at the coffee house.

At Favoritstugan, customers broke in even before Sanchay Barua had put away his lunch plate and opened the doors to the café that his grandfather started 103 years ago. Ganshan Das, a worker, boiled the milk over a coal fire in the dark kitchen at the back – as he has done for 51 years.

Half a dozen people, including an author who wrote his sixth book and a retired economist, had already taken a seat in various corners of the café.

As the conversation buzzed across the room, the main topic of discussion was the divided opinions hotly contested state elections, med Prime Minister Narendra Modis Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs India, is doing all it can to oust West Bengal’s incumbent leader, Prime Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Earlier in his life, Mr. Barua, 57, tried to sell stationery, but decided to join the family’s café two decades ago after his father died.

Repeated Covid shutdowns have taken a heavy toll, reducing operations to one shift a day after lunch. He can not afford to pay for the work required for longer hours. So at the moment he and Mr Das are largely in charge.

“I’m getting older too, so I’m not sure how long it will continue,” said Mr. Barua. “It’s a dilemma.”

The loss of the café would be a blow to the city’s cultural history. Tribalists – from independence fighters to writers who shaped influential literary movements to union leaders – had their preferred places and came up with their peculiarities.

The poet and musician Kazi Nazrul Islam had his place where he would randomly pick up the inspiration for his latest composition and start pounding on the table top and standing up to sing. Author Shibram Chakraborty preferred to just sit on the low chairs at the checkout counter, opposite the window.

“If these chairs were taken, he would stand there waiting,” said Mr. Barua. “Or he would go and come back.”

While many of the customers move calmly between the two cafes, some, such as Dr. Ray, purists, their loyalty strictly to one of the cafes and one of the drinks – even if they insist it’s about the conversation.

Dr. Ray said he had tried the newer, nicer cafes that have opened around Kolkata. Did he like their coffee?

“No no no!” he said.

There are some who do not see what all the fuss is about.

Meghna Ghosh and Subrota De, both 20 and former high school classmates who caught up after two years apart, decided to check out Coffee House. They said that although they appreciated its history, the menu did not do much for them. Not the mood either.

Compared to the new cafes around town, which Ms Ghosh said were “good for Instagram”, was Coffee House – and here she struggled a bit to express her thoughts.

“This,” Ms Ghosh said in English before switching to Hindi, “ye toh slow-walli cheez hai.” (“It’s a slow moving thing.”)

Mr Hussain, the boss, is equally skeptical of the young people who walk through his doors these days.

“In the past, students came to spend time with their books. Now they all come for love – for dates, he said and his old uncle’s energy came out.

Then he saw the bright side.

“A lot of love started here,” he smiled. “And they come back to us with candy when they get married.”

Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee contributed with reporting.

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