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.