The last time I was in Kolkata, I was stumped by the number of little cafés I saw in every corner of the city. They were bustling with life, peopled by the young, who sat with their lattes and laptops. The sight — though vastly different — reminded me of the city’s old coffee houses, where people once voiced and shaped their dreams over cigarettes and coffee.
Coffee houses were as much a part of the city, as, say, the Victoria Memorial. So, I was happy to find a chapter on coffee houses in a new book called A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal.
The India Coffee House on Chittaranjan Avenue, it says, was one of the two venues originally selected by Coffee Board of India in Calcutta, the other being the Albert Hall Coffee House on Bankim Chatterjee Street. Albert Hall, founded in April 1876 by philosopher-social reformer Keshab Chandra Sen, was the meeting place of the city’s intelligentsia, Kanjilal writes.
“It is believed that Surendranath Banerjee founded the Indian National Association (also known as Indian Association) here, in 1876. The first Indian National Conference, which took place here in 1883, is said to have paved the way for the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose attended a few political meetings held in this place.”
Lords and commoners
After the acquisition of Albert Hall by the Government of India, Coffee Board converted it into a coffee house in 1942. Albert Hall was now known as India Coffee House. It had two sections — the House of Lords and House of Commons. The difference between the two was stark. Coffee in the House of Lords cost 25% more than that in the House of Commons.
“In the Commons, your coffee was brought to you with the milk already in it; you merely added the sugar. In the Lords, milk, sugar and coffee were produced on a tray in their separate receptacles and the customer paid for this refinement,” the book quotes from an essay written by the late British journalist, Philip Crosland.
If there was “pandemonium” in the Commons, the Upper House was sedate, Crosland writes — “A table near the door was almost invariably occupied by the Chief Secretary to the West Bengal government, whose name I have forgotten, immersed in The Statesman crossword. In the centre of the room was a galaxy of talent from an advertising agency. One of their number would be Satyajit Ray, yet to find fame as a filmmaker, but a quarter way through the making of Pather Panchali.”
The black umbrella
Over the years, Kanjilal writes, India Coffee House came to be popularly known as the College Street Coffee House because of its proximity to College Street. This was where poetry was written, films conceptualised, revolutions plotted. Not much, though, was thought about its food, though Kanjilal also waxes eloquent about the menu. “Fluffy omelettes and flaky patties are a reminder of the legacy left behind by the British, as are the vegetable, cheese, chicken and egg sandwiches, and cutlets.”
At the heart of the menu, to my mind, was the adda. “College Street Coffee House has been a centre for intellectual and artistic discussions and political movements,” Kanjilal writes. Among the regulars were filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak; actors Utpal Dutt, Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen; economist Amartya Sen; writers Sunil Gangopadhyay and Samaresh Majumdar.
Gangopadhyay, she says, often didn’t have money to pay for coffee, and would leave behind his black umbrella as credit. It says something about the humble beginnings of the late poet-author, who later gained great fame. But doesn’t it say a lot more about a coffee house that agrees to keep a poet’s black umbrella as collateral?
Rahul Verma likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.