Friday, June 05, 2009

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

The Delhi walla's pretension in writing makes me want to lodge a bullet in his balls - Blogger Nimpipi, the woodchuck chucks
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City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

It may or may not shut down.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The 52-year-old Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place may be shutting down. Early in June, 2009, The Times of India broke the news in this oh-tragedy-is-so-beautiful headline: “The coffee aroma is fading away”. The report described the coffee house, situated on the third floor of the rundown Mohan Singh Place shopping complex, as a “thinking man’s favourite haunt”.

It is not certain that the coffee shop will actually close. The place is plagued by controversy. The management, run by a Soviet-era organization called the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society, claims the coffee shop is not making enough money. However, quite a few regulars have rejected this argument. Along with charges of financial irregularities, they have accused the cooperative of no longer wanting to run the show. The rumour is that this prime location could be leased to McDonald’s or some such fast-food chain. Another version suggests that it was the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) that asked the cooperative to pay the dues and shut shop.

But why so much fuss? After all, this is a rather shabby coffee house frequented by retired old men.

Just look at the three sitting areas here—an inside hall, a corridor and a terrace. In the summer, no pedestal fans are provided outside. The corridor, too, remains muggy; there are three manholes just next to it. In the hall, the windows and ventilators are forever closed, fans move slowly, sofas are torn and there are no curtains. “We may as well die of asthma,” says Mr Naresh Gupta, a retired government employee who has been coming to the coffee house for 20 years. “It’s as stuffy as Tihar jail.”

Then what brings him here?

“This is something we cannot answer,” says Mr Gupta, sitting with his three friends.

Indeed, quite a few regulars confess that they don’t come here for food, which is “just ok”; not even for the coffee, which has “become too watery.” It is probably just a habit for them.

“Indian Coffee House has a sociocultural significance,” explains Mr Gupta, “It’s a necessity, a home away from home.” Mr S.K. Mathur, a regular since 1976, fears that if the place closes, it might mean the end of their friends circle too.

But if, say, McDonald’s opens in its place, couldn’t they still gather here?

“The Indian Coffee House is an institution; it has helped in formulating social and political opinions in the country; it used to be frequented by intellectuals,” says Mr Gupta. “A fast-food joint can’t replace that.”

“You know, M.F. Husain would come here,” snaps another gentleman, refusing to give his name. Gupta points out, “Even Lonely Planet has mentioned Indian Coffee House in its India guidebook.”

Soon, another regular joins the adda. Mr Ashok Jain has been coming to the coffee house almost daily since 1957. Back then, the café used to be in what is now Palika Bazaar. Later, it moved to Janpath and then shifted to its present site at Mohan Singh Place in 1975.

“Are you aware that all revolutions came out of coffee houses?” Mr Jain asks as he sprawls on the sofa.

“Yes, he’s right,” nods the unnamed gentleman. “In 1975, the news of the Emergency first broke out here in this coffee house, even before Indira Gandhi could’ve made an official announcement.”

“But why would you care?” he notes sullenly, staring at the slow-moving ceiling fan. “Imagine, they banned smoking in the entire coffee house!”

“See, this is how the management is killing the place,” Mr Mathur shakes his head slowly. “In Europe, they even allow people to smoke marijuana in cafés.”

Will the coffee shop really close? “No, no, no,” Jain exclaims, his arms flaying. “It’s a conspiracy by some members of the cooperative and we will not let it happen”—a hint at another revolution. Mr Mathur adds, “We’ve met the chief minister; she has said that the coffee house will stay.”

In fact, these regulars are also members of an organization called Coffee Consumers Forum, which has sent a letter to Sonia Gandhi urging her that “the Cultural and Intellectual hub of the country be saved and in the meantime the Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Parliament Street, New Delhi & the Joint Secretary Registrar, Agriculture & Cooperation Department, Agriculture Ministry, Krishi Bhawan, New Delhi to dissolve the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society Limited and appoint an administrator”.

Somewhere in this bureaucratic gibber jabber, this appears to be a last-ditch effort to turn back the clock and make the coffee house what it once was—a Parisian-style café where writers, painters, musicians, philosophers and politicians engaged in verbal duels, where the sofas were not torn, where the china was not chipped, where windows weren’t closed, where the coffee wasn’t weak, where there were not one but two air coolers.

“Each evening, we gather here,” observes Mr Gupta, “and leave only when the waiter comes at 8pm to switch off the lights.” Adds Mr Mathur, “We have nowhere else to go... nowhere to unmind.”

We're closing

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

A regular

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Last days?

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Just addicted

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

What you'll have?

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Too hot for coffee

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Here's the menu

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

No money in the account book?

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Discussing Balzac?

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

It's cooking

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Closing countdown

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg


City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg

Shut off the lights

City Institution – Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg


a delhite said...

most of the people supporting the coffee house seem to be the older generation and hence one may think why the fuss over closing down this rather insipid place?

I am just moving into my thirties and I too am a strong supporter of retaining the coffee shop. It will be really sad if we have something like Mc Donald's come up here.... how can this american chain understand the significance of this place?

there hardly is any place in delhi not inflicted by 'modernization' and we are fast losing places where you can just go and enjoy some peace without flashing your expensive cell phones and false accents...

yes what i do agree is that this place needs to be run better - it has to be given to people who can restore its lost glory - we need upliftment in terms on better seating, hygiene, fans/ coolers, some green plants and better food. the cutlets and coffee at this place event a few years ago was something only such outlets can offer. we can't trade those for burgers and pizzas

the place can be adorned with nice pictures from history that we are fast forgetting

in a nut shell - we don't need to lose this 'gem' from history but rather clean it to restore its lost sheen

if there is a petition that needs to be signed to support this place, pls count me in. But yes it needs basic upliftment. This is the least we can do for our elders and the generation that still holds its links to the real india

P said...

They can renovate it, do a bit of marketing.
make it a little more appealing without loosing too much of its old world charm. rope in some NGO or some MNC to finance and market it with a deal to put the NGO/MNC's adverts in strategic places.
or knock the Delhi Tourism Board's door and ask them to help financially and include it in the tourism trail, highlighting its socio-cultural historical heritage.
contact Mr. MF Hussain and ask him to donate a painting on its re-opening. have a big profile book launch too. hype its 'literary-ness'. start an online campaign with some heading like 'Safe Our City's Heritage'. rope in some news channel. NDTV will be perfect. its based in Delhi only and they love to do these kinda things. go to the road too. ask the Coffee House Walles to upgrade their quality too.
... but i think it wont survive in Delhi. Delhi is just not very 'bookish/literary' enough. very unlike Kolkata. books with British style coffee houses sell more than sex there.

Rajiv said...

saaaaaadddddd,vry vry sad

Arunabh said...

Can anyone STOP this madness of destroying everything and always bowing before pure commercial considerations. I mean first they did it with Chanakya Cinema and now ICH in Delhi.

For those not from Delhi let me tell you that Chanakya was the best theater to watch movie. Ticket prices were reasonable, great location, nice crowd and roadside food was amazing. It was a heaven for people like us when we were in college to catch a flick and fill our tummies under 100 bucks.

But alas some money minded multiplex owner colluded with the Delhi govt and shut this place for some multiplex to come up.

I hope madame Gandhi at least does something for the Indian Coffee House.

causticji said...

I remember those days back when I was young, when me and my mom used to get off the 620 at Regal, walk all the way through the galli to the Traffic Park on Baba Kharak Singh. After I had had my fill, we would come to Coffee House which was where dad would meet us after office hours, after which it used to be dosa and coffee time!

Our trips to the emporia used to be on weekends, and even on those days, Coffee House fed our empty stomachs in the middle of emporium-hopping. Somehow, this place is ingrained in my memory of childhood, just like Chanakya was - the best place to watch a film in our part of the city, and have a delicious meal at Nirula's.

Sure, the city needs to move on with the times (although I can personally manage very well without it) and makeovers are a necessity every time we are on the verge of hosting a major international sporting event, but does it have to be at the expense of such irreplaceable institutions?

Anonymous said...

Although, I have never been to Indian Coffee House but still just the fact that its a coffee place and that too pretty historic and old, is enough for me to stand against its closing down! But i agree with the comment above that a need for improvement calls for 'improvement' not 'closing'.

Arunabh said...

I agree completely with Ibanov, Sir Rekaf. Improvement is the answer to modernization and now outright shutting down. There are certain memories that every Delhite would like to cherish- first car(maruti800/Fiat), chaat in old delhi, first ride in metro, ice cream at India gate etc etc.

Lets preserve them and stand up to do whatever it takes to preserve these great institutions. Malls, Metro can peacefully co-exist with other old- world remarkable places like these in Delhi.

Anita said...

I love the aroma of coffee, it is good for focusing ones mind. Tea though, is different. Tea invigorates, tenses the muscles, revitalizes, freshens you up. If you drink a cup of tea before going to bed, you sleep in a better posture.

Unknown said...

I strongly disapprove the shutting down of this place.I am a 24 year old regular delhite who is now settled in US for an year or so . Me and my friends used to sit on the terrace of this coffee shop in the evenings for hours . I enjoyed every minute spent here , though I must say that the food quality needs a serious upliftment but this place has a significance , a special and unique charm , which can not be replaced by a Mc D.

SS said...

I have not been there yet, and I already want to protest its' closing!

From what I am reading, the coffee house needs a strategic focus and upliftment. It saddening how these capitalist franchises like Mc'D and so on are taking over South Asia (and the world!)...

Anyhooooo....hope there are historical building left in Delhi when I visit.

Mayank, great work! I love your articles.

Anonymous said...

I am a Indian Coffee House hopper...And I am on a mission to travel across the nation and find ICH to sit down for a cup of coffee with cream and their yummy dosas and omlette with cheese and tomato and their ever so popular idli's.I'm 25 and I love the old school feeling that I feel inside ICH.

I've never been happy with the one in the Capital compared to what I've experienced in Jaipur and Shimla.They are well maintained and the coffee is good,food is good except they taste different in both the cities (which is okay).

Its sad that instead of making some changes to ICH in Delhi,they are going let some shitty money driven outlet to open its ever increasing chain.That's right people we need more crappy food in our system and obese kids to poke fun at.McDonald's serves crappy food and it can "KISS IT".

behera said...

awesome photos... well tagged...
keep it up :)

marina said...

Hayyyy, to all coffee lovers guess what my favorite brand of coffee i.e. Lavazza coffee is in India i have been waiting for this for a long time check out their web site
now we can have the best coffee in our house :D

Anonymous said...

sorry to hear the fate of Indian Coffee house.
In 1971 I first came to Delhi and on that very day I fell in Love with ICH though I do not drink coffee. As an art student of Delhi college of art this place inspired me and opened a new world for me. I must say it was my home where I could earn my bread %butter by sketching people until 1975.It was here I first began my romantic life. For me ICH of CP was a holy place.In 1975 I met my life partner from the Swedish Nobility.
It was this holy place where we both declared to get married.Since 1977 I am based in Sweden and have a happy family life but often I think of ICH this magnetic place which has a very special place in my heart.
greetings from Sweden