Coffee or tea? In 2 Kolkata cafes, ‘Adda’ is what’s really on the menu
KOLKATA, India – In a café, ordering tea is an invitation to glimpse the withered disdain of the turban-wielding waiter, as if blasphemy had been perpetrated: it’s called Indian Coffee House, you idiot.
In the other teahouse, tea is served exclusively, slow-cooked over a coal fire in the same dark kitchen for 103 years with the silent care of performing an ancient ritual. The history of this place, a favorite cabin, is shown in the layers of soot that cover the walls, in the arched windows that filter the light in a soft halo of past time, in the little attic over the ceiling an open burial vault for all the broken chairs under a customer of floors dragged through a passionate discussion.
The two cafes, which are only a five-minute walk in central Kolkata, may be different in the caffeinated drinks they serve. But they are bound by their common role in fueling a century of political debate, revolutionary intrigue 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 neighborhood that is home to some of Asia’s oldest universities. The alleys are crowded with little bookshops, the city’s colossal appetite for producing knowledge seeps onto the sidewalk. On any given day, loudspeakers blare out the sounds of protest – by a trade union, student group, or political party.
Kolkata has its past on its sleeve like few other cities, from its round yellow taxis to its cars. antique tram. The two cafes are at once museums of nostalgia, and an indispensable, even addictive, part of a daily routine for many.
“I arrange operating times in such a way that I can get here,” said Dr. Jayanta Rai, 70, a gynecologist and a client who specializes in Coffee House.
Zahid Hussain, the manager, has worked in the café for more than three decades. “I’ve done the ground up here – everything from serving to cooking,” said Mr. Hussain. Except for sweeping.
When the café closed for several months during the two waves of Covid in India, customers like Dr. Ray, who has been frequenting for 40 years, felt an itch to return.
One of his friends joked, “His wife kept him under house arrest until he got his second vaccination.”
Friends come to the café to celebrate birthdays, dissect the last football games, and even arrange a yearly blood drive on the premises — “blood high in caffeine,” Dr. Ray joked.
But most days, customers come in both cafes to talk for hours about everything and nothing. There is a word in Bengali for that unrestricted conversation: “Add. “
“said Dr. Napamita Das, Professor of Sociology at the University of Presidency in Kolkata, who wrote her PhD thesis on Adda. “And When you think of adda, you think of adda closely related to adda space — you’re talking about Coffee House adda, my favorite cabin adda.”
Some of Bengal’s favorite icons will carry Ada into the Coffee House, from legendary director Satyajit Ray to Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences. Several giants of the city’s intellectuals spoke fondly of how coffee and conversations shaped their worldview, likening each table to its own literary salon.
Among the dozens of paintings hanging diagonally on the walls of the café is a life-size portrait of a young Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s most famous poet, who peeks out on the maroon plastic chairs arranged around the forty tables. Interspersed with “no smoking zone” signs, which can also be considered conceptual art in the smoke-filled hall.
“Officially and technically, this is a no-smoking area, but you see cigarette butts everywhere on Earth,” said Dr. Das. “There is almost a silent agreement between those who serve and those who come home not to put ashtrays on the table and yet smoke. “
Balcony seating provides a little privacy for intimate conversations and a look at the scenery below.
Partha Joss, a physicist and author known for promoting modern science, wrote in set of meditations In the coffee house.
In the favorite booth, customers made their way even before Sanchai Barwa put down his lunch plate and opened the doors of the café started by his grandfather 103 years ago. Janshan Das, a laborer, was boiling milk over a coal fire in the darkened kitchen in the back – the way he’s been using for 51 years.
Half a dozen people, including the author of his sixth book and a retired economist, had already taken their seats in various corners of the cafe.
As the conversation ran around the room, the main topic for dividing opinions was Highly contested state elections, With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, who rules India, is doing everything in his power to remove the current leader of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Earlier in his life, Mr. Barua, 57, tried to sell stationery supplies but decided to join the family café two decades ago after the death of his father.
Covid’s repeated shutdowns have taken a heavy toll, reducing the process to one shift a day after lunch. He cannot afford to pay the required labor for longer hours. So far he and Mr. Das are pretty much managing things.
“I am getting older too, so I am not sure how long it will last,” Mr. Barua said. “It’s a dilemma.”
The loss of the café would be a blow to the city’s cultural history. Regulars—from independence fighters to writers who shaped influential literary movements to trade union leaders—had their favorite seats and brought their own quirks.
Poet and musician Kazi Nasr al-Islam was his place where, randomly, he would take inspiration from his latest pieces and start hitting the tabletop and standing up to sing. Writer Shubram Chakraborty preferred to sit only on low chairs next to the cashier’s desk, opposite the window.
“If those chairs were taken, he would just stand there and wait,” said Mr. Barua. “Or he’ll leave and come back.”
While many customers leisurely make their way between coffee shops, some, like Dr. Ray, are die-hard, stern loyalty to a coffee shop, and a drink — even as they insist it’s all about the conversation.
Dr. Ray said he has tried the newer and more luxurious cafes that have opened around Kolkata. Do you like their coffee?
“no no no!” He said.
There are some who do not see the reason for all this trouble.
Meghna Ghosh and Subrota De, both 20 and former high school classmates, decided to catch up after two years of separation, to visit the Coffee House. They said that while they appreciated its history, the list didn’t give them much. Nor the atmosphere.
Compared to new cafés across town, which Ms. Ghosh said were “good for Instagram”, the Coffee House was – and here she struggled a bit to express her thoughts.
“This,” Mrs. Ghosh said in English, before turning to Hindi, “You are so slow, Wali Chez Hai.” (“It’s something that moves slowly.”)
Mr. Hussain, the manager, is equally skeptical of the young men who pass through his doors these days.
“In the past, students would come to spend time with their books. Now they all come for love—for dating,” he said, and his old uncle’s energy spurted out.
Then he saw the bright side.
“A lot of love started here,” he smiled. “And they come back to us with sweets when they get married.”
Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee contributed reporting.