Once The Hub Of Intellectuals, This Famous Coffee House In Delhi Has Lost Its Flavour

By Martand Jha:

Once upon a time there existed a place right at the heart of Delhi which was a hub for intellectuals where they used to sit for hours and have a cup of coffee. The place was called Indian Coffee House. Though it still exists but the charm of the place is long lost. I went there many times and the more I went there I wanted to know about the history of the place about which I had heard a lot from old-time visitors. So, I started to communicate with the staff members and groups of senior citizens who have been flocking this place every day for years.

This is not just a place but a culture that has existed for the past 50 years, says Virendra Srivastava, a regular customer who has been coming to have a cup of coffee since 1966 at the Indian Coffee House. The coffee house comes under a chain of 400 coffee houses, run by the Indian Coffee Worker’s cooperative society.

The first Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society (ICWCS) was founded in Bangalore on August 19, 1957. The first coffee house under this cooperative society was opened in the same year in New Delhi on October 27, 1957, at the Theatre Communication Building, Connaught Place where today’s Palika Bazaar is situated. The society still runs on a policy of no-profit-no-loss, informs Virender Singh, Manager, Indian Coffee House (ICWCS).

In this photograph taken on June 9, 2009, patrons relax in the open seating area of The Indian Coffee house in New Delhi. At first glance, the Indian Coffee House in New Delhi looks more like a run down school cafeteria than a venerable gathering spot of the city's intelligentsia. Everything about the cafe, from the shabby, outdated furniture to the rickety ceiling fans and mostly grey-haired male customers, suggests visitors have stepped into a time warp.These days though, there is more than just tea and coffee brewing at the legendary shop where prime ministers, freedom fighters and writers would rack their brains for hours. AFP PHOTO/Manpreet ROMANA (Photo credit should read MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images.

As soon as the news spread that a place like this existed in the heart of the capital, people from all walks of life started to flock there and made a habit of having their morning coffee at the place before reaching their respective workplaces, says Pawan Kumar, a former government official who remembers how the place rapidly grew into a hub of intellectuals where journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, scholars etc. discussed and debated for hours on various topics.

Nobody was a stranger here. Anybody could join any group or sit solitary nursing a cup of coffee. Civil society and human rights groups would hold meetings here. This was a place to fix future appointments, plan a spontaneous resistance, write a letter, conceive a poster/hoarding/wallpaper, exchange/read a book, meet friends and foes. The place was visited by the likes of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Chandrashekhar, I. K. Gujral and countless others.

Apparently, the place was demolished during Emergency in 1976 as it was believed that many conspiracies against the Indira government were hatched at ICH which was a centre of free speech and expression even after the Emergency started as an old-time customer Pawan Kumar informed me. He, along with many others since then, has started coming to the present location of ICH which is at Mohan Singh Palace in Connaught Place which was running parallel to the old and famous ICH since 1969. NDMC helped in shifting the coffee house to its current location.

The coffee house was famous for its South Indian food especially dosa as back then, there were few South Indian restaurants which offered such tasty food items at very nominal rates as ICH did, remarks Dinesh Singh, Secretary, ICWCS who recalls how people came from all corners of the capital to taste idli, dosa and sambhar vada along with a cup of coffee.

In the 1990s, things began to change rapidly for this place as due to the liberalisation of the Indian economy. The market opened up and soon private players like McDonald’s and Barista started giving tough competition to the Coffee House. Even after a year-long renovation in 1995 the Coffee House was never able to regain its lost glory. Though the renovation tried to improve the two dining rooms and the open roof area, the sales here dipped rapidly.

Kundan Singh Rawat, President, ICWCS says that the staff numbered 300 in its glorious old days and now the number has reduced to just 45. “We are running at a loss as we don’t work on gaining profits which is why the staff is decreasing in number as the pay here is not so attractive,” he says.

It takes a lot of time for getting the order placed at the table, complains says S. Najmi, a long time customer, who was saddened by the fact that over the years the place has been degraded as the place is no longer a ‘thinking man’s’ haunt and now ‘just old people’ come here to pass their time.

One could see torn sofa seats, fans not working properly, a dusty environment (especially inside the sofa seater room) not long ago. Adding to the woes of customers is the menace of monkeys who frighten them when they sit in the open roof area. The class of customers coming here have changed over the years as now mostly college going students visit this place because the prices of food items are still a lot cheaper than any other restaurant in the CP area, says Virender Singh, Manager of the Coffee House.

The place had dilapidated look so the authorities at the Coffee House decided to renovate the place to attract customers. The plan for renovation started in mid-2014 but then they didn’t have sufficient money to do so, informs one of the staff members while stating that ICH authorities are already modernising the management. For example, till 2011, hand written bills were given, but now bills are given in a printed form. Now, things have changed for the better. The place has been renovated properly but its old glory could not be retained.

The only thing that gives a glimpse of its past is a turbaned waiter in a dull white uniform who serves the coffee. All is still not lost as a group of retired people forming Coffee Consumers Forum are determined to make this place as it used to be in its heydey.

Banner and featured image credit: Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images.

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