By Damini Kulkarni:
We are a South Indian family that takes filter ‘kaapi’ very seriously. When my father begins the meticulous process of brewing filter coffee, my friends drool at even the slight hint of an aroma wafting from my kitchen. It is understandable therefore, that my father (who sees putting chocolate in coffee as a sacrilege, second only to putting coconut on sev puri) is baffled by my café habit. Why seek out a café when coffee-smells can come to you whenever you want? But then, coffee shops are about more than the lure of caffeine. Like any other successful social institution, the lure of coffee shops is not what it physically serves up, but what it metaphorically stands for – a short respite from all that is boring, a symbol of casual richness and a neutral ground for social connectivity. Whether it actually delivers on all these counts is not the point. But the fact that a large number of people (including me) believes that it does, is what makes all the difference.
If a sociologist ever decides to undertake an observation study of a café – any café – I am confident the results will be extremely interesting. Cafés are simply like that. The warmth of their inviting confines transforms them into bubbling little pots of human interaction. They are veritable modern-day ‘madhushalas’ where people congregate for much more than simple coffee (I refer to the famous Harivansh Rai Bachchan poem and not some random Suzie Bar with a curtain for a door). Cafés are home to so many activities, expressions and sounds in general that it’s amazingly paradoxical how so many people seem to be completely at peace in them. Rather like the sea, I imagine. Its constant, sometimes frenetic motion seems to inspire a meandering sense of beatitude in a person who takes time enough to notice. I would know. I haunt coffee shops the same way casper haunts attics of ramshackle homes. It’s never about the coffee for me. It is the sensation of being alone, but not quite alone. And the free WiFi doesn’t exactly hurt either.
Cafés are inhabited by a fascinating variety of the human species. There is a loud talker (louder than everyone else, at least) screaming away genially at someone, there are couples conversing politely and sometimes making cows’ eyes at one another, raucous college kids who are just getting the hang of ‘hanging out’, families huddled together around small, circular tables with uncles and aunties who are largely befuddled by the idea of paying for something they can ‘easily make at home’, business people clacking away at their laptops with single-minded determination and sometimes there’s a poor jobless sod who is simply sitting with a book and a mug of a randomly chosen concoction – simply watching the ‘goings-on’ (that one is me). It is fascinating how such a diverse array of personalities can sit comfortably ensconced elbow-to-elbow with one another – sometimes even literally. That’s because, quite often, there are three tables crammed in together in a place where there only ought to be one. This classically Indian economisation of space (like a fourth seat in a local train) is done to accommodate the hordes that amble or stride into cafés daily to get their caffeine fix. The Large Indian Crowd is entering coffee shops with that much gusto.
Even a few years ago, when I was a part of that aforementioned raucous gang, coffee shops were not being trampled by a herd of people every day as they are being now. Crowds filing into coffee shops could well become the defining feature of this decade. Remember the snaking queue outside Starbucks when it opened in Fort? Perhaps, a couple of decades from now when some website, like BuzzFeed, will sit down to nostalgically pen down the things that defined the 2010s, they’ll put in a mention of this café culture (right after macho-hero type masala films and item numbers named after women). We’ve simply become a generation of people who prefer the AC-warm, light-coffee-internet blend of a café. When put that way, what’s not to like, really?
I can think of several possible reasons for the growing influence of café culture. Perhaps it is because the ‘nakas’ (corners) and ‘nukkads’ (street-ends) that were earlier nodes of random conversations are rapidly disappearing. It could also be because cafés are being inexorably linked with free WiFi (seriously arguing the case for that meme which puts WiFi as a need in Maslow’s hierarchy). Maybe people are unable to sit at their homes or offices and peg away at their work surrounded by the same colours and lights all day long and require the ambience of a café to cure them of their tedium. But mostly, café culture is spurred by the way coffee shops have marketed themselves superbly on the right media, branding what they sell – ambience and coffee – with a matter-of-fact ‘coolth’. Coffee shops stand at the epicentre of all that is casually artistic and hep. This marketing feat is nothing short of laudable in a culture where even loafing around in Udupi restaurants was a sure sign of ruination. This is, in fact, the whole reason why my parents will never really understand why I need to sit at a café at all.