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A tale of two cafés

Prologue: The portrait is my entry to this week's photofriday theme - Worn

Three years ago, when looking for a place to live in Bangalore, my eyes caught a glimpse of the “tract and church book society” buildings at St. Mark’s Road. One of them housed (and still does) a branch of the Indian Starbucks equivalent – Barista. It wasn’t my love for coffee that got me there for the first time, but my fascination for the imposing edifice. I have vague memories of sitting there mesmerized, staring at the extraordinarily high roof for hours, and lazily sipping a cup of hot mocha on a sunny Sunday morning. If there was one thing that the place unmistakably exuded besides an infinite calm, it was a sense of infinite spaciousness. That infinity was a sum total of part illusion – one accentuated by a tall mirror that still hangs at one of the walls, part ingenuity – a cleverly designed cash counter with a choice of colors to match, and part reality – fewer than a few chairs with a plenty of floor space deliberately left vacant.

The sort of place where you would expect the warmth of the sun streaming through the tall picture windows to be greeted by warmth of Haydn’s string quartets; an event I have witnessed just once in last three years. Yes, the music played here had never quite been to my taste. It was a minor shortcoming which was easily remedied by the marriage of a pair of good ear-buds with those inconspicuous portable musical devices.

A year or so ago, economics here usurped aesthetics. One of the two small rooms attached to the main anteroom was converted into a bookshop. (The other was - and is - a showroom for expensive French brand of t-shirts that proudly bear a crocodile as an insignia out of some misplaced concern for the amphibian). This was done without reducing the capacity of the cafeteria - the chairs from that room therefore, found themselves unceremoniously dumped in the main hall one fine morning. A new menu card was installed at the counter – surest sign of an upward price revision, and indeed, on another fine day, my mocha became dearer. I now had to wade through a maze of chairs and tables to reach my favorite mirror-facing seat. I also suddenly found myself not looking inside or at the roof any longer either, but at the old tree outside. “This place is still tolerable, ok barely so; still” I would often tell myself.

That was until this café called Barista still had something to do with coffee. On yet another fine day, I found all tables there bestrewn with pamphlets of a new product from the stable of a global cosmetics giant. I couldn’t sit where I wanted because the area was “reserved” for the same promotion. The café had now become an arena for “alternative advertising”. You can still buy a coffee here but it comes with free advertising – like those annoying browser pop-up windows. Have your coffee, but do buy that latest deo which is bound to attract women to you just like a lonely, weak deer on a moony night in a forest attracts a pack of hyenas, fill-in your details to be included in a raffle that could get you that newer, bigger, fuel inefficient car and don’t forget to watch that blockbuster flick on Saturday night.

Of the time I’ve spent in Bangalore, a good one third was spent in total oblivion of the Coffee House. In hindsight, I find it ironic that this place too shares a wall with a shop that sells apparel branded with a crocodile (the logo is where the similarity ends). A perfect contrast to Barista, the place is housed in an unpretentious, decades old building at the MG Road. Entering Coffee House is entering a place which has halted the forward march of time or perhaps time just waits outside while you finish your coffee.

The walls are dotted with decades old, paling Indian Coffee Board posters promoting the consumption of the beverage. Bright red letters below an old framed picture of Gandhi, a picture perhaps as old as Gandhi would have been now, tell you not to smoke inside.

Everything here, except the ostentatiously liveried (liveries that have seen better days but are now threadbare) waiters, has been stripped down to the merest basics. A coffee can be had here without feeling a pinch even on those last days of the month that I; like the salaried middle class in our county, never look forward to.

The picture I have posted will finish this essay for me by supplying those thousand words that pictures are fabled to. I’ll only add that there are no points for guessing where I am a regular now.
posted: 12.11.05


What about Ullas? ;) I think Indian Coffee House and Ullas are more or less on the same league... and you can be almost always pretty sure of an empty table at Ullas, which isn't the case with Indian Coffee House.

And I was immediately reminded of this picture by Kevin Kelly :)

(Indian Coffee House is pretty popular in Kerala, with the trade union roots and all. Heh, trust a Keralite to market his homeland no matter where he goes...)

By Blogger sajith, at 12.11.05  

excellent prose, sire! may I add - they would gladly hand over an extra cup so you can share your coffee with a buddy. unlike the other cafe hounded by PYTs and wannabe wannabes :)

By Blogger Exotic Gringo, at 12.11.05  

India Coffee House is an institution not yet prey to glitz and snazzy colors. But I guess its only a matter of time before some young hot head takes over the controls of the board and decides to revamp it's image.

Been a regular at ICH in Bangalore and other parts of India for years now. I have spent most of my coffee drinking & cutlet/omelette eating days there. My haven for days I wished time stood still.

By Blogger M, at 12.11.05  

I don't drink much coffee nor do I visit cafes much.

However, I remember one memorable rainy afternoon in the Barista you mentioned. I got a seat beside the window. The effect of the slow drizzle outside, the earthly flavor in the air, the empty washed roads I could see through the tall glass windows and the hot coffee -- it was just great!

25 years in Bangalore and I haven't been to the ICH on MG Road even once! Shame on me! Incidentally, my first ICH experience happened (as one commentor mentioned above) on a Kerala trip just a couple of weeks ago. ICHs are there in every town in Wayanad and these are the best places to grab clean cheap non-coconut-oily food. And wonderful old world coffee to boot! I'm giving a visit to the MG Road ICH soon then! :-)

By Blogger Ashwin, at 12.11.05  

Hi Deepak,

Nice article and very nice Photo, I have seen that person when I used to visit India Coffee house. Have you had the Dosa there...Wow amazing...
After coming to London on work, I really miss everything Indian, especially food, Filter coffee, Hot Chocolate Nut sunday (I dont believe it I forgot the name of my favourite Ice Cream shop on residency road !!!!), Dosa, Idli .........

Oh me sad

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 14.11.05  

Its been six years since we moved from Bangalore to the US. Whenever hassled by the fast pace of life or being nostalgic about our times in Bangalore, the ICH is the first place that comes to mind.
The idyllic pace just was so relaxing. Your article and the photo just hit the spot.

By Blogger Amit Varshneya, at 14.11.05  

it's been a few years since i moved to the states, but ICH has a prime spot in my memories.....

and i loved the scrambled eggs there, and the dosas too.....

By Blogger Sunil, at 14.11.05  

Lovely, lovely, lovely post and picture.

By Blogger Mridula, at 14.11.05  

Beautiful pic - if your words were not so endearing, I would have said that you could have just posted the pics and left everything else unsaid! ;)

ICH has a magic of its own. Especially because it occupies its own old-era niche in that modern bustling street.

"...or perhaps time just waits outside while you finish your coffee." - this says it all!

Not to mention that the coffee is much better and it is far, far lighter on your pocket ;)

By Blogger Shruthi, at 14.11.05  

You caught a star (number 10) for this snap :-) did u noticed it?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 14.11.05  

Hey Sajith, I haven't been to ullas in a long long time. Finding a place to sit at the coffee house has never been an issue with me. I usually go there alone. All I do is ask for a permission to sit on the vacant chair opposite someone. Always works! Even if the person is a total stranger!

Thanks Kaushal!

Hey Manjusha, I hope the young hothead that takes over the coffee house respects the place's tradition. Or at the very least understands one thing - if it's not broken, don't fix it!

Hi Ash! You must! You must!

Thanks Sudha! Haven't had the dosas there - just coffee, cutlets, toast and fries. Will definitely try it the next time! I think you are missing "Corner House" :-)

Thanks Amit!

Thanks Sunil, I am unlikely to forget ICH either; no matter where life takes me next.

Thanks Mridula!

Thanks Shruti!

Hey Sudhakar, yup I caught it. It is hard to miss - in fact every waiter there wears a number badge. Incidentally, yours is the 10th comment on this post :-)

By Blogger Deepak, at 15.11.05  

Thanks Deepak,

Corner House it is ... Yes ....I have never had the kind of icecream anywhere else ....or I am just partial I am not sure...it is the best icecream place ....for sure..

Hey I was going mad trying to remember that name ...

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 15.11.05  

Oh, yeh :-) Good catch :-)

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 15.11.05  

Lovely image.. :)

By Blogger Arun, at 17.11.05  

Beautiful portrait!

By Blogger ~ sAn ~, at 14.12.05  

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