The Palaces of Memory

There is a monkey at the window. It lopes slowly along the low wall and momentarily peers inside through grimy windows at a dozen old men talking furiously at dirty tables. Unimpressed, the monkey carefully scratches its behind and ambles off, leisurely dropping down onto the terrace before walking calmly across the tiled floor and disappearing over the edge of the precipice. Above, eagles soar effortlessly in the languid, polluted air. This is central New Delhi in the late afternoon and three floors below on the street there is the usual chaos.

Downstairs, nearly fourteen million people clamber over each other, fighting – sometimes literally – for space, for breath, for a pause in the relentless noise and movement of a city once again shedding it’s grimy skin, becoming its next ‘self’. The Indian Coffee House stands above it all: a survivor from a different time. A black and white movie in an era of 3-D. A palace of mid-century modernism, broken but still standing.

I have been coming here, on and off, since I first came to Delhi fifteen years ago. For me the Indian Coffee House was somewhere to be anonymous, away from the stares and the strangeness of India. I came between assignments, nervous at first, careful of the regulars, careful of the city. The coffee house became for me an echo of the cosy fug of the English café, those greasy, Formica pavilions of post-war austerity. Rain, cigarette smoke and steamy windows. An anonymous place in a city where you could simply watch the world.


It’s said that coffee came to India smuggled in the clothes of Baba Budan, a Haj pilgrim who managed to carry seven beans out through Yemen back to Karnataka. It proved popular and, as David Burton says in his seminal ‘The Raj at the Table’:

“India's first coffee house opened in Calcutta after the battle of Plassey in 1780. (It)… was followed in 1792 by the Exchange Coffee Tavern at the Muslim, waited at the mouth of the Madras Fort. The enterprising proprietor of the latter announced he was going to run his coffee house on the same lines as Lloyd's in London, by maintaining a register of the arrival and departure of ships, and offering Indian and European newspapers for his customers to read. Other houses also offered free use of billiard tables, recovering their costs with the high price of one rupee for a single dish of coffee."

Coffee in the South became a distinct lifestyle but by the twentieth century the British, dismayed by low international coffee prices, decided to expand the home market. North India had always been a tea drinking area so this was no mean task. By 1942 the Raj had formed the Indian Coffee Expansion Board as a ‘friend, philosopher and guide’ to coffee growers and set up coffee stalls (and then cafes) across India selling hot coffee, coffee powder and ‘English snacks’. Back in Delhi, American servicemen waiting to be posted to the Burma front were sampling the newly-opened modern delights of Edward Lutyen’s orderly and planned city. They could join their well-heeled Indian hosts at the cinema, enjoy ice cream at Kwality, a juke- box at the United Milk Bar, watch German cabaret at Nirula’s and dance with their Anglo-Indian dates. Café society had come to town.

A synthesis was happening. The Coffee house chain started by the British became a haunt of those dedicated to independence. Not only the physical but also the cultural landscape was changing. According to Bhaswati Bhattacharya, the Fritz Thyssen Fellow (Centre for Modern Indian Studies) at the Georg August University in Göttingen, “… coffee houses (in India) led to the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere… associated with modern identity and modern society… not dissimilar to the developments in eighteenth century Europe.” The British coffee houses were a social lubricant and, more importantly, a space where ideas fermented.

Independence saw Delhi transformed by a bloody Partition and enterprising Punjabi refugees. The hunger of the 1940s gave way to a post-colonial optimism and by 1957 on the wide, open avenues of Janpath, the Indian Coffee House (replacing a much earlier incarnation on Chadni Chowk) had become a mecca to the city’s intellectuals. Girilal Jain, then the Times’ chief reporter, the young critic and photographer, Richard Bartholomew, IK Gujral (later to be Prime Minister) all had their own groups. Jatinder Sethi, a student at the time, recalled the place for the Academy of the Punjab in North America:

“As you push open the double door and enter, you see the place is already full, and sounds quite noisy, cacophony of chatter, as everyone is talking at the same time. The inside hall is large and long and goes right up to the kitchen entrance, from where a spiral staircase takes you to the balcony, which is rarely used by the regulars…”

Children played cricket in the traffic-less streets. Geeta Bali and Shammi Kapoor entranced cinema audiences with Coffee House(1957). The following year Dave Brubeck played the university (where there was another Indian Coffee House) and Che Guevara came to town. In Europe and America young people were finding their voice in the same kind of places. Wheels within wheels.


The circular coffee rings on the faded plastic table work like an old map of the city: cartography from one era of Delhi to another. Today, the waiter, Gopal Singh, who has worked here since 1981, wipes them away with a grimy rag. A big man with a square head and an impressively starched turban crowning his face, Singh wordlessly takes an order and moves swiftly away. A steel tray held expertly in his upturned palm contains half a dozen empty, chipped coffee cups. Above him a tired ceiling fan, ticks and clicks and whirls battling bravely against the Delhi heat and dust.

The Indian Coffee house is divided into three distinct sections. An enclosed room with windows on three sides that is the preserve of the old, predominately male regulars who sit at moveable tables shuffling themselves around conversations like dominoes. A women and families section of a dozen or so booths. Dark panelling, a central aisle for the waiter to patrol with the manager carefully recording every sale at one end and at the other a senior waiter working the fizzing and spluttering espresso machine. The third space is a terrace – unusual enough for Delhi – perhaps fifty metres square in an ‘L’ shape flanked on one side by a frantic radial of Connaught Place and on the other by several huge, old, dusty trees.

Today, the Women and Family section is half-full. The booths of dark wood are cracked and stained. The leatherette sofas have burst revealing their metal spring guts. Surgery to repair them with duck-tape has on the whole failed. Still intact but deeply sagging seats bear the imprints of a million corpulent Delhi bottoms.

Two tables in front an older man, his henna’d hair slicked down, reaches over and whispers to his younger, female companion. She turns her head and smiles. In profile her faced is heavy, tired and Pock-marked. He retreats, victorious. A wife? A lover? A million days whiled away over coffee. A million stories.

Opposite, an elderly couple sit silently facing each other. She wears a pretty sari, he a shirt and slacks. They have grandchildren and you know that they have been coming here for years. The same table, the same idly and vada.The same time. A politeness, a formality. A correctness. An almost British-ness. These are ordinary Delhi-wallahs: not the nouveau riche with their smart, sleek cars and their appalling me-first, India-Shining-manners. Not the poor – who are being systematically written out of the narrative of modern India - but the lower middle classes still trying to hang on to a civility in a city that is no longer civil.

Two years ago the Indian media was awash with stories about the Indian Coffee House. After a decade of unimaginable growth and newness, Delhi decided that it loved its last, faded, grumpy coffee house. It was finally closing. Television crews were dispatched to the roof terrace to interview bemused customers asking how the Coffee House had run up debts to the government landlord of something like Rs 23-24 lakh (about €36000), where would they go now? The modern world had finally come upstairs and was knocking very loudly. A stay of execution was agreed and now the Coffee House sits in limbo unsure of its next incarnation.

GVG Khrishnamurthy greets me warmly in his Gaziabad apartment, 30 kms from Delhi. A small, precise man. In a tiny whitewashed office lined with books he rings a bell and a young servant bring me a coffee. Outside a nervous, armed policeman keeps an eye through the door purposely left ajar. Krishnamurthy, now 77, is the former Election Chief Commissioner of India. Widely seen as a straight bat in a sea of corrupt and devious politicians, he leans back on his chair. His memory is lawyer-sharp.

“The Coffee House was there in 1962 when I came to Delhi to practice as a lawyer. We used to hear about it in Hyderabad and we used to go and listen to all the people there – politicians, actors – it was a great education… Delhi after Independence was a place of cultural confluence: many different people form all over India came for the first time. All Indians were different – like a garland that holds many flowers and… I was excited to see the making of our new country”

One morning In 1964, the journalist, Rajinder Kapoor noticed when he went to settle his bill at the Janpath Coffee House, he had been charged an extra 10 paisa. Incensed by the unannounced price rise he refused to pay and cheered on by the other customers (allegedly to cries of ‘et tu Coffee House’) immediately organised a boycott. The regulars (’The Coffee Addicts’) had a vendor set up a pavement stall outside to sell coffee at 25 paisa a cup and the campaign gained momentum. Khrishnamurthy was chosen as a founder member of the newly re-organised co-operative Price Resistance Movement. The Indian Coffee Worker’s Co-Operative founded in the South a decade before by AP Gopalan and the Indian Communist  Party offered to take over the new enterprise.

The movement sparked spontaneous protests about other food and milk price rises across Delhi. Thanks to the intervention of Meher Chand Khanna, the Union Minister for Housing and Supply, the coffee house became a more permanent tent outside the Theatre Communications Building on the grassy Central Park in Connaught Place. Members paid Rs1 to join – they included none less than the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and the Information and Broadcasting Minister Indira Gandhi…

For MK Raina, now one of Indian theatre’s best-known theatre actors and directors, the coffee house was a “hub – a place where ideas could grow and be enacted politically… it was like a kitchen of ideas just waiting to be cooked”. In 1971 he had just graduated from the National School of drama at the same time as the Bangladesh War. “We used to start impromptu street plays in Connaught Place against the war and used the coffee house as a base. We brought in Baul singers who were trapped travelling from Bengal and I remember a very famous Urdu poet standing up on the grass saying ‘give these children your support’. From this point we were set”.

We sit outside the auditorium at the Habitat Centre where his new production will open. Birds chirp. Raina closes his eyes and smiles at the memory of his younger self.

“The Indian Coffee House was inter-cultural – you knew that you could meet people from all backgrounds. I’ve heard that the Paris cafes were like this – Sartre and Camus - I think that this was really our version”.

These years seemed to be the most radical for the Coffee House. As Khrishnamurthy says ‘We wanted the coffee house to be a place where people could put their heads together.

The Emergency of 1975 saw the end of this cultural oasis and a hotbed of dissent now located in the Theatre Communications Building next to where the tent had stood. The following year, Sanjay Gandhi had the Coffee House bulldozed. These were, according to Raina, “suffocating times”. The government had wanted him to make pro-Emergency plays and he fled. Ram Shastri, an activist and journalist who has been associated with the Coffee House since 1972 said, "It wasn't about coffee. It was a home away from home. We sat till the lights were switched off”.

Public pressure brought the Coffee House back to its present location: Mohan Singh Place at the top of an ugly market block next to a cinema that used to show what passed for Indian porn movies in the 1980s.

Something seemed lost to the old customers and when they started returning, India was changing. The cold war was thawing and India was opening to the market. According to Raina,

“Culture is central and we were the watchdogs but we were in slumber – our generation – the generation of the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies have failed. India is now in the hands of America and the corporations…”

“It doesn’t matter. Indians move like water – we find our space”. Malvika Singh, the legendary and formidable owner and publisher of Seminar magazine holds forth in her delightfully tasteful offices in Connaught Place. She is impeccably connected and her husband’s family are ‘old-new (Punjabi) money’ having built a good deal of post-Partition Delhi.

We as a culture, congregate. We don’t sit and view: we engage. The Coffee House – wherever it is - is an still an ‘adda’ (a specifically Bengali meeting place: full of conversation and discussion) – whether it was in a village or under a tree … that’s all it is. … We are a very gregarious people. Most Indian men don’t do a spot of work and they’re sitting around smoking and chatting. I think it comes from the fact that we have a great oral tradition”… Some people say about the Coffee House ‘Oh it smells of the British, let it close’ but I want these things to remain – they are part of us. Yes, it is full of old men – but where should these old men go? “.

Where indeed.

“We are not happy at the new coffee shops” 

says Mr Kohli, a regular at the Indian Coffee House for thirty years. “When I come to this coffee house I feel like I have come to my house. It is so comfortable and the people so friendly. It gives me a lot of energy when I sit here. It is so soothing”.

“This you can’t get in McDonalds”

says Baldev Kumar a retired doctor. A confirmed and bachelor and smoker.

“I have many friends in the coffee house – retired police officers, engineers. I come from 2:30 to 6:30. Every single day. I see the same faces. Luckily our circle discusses all sorts of things. I am very fond of literature. I have read Camus of France, Jean-Paul Satre of France, Herman Hesse I like very much, Dostoyevsky and Gorky of Russia and Somerset Maughan…”

Almost to a man (and they all are) they grumble about the (now) watery coffee, the price rises, the broken furniture but most have fought tooth and nail over the last eighteen months to save the place. When news first broke of the debts, Head Waiter Gopal Singh was quoted by the Times of India as saying,

“If this place closes, our families will land on the streets. If it’s true that rent has not been paid for years, we are willing to pay 50% of our salaries if that will help”.

The Coffee House roused itself, formed a committee (naturally), wrote to everybody it could think of, enlisted the support of misty-eyed politicians and earned a reprieve. For now.

The landscape for cafes in India has changed enormously. Coffee is now seen as the drink of the aspirational and the young. It is also a commercial battleground. According to Indian Coffee Board statistics, coffee consumption in India in 2011 is expected to be around 10000 tons - almost double the level from a decade ago and is growing at a rate of 5-6%. Starbucks has just signed a deal with the Indian giant Tata to gain entry to the country. Already, the largest domestic player, Café Coffee Day (slogan – ‘A lot can happen over coffee’) has nearly 1100 cafes nationwide. It is joined by Barista, owned by Italy’s Lavazza. In recent years, many giant US food companies have entered the Indian market desperate to tap the spending power of the burgeoning middle class. Chains, including Domino's Pizza, McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell all adapted their menus to suit the Indian palate.

Vishal Kapoor, Barista’s head of marketing was quoted last year saying that “…the classic coffee houses are part of an era that is ending”.

In the conservative South, the Indian Coffee Houses are still proving immensely popular (it is allegedly the world’s largest co-operative employer). In Kerala for example it has 51 branches, but the politics, tastes and development of the north – especially the capital, have followed a different route.


The menu of the Indian coffee house reads like a curry: a mixture: a cross-cultured mess of wrong spelling and spice. The coffee house always had South Indian food on the menu, a little novelty in the meat-eating, ghee-heavy Punjabi cuisine of the north. Dosas, wafer-thin crispy pancakes, folded and filled with spicy mixtures are cooked to order on a sizzling, oiled grill. Pratap Singh, his whites faded to a majestic colour somewhere between grey and a shade brighter, flips the batter disks so quickly that it’s difficult to see his hands. To his right, a fryer at least 30 centimetres deep delivers crispy doughnuts of vada (2 piece, Rs 23). These are served with a sambhar and coconut chutney in separate steel bowls. The coconut, ground in a huge industrial machine that whirls and rumbles constantly in the background is marvellously cooling despite the hint of curry leaves and mustard seeds.

Middle aged men with shirts straining around their bellies thrill over rather excellent fluffy idly, steamed to perfection (two pieces Rs 20) that they can’t get at home.

Bread-toast-with butter (each Rs7) heralds the Anglo-Indian section. Cheese toast, omlete (sic) and finger chips (a little soggy) nod to modernity. The mutton humberger (sic) at Rs24 seems to have replaced a potato version that used to be served in the 1970s (with a good deal of tomato ketchup) according to MK Raina. He remembers it costing 60 Annas and being the mainstay of impoverished drama students with no doubt its illicit then-thrill of exotic Americana.

The ‘cutlet’ - a favourite of the Raj whose pronunciation trips off the Indian tongue like a snare drum, comes in two forms, vegetable and mutton. It is best enjoyed with ‘bread with butter’ (each Rs 5). Both versions are potentially a trifle tough and coffee may help with this or, if you are feeling particularly brave, a mango shake. Roohafza ‘the summer drink of the East’ can be enjoyed with sherbet or as a milk shake (Rs 19-22). The coffee tastes vaguely of coffee but for all that isn’t bad.

“In Café Coffee Day or Barista they’ll say ‘You have finished, please leave’ and their food - who can afford? Here, if you want you can order black coffee and you can put rum into it. No-one will care,” laughs Akiles, a 40-year coffee house veteran.

For Naresh Gupta (59 plus…) “We all of us in our hearts feel lonely and sometimes it can be overwhelming – we need each other, we need to interact. The city is a pressure cooker and we need to be like steam escaping. This coffee house is a bit of a safety valve for Delhi… Delhi is wonderful so long as you have the money. In the 1960s you could see not one car here – now you can’t move for cars…undisciplined people: spitting, honking the horns like kids… Personal space is invaded.”

It is the idea of space and time that is crucial to a café and it exactly that which the new Indian chains are seeking to monetise. In fact, the privatisation of public space in Delhi – from slum clearances to the gated communities to the new malls are symptomatic of an imported idea. In those confined spaces, as MK Raina fears there are new barriers.

“I think that what has happened post-1990 is that there is a different kind of culture, more about the Market, about labels and brands and less about the intellect. Serious culture has much less space… ideas start in the back lanes and, although the Emergency suspended the Constitution, I see now a much more subtle control of the culture in India by the corporations and the corrupt.” 

In an echo of the disengagement of the political and literary class from the Coffee House, the people too have been moved away from the centre of power in the world’s largest democracy. In a city where there are estimated to be almost a hundred thousand homeless people, ideas are becoming homeless too. For Malvika Singh however this pessimism is slightly misplaced.

“The coffee houses had an optimism – that is still there. The pessimism is in the drawing rooms of Delhi – the idea that I started with one car now I want another. What kind of nonsense is this?” But also for her the death of these spaces is a missed opportunity.

“… at Starbucks there’s nothing local and you get the same type of Nescafe bloody coffee; you have the same cookie right across India… We have our own cultural roots… therefore you will find that in India that some people have started restaurants that looked like dhabbas (roadside truck stops). You will still go and have your kebab by the roadside or at upmarket places that preserve that feel”.

For her the city has missed a trick by not embracing its past and melding it with the present. “Why? Because we had a class of people ruling Indian – post independence – the Babu - that came from nowhere, he came from the then middle class: his aspiration became the tacky middle-of-the-road of the Americas. We cringed at the thought of what we ourselves were through that Colonial prism… so today you have children from very wealthy backgrounds who do not know what a book is… we should be recreating the Indian Coffee Houses at the museums, public spaces”. 

Ironically in the chi-chi boutiques of South Delhi there is already a market for the kitsch of yesteryear. In a post-ironic nod to the past, images from classic Bollywood movies to garish and badly spelled signs are popular amongst the wealthy. Delhi is full of expensively dressed women with garish bags that somehow gently ridicule the everyday symbols of their parents’ generation.

Despite its uncertain future, the Indian Coffee House is busier than ever. The media attention has brought in a new generation of customer: youngsters mingle comfortably with the old men. Sunday sees poetry readings, and student politicians and activists huddle and plot their next move through a hundred different variations of Marx. During the week there are shifts: the early wanderers give way to a lunch-time crowd from nearby offices. Later twelve pharmaceutical reps diligently conduct a focus meeting about sales targets. Mobile ‘phone salesmen at the next table glance furtively across…Mid-afternoon and a women’s group arrives. As the sun dips, a younger crowd join two tables together and from a window overlooking the terrace, the waiters scurry like white starched mice between the rickety benches – masala dosa, teas, coffees. ‘Where is the toast?... please let me see the menu, bhai… can we move tables? This I did not order… omletteomletteomlette…”.

In north Delhi, Naveen Chander, 27 a PhD student, welcomes me with a smile to the Delhi School of Economics. He has hurt his back after a fracas at a demonstration so we take coffee standing up on the lawn. Softly spoken and thoughtful he is part of a new generation of activists that sees the Indian Coffee House as an idea.

“From the time of the Emergency, lots of these coffee houses closed down. They were either sold or bankrupted”.

Chander doesn’t explicitly suggest a conspiracy but hints at it.

“Lots of the older workers took them over but the places didn’t change; didn’t adapt. The point is that they couldn’t be sustained and there was lots of talk of corruption. Also from the 1980s onwards new political centres emerged especially in the north – here nationalist and right wing parties started to emerge in the shadow of the Market. All the things that the coffee house generation stood against. Times have changed.”

For Chander however, this is an opportunity. “My generation is re-discovering the history of the coffee houses. It’s not nostalgia but we like to go and remember – some of us are planning to start a collective café based on the non-profit model – a creative space so in that way inheriting the tradition might not result in sustaining physically but the idea might live on in a new form: a new coffee house.”

The Indian Coffee House is buried deep in the collective memory of Delhi. Perhaps never as flamboyant as its cousins in Calcutta on Bankim Chatterjee Street and Chittaranjan Avenue where Satyajit Ray et al held court, its presence is like a reincarnating deity. Stuck on a corner of one of the radials of the Colonial city, seen from above it is like a spur, preventing the wheel of Connaught Place fully turning and making itself into a Western High Street. It locks down an older geometry like a portal to the past. It will not let Delhi, always a city of trauma (from the destruction of Old Delhi to the Sikh riots of 1984) forget itself. Delhi is a palimpsest of cities (seven, eight, nine?) and if you look carefully the past is barely below the surface.

The mercurial Ram Shastri leans back in his chair. He is writing yet another petition to a politician. On the table in front of him, a pot of glue and hand typed address labels. He runs his fingers through his flowing white hair and grins. He might be a magician.

“All revolutions start in coffee houses you know.”

©Stuart Freedman