An afternoon visit at Kolkata’s historic Coffee House: Should we live in nostalgia?

2020-07-28 20.16.38

By Rajyeshwari Ghosh

When I called up my uncle, the phone kept ringing. I stood there and listened to the caller tune, ‘Coffee houser sei addata aaj aar nei’ – the famous song penned by Gouriprasanna Majumdar. I felt we Bengalis like to live in nostalgia – holding on to our glorified past is something we do with pride. These are just my passing thoughts – I could be wrong also. I made this comment because, a few days ago, a non-Bengali friend told me that Bengal’s intellectual identity has now reduced to wearing a loose-fitted pajama-punjabi, carrying a jhola side bag from shantiniketan, and wearing a passive outlook of life. Well, I will leave this up to you to decide.

Although I was born and raised in Kolkata, I am more like a probasi Bengali in my own city. This is after I returned to live here after close to two decades. Anyways, let me get back to the story. This piece is not about me or what I think about today’s Bengali culture. It is about one of Kolkata’s heritage identities, popularly known as ‘Coffee House’ in College Street.

This was last summer, probably around the early days of July. I say it is July and not August because I remember buying lichu from the thalawala, and I was happy because I found a good bargain.

Let me again come back to my story. So, this would be my first visit. I felt I am not a quintessential Kolkata Bengali till I visit Coffee House. I took the Metro and got down at Central Metro Station, and walked towards my destination.

I did not have any preconceived notions about the place. People associated Coffee House with good times, friendships, good food, and adda, and not how the café actually looked. The building needed repairing and maintenance – that was my first thought when I stood there and looked up at the board which read in bold ‘Indian Coffee House – College Street Albert Hall.’ I entered the dimly lit building and went upstairs.

It was a crowded place. The cafe was packed with young and old ones. There were a few like me also. I found an empty table. The Bawarchi kaka dressed in a white uniform with an aluminum serving plate and a menu card in his hand, and a red-colored checked napkin casually placed on his shoulder came walking towards me. I asked him, ‘Kaka, what do you suggest I should have here?’ He replied, looking at someone else, ‘Cold coffee.’ I liked the simplicity of the place – the menu card, the Bawarchi kaka, the food items, and even the plates and cups. In the menu card, it said, ‘Toast & Butter,’ ‘Fish Fry.’ That’s what I meant – it was simple! I ordered cold coffee and a Mughlai paratha. I was excited because last time when I had Mughlai paratha it was close to two decades ago. Perhaps, nostalgia is not that bad after all. It takes us back to times when life was simpler. The memories that Mughlai paratha brought back to me were my times spent with my Dad; perhaps, the coffee house memories could be the same for my uncle.

I loved the food. The café was noisy but charming. I was looking around, and silently absorbing everything. There was a whiteboard near the cash counter. The whiteboard was totally empty. I wondered why no one bothered to write anything – was it because they have nothing more to say? Just the way, my non-Bengali friend said today’s Bengalis are very passive. While I was busy finishing my food, the Bawarchi kaka came. By this time, I got used to his expressionless demeanor. He asked whether I have anything else to order. Soon, he brought the bill placed on a china white plate filled with mouri (fennel seeds used as mouth refresher) and few toothpicks. I paid my bills and left some tips for him. The evening azaan from the nearby masjid came floating in the air. I looked at my watch. I realized it is almost time to leave.

I came down, and as I left the building, I turned around and saw the sun setting through the trees lined up around Presidency University. It was a wonderful afternoon. Just like anything else in life, it was not about the building, it was about the feelings that stayed with me. I understood holding on to a past – that felt surreal and which is still close to our heart – perhaps is not that bad after all.

Rajyeshwari Ghosh is the Founder at Quantum Holistic Advisory Services, a Quantum paradigm-based multidisciplinary leadership and management consultancy practice. She is a Certified Blockchain Practitioner and a contributing Member of Blockchain Chamber of Commerce. A former Wall Street and Big Four professional, she is a Trusted Advisor and a Management Consultant who advocates holistic thinking, practices interdisciplinary approach to organizational problem solving and advocates meaningful use of Technology for good of humanity. She is the author of Essence of my existence: Poems to acknowledge my truth.


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