Sunday, May 15, 2005

Cafe Culture

Spent the best part of the evening lounging in a Starbucks outlet. Walked out of GV Marina after watching the afternoon show of 'The Interpreter' and encountered some good weather... not sunny but pleasant daylight. So AG and I filled a bag of nougats and marzipan and bitter chocolates at a local Pick-a-Bag chocolaterie and walked down in search of a place to sit and read. The best place on offer was at a Starbucks, close at hand. As an aside... did you know... they are now offering low-fat cold coffees?? Have always been a coffee lover, coming from a south Indian family where strong filter kaapi in the morning with M.S's Suprabhatam in the background is part of the hallowed morning tradition.

Cafes seem to have spouted a whole civilization of their own... the gang of students lionizing the sofas and cramming in their textbooks, the trio of girlfriends with huge bags comparing their shopping, the European tourist filling in her postcards, the busy banker working at his laptop, the couple in the corner who had run out of conversation a coupla years back and now sleeping with their coffees going stone cold... all these and more of their kind make up the species you repeatedly run into at the cafes. I take a lot of clandestine joy in staring at the people, noticing their clothes, shoes, the books they are reading, the shopping bags they are lugging, eavesdropping into their conversations... all this while feigning to look beyond them into the distance.

Cafes have always drawn me to them with their fascinating mix of people. As a kid when Dad used to take me along to the city to buy books at Strand and Bookpoint, I would look forward to our sojourn at the nearby Irani cafe or Mahesh tea stall to have hot steaming chai and bun after a few hours of browsing and shopping. These places were poor cousins of the modern day air-conditioned Coffee Days and Baristas with their 'in' mix of 'cool' crowd, music and generous spaces. The erstwhile cafes and chai-stalls were utilitarian with white marble topped round tables and heavy chairs or sunmica topped tables and plastic chairs and the humble ceiling fan. There would be a 'chotu' dressed in torn shirt and shorts serving you your tea in white ceramic cups and saucers and thick glasses of water which he would pick four at a time by dipping a finger into the water and wrapping another across the rim. AIR would be playing old or new hindi film music from an antique radio which graced the place of honor at the owner's cash counter.The cafe patrons would be a varied and interesting mix of old retirees, busy young executives, gossiping babus from the nearby office, 'jhola' carrying journos, khaki uniformed rickshaw drivers, smartly outfitted car drivers and merely tired shoppers like us. There would be a mirror over the wash basin with a sign over it saying... 'No combing hair here'. The element of coolness came from the automatic, sensor-equipped tap fitted at the washbasin! As I grew up I frequented different and progressively 'cool' versions of cafes.

College days saw me paying daily and day-long homage to that all-important shrine... the college canteen! Here we would sit... me and my gang and be plied with mountains of misal pav or vada pav and gallons of 'adrak-walli cutting, paani kum, doodh jyaada' in glasses so thick, they could have been bulletproof. The smokers among us would chain-smoke through their customary packet of ciggies while the rest of us would shell peanuts and chew on gum 'cowboy-style' and all of us would through all this manage to look cool in the inescapable tradition of the college crowd. There was also Mani's coffeeshop round the corner which stands till date as a defiant competitor to the brand new gleaming Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) opposite to it. Only the crowd has diminished. The college kids now patronize the CCD outlet while Mani still attends to retired Mr Iyer and his friends who drop in regularly after their morning walks or in the evenings. You will also see Anna who comes to get his kaapi and idli sambhar leaving his neighbouring 'Chainese' stall for a few minutes under the management of the Nepali cook who has been employed only because of his resemblance to the Indian idea of Chinese. Mani still sells his strong sugary kaapi in small tumblers placed in wide mouthed vessels which you can use in conjunction with the tumbler to whip up more froth or simply to cool ur coffee in.

After I left college and Bombay for the IT haven, B'lore, I started spending time at Coffee Days and Baristas. In fact we had a CCD outlet in the Infy campus and every morning I would enter my cubicle with my cappuccino 'to-go' firmly in one hand and my slice of walnut cake in the other. I slowly acquired the aristrocratic taste of speciality coffees from exotic, faraway places like Sumatra, Java, Kenya and Ethiopia. I learned the difference in these coffees too, the chocolatey aftertaste of the Javan and the strong blueberry flavor of the Kenyan. And slowly I transformed... from the Kaapi slurper to the Coffee sipper! When I went to the UK, there too, I would regularly seek out the Starbucks outlet every weekend to plan my sightseeing plan in peace. During the months I spent in Mangalore Infy, every weekend saw me and Nits and Rags ensconced in the airconditioned environs of the CCD at Balmatta Circle. Here we sat, reading our books, playing Scrabble, discussing books, poetry, cribbing, bitching about the project, people-watching, gossiping, quizzing and yes... gulping down endless cups of coffee and demolishing the veggie grilled sandwiches.

You can usually recognize veterans of the cafes by the way they swagger in, claim the best seat and most importantly by the manner in which they order. They walk to the counter and confidently ask for an iced latte, having here, low-fat, grande, no cream and walk away coffee in hand and 2 bags of demerara sugar. The newcomer meanwhile walks in looking confused and spends a lot of time perusing the menu on the board behind the counter, holds up the more experienced and impatient patrons in the line behind while he/she hems and haws and asks for an iced cappuccino. The confusion mounts, when the kid behind the counter politely and in perfect English (!!) runs this frustrating customer through a customary set of questions... short/medium/tall, decaf or not, to-go or having here, with or without cream...

The cafe atmosphere also does this amazing, unexplainable something to me nowadays... and before you have any ideas let me explain. In addition to the horridly ill-mannered staring that I carry out, I also tend to delve on matters both deep and shallow, mundane and philosophical while getting my fix of caffeine and people-watching. I debate vigorously in my mind over many heavyweight issues. And so there I was, yesterday, in Starbucks when a series of deep and ponderous thoughts came floating by to roost in my mind. And me without my laptop or even a pen and paper! So I committed them to memory, resolving to write them down later and maybe post them. Got back home and rushed to my laptop only to discover that whoosh and gone... and now there was nothing... nada... couldn't think of anything :(

Grrr... it is so frustrating to sit facing a blank post, scratching your head till it bleeds but yet have no creative success. Maybe next time am down with a bout of writer's block will lug my laptop to the nearest Starbucks or Pacific Coffee or even the local Kopitiam!

Until then enjoy your cafe Diablo and Cheers!