For I have known them all already, known them all / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons /
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons —T.S. Eliot,The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

 

By Sayandeb Chowdhury
If you are brave enough to suggest changes in an Eliot poem go ahead and substitute the ‘coffee’ in the above lines with tea and you will probably get an idea what the ubiquitous leaf meant in the daily life of the Calcuttan till about ten years ago. Tea was the preferred beverage at home. Families had tea together at breakfast or in the evening. Visitors were treated to tea. Tea had that strange quality about it — it was served during happy, celebratory occasions as well as when messengers and local uncles brought bad news home. Tea warmed up the esophagus in the first case and soothed the soul in the second. Tea was a romance, a daily one too… as much as it was a rite of passage from the parlour to the bedroom! And the kind of tea served at parties or at get-togethers or even when kith and kin came home defined the average Bhadralok retainership of residual Englishness, which was increasingly found deficient in Bengali genes. The better the quality of tea and the farther the shop it was secured from, the rarer it sounded and heavier was the air with the aura of the uber Brit.  In other words Calcuttans, especially Bengalis had 3-Ts dominate them for at least a century now — Tagore, tea and travel. Whether tea’s preeminence is lost is a different story because for now we need to concentrate on where in this fable does drinking coffee stand.
This is a curious case by all means because even ten years ago, going for a coffee meant nothing unless it meant going to a friend’s place. The braveheart and the bearded teenager, especially those who could gather all the assorted paraphernalia of the aspiring intellectual, would take a bus or metro to the Coffee House at College Street (you could say Albert Hall and earn a few brownie points), get baked on the way on a typical Calcutta summer (which, incidentally lasts every year for just nine months) and have their cup of infusion or plain coffee. If you still insist that coffee is what you went to Coffee House for, you were probably a bumbling ruffian, because no one even pretended to do so. But by jove and the baked beans, the Coffee House coffee, notwithstanding the rarified Marxian smoke around and dramatis personae of the chef-capped waiters, was great coffee to boot! And it still is. But by no means is it great enough to force you to take the perilous journey across the city on a weekday, past its dubious charm and petrol. So the finger-long cups of steaming coffee that coffee house served really cheap remained somewhat of a forlorn romance for many who could not go all the way.
This was then the picture of a city on slow move till the nineties headed to a chaotic closure. But suddenly things changed. Along with the new millennium came to this city the ‘coffee joint’ phenomenon with this promise of relief from the Y2K hangover. Y2K was soon dismissed but these clean, air-conditioned and sanitised places, the Barista and the CCD, stayed on and booked a place in the city’s daily life. Going out for coffee was suddenly in and people no more met people at home because no one wanted to serve the home tea at home. Members of the Homo sapiens met fellow members from the same species often, randomly and more often than not without rhyme or reason so they could head for the nearest CCD. So future and estranged lovers met here and so did the new age protestors and old age conformists.  CCD multiplied like Spielberg’s Gremlins and populated malls and street corners with a vengeance. After some setback, Barista hit the marguee. Teenagers, of every hue and humour, armed with new money (exhorted from their parents) and new attitude (borrowed from their TVs) flooded the hubs. Even toddlers were overheard enquiring about the nearest CCD joint once they were done with breast milk and Horlicks.
All was well? Not anymore! Blame the internet or the millennial propensity to get bored with things and places every six months, some of the converts to the Art of Coffee Drinking were  soon asking for more. They wondered if this was all that coffee drinking meant. And the assembly line places, devoid of character and persona, attracted new converts but lost on old loyalists. The other reason, as a survey showed, was that a generation who grew up on CCD and Barista, has now outgrown it. They are in their mid-thirties, have money to spare and need a quiet place to spend with lovers, wives and husbands — not the loud, headbanging variety of music and ambience that most of the teenybopper places proudly expounded.  CCD and Barista saw the writing on the wall and some of them, as a coffee consultant explained, morphed into lounges.
But in the last one year, hearteningly, Calcutta has seen a steady entry of high-end cafes that seek to redefine coffee and tea drinking in the city. Café The (spelt Te, as in ‘te-nor’, meaning tea) is an early entrant among this new breed. The classy café housed on the ground floor of the spanking ICSSR at Ho Chin Minh Sarani is decidedly anti-coffee but makes up more than it takes away with its variety of teas, sourced from an exclusive exporter, that ranges from the fine Darjeeling First Flush to the more exotic Hot Butter Apple Tea. It also serves specialty cuisine, from the European streetside sandwiches to more demonstratively Continental hors d’œuvre of the day. It also makes a meal out of Tagore’s choicest cuisines sourced from his travels abroad. Café The, explains Bitasta Chakraborty who looks after the marketing, is meant to be a quiet, elegant place for the well-heeled,  urban sophisticate who prefer a good meal and some great tea after a session of Paraguan cello played upstairs at the ICSSR auditorium.
Swiss born Coffee World which debuted in September last year at Ballygunge, positions itself as a fine-dining café where an entire family can come and spend a long time to savour its goodies. Coffee World here also houses the Cream and Fudge Factory thereby creating space for a variety of stuff that’s available and more often than not the kids prefer the ice cream while their parents go for the coffee. The niche for this particular stop in the tony neighbourhood is the post-dinner customer who drops by to have a coffee after a hearty meal at one of the restaurants. And this is just not a weekend fad anymore. Sources at Coffee World said that the response has been tremendous and they are looking at more outlets in the future apart from their express format which is already present at South City.
New entrants also include Picadally Square and The French Loaf which face each other across Lansdowne Road near the Minto park crossing. Both of them position themselves as bistro and not café and offer a range of European bakery and street food, from Belgian waffles to mudslides, from pancakes and pizzas to creppe and sundae. Again, they cater to a wide range of customers and are now scouting for space in the south of the city to expand.
Only last month came Mocha, the high-end coffee chain from the Mumbai-based F&B major Impressario. Mocha has selected a notable old building on a lane off AJC Bose Road opposite Jimmy Kitchen’s to open its flagship outlet. The two-floor coffee, hukah and dining den is a designer, atmospheric place with mood lighting and trendy interiors and has the potential to become a game changer much in the way that Mochas elsewhere have been. Mocha is clearly aiming a more high end, matured client who are here more than just for a cup of quick cappuchino. Mocha claims that its coming to Calcutta is a sign that the city is ready for the upper echelons of coffee. 
This surely marks the maturity of the industry which felt shy of serving more than a few varieties some years ago. A decade back, cappuchino was new and opting for a latte instead of a cappuccino was counted as a mark of one’s straying away from brotherhood of the new converts. Now, mix formats, designer cuisines, comfortable dining  sofas and expansive lounges mean that no one type of coffee would dominate a conversation for long enough. And more importantly, tea is getting back as a lifestyle beverage.
Let them grow up and cohabit and let there be more places where grown up Homo sapiens can feel comfortable, where families are not pariah, where one can be oneself and not feel old, where being overweight is not a health issue, where the jukebox catalogue is longer than Paris Hilton’s wig.

As Eliot said in the same poem: (Let there be) time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions/ Before the taking of a toast and tea (or coffee)

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