I made my original story – about the Cairo Ahwas a couple of years ago (the original tearsheet from the German Effilee Magazine is here) writing about the changing political significance of these cafés during the recent uprisings.
Always nice to have something like this re-used, especially in the context of somewhere as historically significant as the Riche – but that is tempered by the uncertainty of its future.
I’m in Addis Ababa for the first time in eight years on a writing job but stumbled across a beautiful place seemingly frozen in time. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know of my obsession with the Delhi Coffee House and all those sadly missed palaces of melancholy, the Classic London Caff.
It’s always a pleasure to stumble on a place like this – officially known as the Ras Mokonnen Pastry shop in Piazza – especially when I can’t find any mention of it online. The elderly owner, Mr Lubo tells me he bought it from a Greek man ‘about thirty five years ago’. He’d had it for at least ten years before that and he wasn’t the first owner…
Perfect macchiato, perfect baklava. A moment in time that I wasn’t expecting to find.
Many thanks to my excellent translator, Lily, (Simegnish Yekoye) not least for putting up with my excitement…
The Hindustan Times has reported that the Indian Coffee House in New Delhi, my favourite haunt for a dozen or more years, will now finally close because of unpaid rent. According to the ‘paper, “…the civic agency has finally told them to vacate the premises by the end of the month.” Pratap Singh, manager of Indian Coffee House is quoted as saying “We owe them nearly Rs 55 lakh as rent and interest apart from the monthly rent. We don’t have so much of money as our sales have dipped over a period of time.”
I first wrote about the Coffee House on this blog in June 2009 when I compared it to the great post-war classic cafes in London. Only last month Effillee magazine in Germany published a spread of my work shot over two years in the place. In that piece I tried to explain how I felt that the Coffee House was a kind of critical aide-memoire to Post Independence Delhi. I said that:
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.
I am sad that a place that I cherished so dearly will close but sadder – and more concerned for the staff – cut adrift in a cruel city that has no time for the poor and those down on their luck. I am also sad because the Coffee House with a little imagination could have worked. Malvika Singh, that most extraordinary of Delhi-wallahs (and publisher of Seminar) who I interviewed for the Effillee piece argued, quite simply that with a little imagination (and a bit of a paint-job) someone could turn the place into something special and profitable whilst preserving the character of the place. Only last week I ate in Dishoom – a very good pastiche of a Mumbai street cafe in London. Someone recognised that people will pay good money to eat somewhere that is not an Americanised chain selling plastic, mediocre food and expensive coffee. Someone obviously realised that people might want to spend time in places like this that have at least a stab at a cultural resonance…
The loss I think will be keenly felt – the last time they tried to close the cafe there was a minor public outcry. I can only hope that this will happen again and someone will step into the breach. I suspect however, that, as the unnamed official in the Hindustan Times piece salivated, “Once they vacate we will start the procedure of renting it out and we are hoping to get a rent at a rate of at least R400 per sq ft”, this really will be the end. The shame is of course that the coffee shop’s closing is a metaphor for what India and Delhi in particular, is running headlong into: a mishmash of Market-led, corporate half-truths that will be the disaster that this short term, only-for-profit thinking has brought all across the world. Delhi doesn’t need another fake Western, air conditioned soulless hang-out that caters for the tiny minority that can afford to eat there living out some 1980’s fantasy of wealth. It has plenty of those already.
The plain truth is that the closure marks the victory for an imported mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
I have the pleasure to report that on a recent assignment back in Delhi, I again sampled the delights of the Indian Coffee House on Baba Karak Singh Marg that I wrote about some time ago. Despite the threats to it’s existence, it seems in rude and shambolic health and I can attest to the power of it’s rather watery coffee and good conversation. I whipped in for an hour, as usual after shooting something else and the general opinion from the clientelle was, “… Close? Over my dead body…”.
In a packed hour, I met a man called Achilles, was lectured on peace in Nagaland and inevitably answered the question ‘from which country are you from’. I answer as always, ‘not Australia’ (many people take my strangulated East London drawl to be from the Outback for some reason…).
It’s with great sadness that I read yesterday in The Times of India that the cafe on Baba Karak Singh Marg is going to close. The Delhi Walla blog has the full story with pictures here.
A strange little place, it was always a haven of quiet away from the tourist throngs of Connaught Place and was never, despite being in a couple of guidebooks a place where many travellers went because thankfully, they couldn’t find it. I was introduced to it maybe a decade or more ago and always made a point of hanging around there between assignments or when I felt the need to come into central Delhi. Tucked away on the roof of a rather downbeat shopping complex it was the kind of place that you had to know was there. The roof ‘garden’ was of course covered in dust and smog but it but it had lovely views if rather awful coffee. The regular clientelle was composed of distinguished older Indian gentleman who’d gather to read the papers and argue about the topic of the day. When I turned up I was usually ignored as it was assumed I was lost and my appalling Hindi seemed only to confirm the fact that I was an idiot. It didn’t matter and I loved it. The staff, unfailingly polite, would always deliver a very ‘masala’ masala dosa which required a second cup of coffee to soothe the heat of the chillies. I unfortunately never tried the ‘humbergers’ nor the milk shakes but I am sure that whatever their culinary achievement I would have enjoyed them.
The coffee shop for me was Delhi – a Delhi that for better and worse is disappearing fast. The place evoked a gentler, simpler time and a city where people read large newspapers, where motor cars (…any car so long as it’s a white Ambassador) were a rarity and the bicycle was what people rode to work. I’ve written before about not romanticising India but there seemed something about the place that actually spoke to me of a bygone London: the (then) chic shopping area, the red velour interiors of Connaught Place’s United Coffee House (now revamped) and the Embassy. A time where you could cross the road in Delhi without being killed.
The whole saga reminds me of the slow death of one of my favourite places in London, The New Piccadilly. I could write a whole piece about the ‘Cathedral of Cafes’ as Adrian Maddox would have it but suffice to say, despite all best efforts, the developers got their way and it closed. I can only recommend the Classic Cafes website and its book as a homage to past glories. Suffice to say there are few places now in London where you can drink a cup of tea and just think without listening to ‘muzak‘ and enduring overpriced coffees sold in incomprehensible sizes as ‘grande’ or ‘tall’. Coincidently, I read today in the Daily Telegraph about a Californian software engineer on a mission to visit every Starbucks in the World. Well good luck with that: I’m still holding out for a world that isn’t based on a greedy corporate propoganda that sucks the individuality and taste (both literal and metaphorical) out of every attempt at difference in order to leverage the last drop of profit.
Tea stains, cigarettes, chipped cups, formica, worn seats, warmth on a cold day, company, a sense of history, courtesy, civility, conversation, ideas. But I digress…
Back in Delhi, the The Times reports Head Waiter Gopal Singh 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”. Delhi is a brutal city and I don’t doubt for a second that that would happen.
I never photographed the Coffee House in Delhi, it somehow always seemed like a little bit of home and a liberty to start taking pictures. I retired there sometimes after photographing at the Flower Market on Baba Karak Singh for my project on Delhi. It’s an image from that set that I leave you with.
I wish all those at the Coffee House my best and my sincere gratitude (I was that heavily sweating firangi with the cameras…). Shukriya.
Ps… if you want to find rather wonderful places to eat in Delhi you could do worse that seek out Hemanshu Kumar and his fantastic blog, Eating out in Delhi