It wasn’t easy to find a good coffee in Kolkata. There were certainly plenty of cafes selling coffee but they were not so good. Until the last decade most of India’s coffee consumption was in the South and the North was still predominantly a tea drinking society. Then along came the chains such as Starbucks, Barista and Coffee Day and western style coffee became the ‘in thing’ especially amongst the younger population.
The popular Flurys Cafe at 18, Park St Kolkata opened in 1927
Since I find coffee at these places mostly undrinkable I found a new appreciation for tea during our month in India, especially Chai, which generally was far more palatable than anything else. Hotel coffee just didn’t cut it for me and although we tried several cafes including the famous Flurys in Park St we couldn’t find a decent cuppa. But then, the Patient Partner and I are coffee snobs so I guess we’re just too fussy!!
This, of course did not stop my need to find the Indian Coffee House. I had read some time before our trip about this iconic institution and I needed to see it with my own eyes, and whats more I wanted to drink coffee in it, just once!
There are several related Indian Coffee Shops around India but the only one I wanted to visit was the one in Kolkata. Here was the true meeting house of Kolkata’s literati. Great names from India’s rich past such as Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Bose, Satyajit Ray and the revolutionary Malay Roy Choudery
I wanted to sit where they had sat. Where they had passionately discussed their poetry, plays, music and films. Where academics had held their adda and heated arguments on politics and the future.
After going through the usual security search of bags & body we squeezed into a train carriage on Kolkata’s underground with what appeared to be at least half of the city’s inhabitants.
Just as well we are fairly slim or we may never have had this pleasure!
We got out at San Yat Sen Central Station and walked the rest of the way to the College St area where we would find the coffee house.
And what a walk it was. I had fallen in love with Kolkata the moment I had stepped out into its crazy streets a few weeks earlier and this second visit did nothing to change that feeling.
Walking around this city is like going back in time. The rattling sound of its dilapidated trams and the jingling bells of it’s hand pulled rickshaws are enough to have you believing that time is standing still in this city with a big heart.
We walked through streets, lanes and alleyways that cradled a million stories.
Streets where cows, dogs, cats, chickens and some of the city’s poorest live as one. Women cooking on cast iron stoves under tarpaulins held up by 4 spindly sticks, while children, laughing, and just being children, played with flattened footballs and sticks for cricket bats. It was quieter here too, away from the craziness of the City’s busiest streets.
No one bothered us or asked for money. People were too busy trying to eke out a living in some way or other to worry about a couple of tourists walking their streets. We took it all in and whilst there could have been some priceless photos, I couldn’t find the heart to pull out my camera and so obviously capture their poverty.
We eventually came to the College St area. We couldn’t mistake this location. With the University close by, the streets were lined with stalls selling books. In fact the pavements oozed with books piled high, many neatly tied in bundles with coloured twine. Everywhere we looked there were books, old ones, new ones, secondhand, and anything in between. Students were milling around, chatting and checking out the various stalls which possibly all carried similar, if not the same books as each of the other stalls.
And then we saw the sign. It was on the front of a very old, narrow, and tall, run down building. Actually there’s not much in Kolkata that isn’t old and run down!! And this building dates back to 1876 when it was the Albert Hall. It became the Coffee House in 1942 run by the Workers Co-operative Society. In 1958 the management closed it down but a petition was raised by the College & University to save the heritage building and it was re-opened the same year.
I’m not sure whether it was good or bad timing but at that moment a bright, new illuminated sign was being hoisted above the very dirty ageing one that looked as if it had been there since the Albert Hall gave way to its successor. I felt sad. The original one had history & character etched onto its face. Like everything that’s happening in Asia now it seems that NEW is better!!
We watched it being attached and then went inside. As we climbed up a dodgy staircase to the first floor we passed a wall panel of even dodgier wiring and switches that looked old enough to have serviced the entire building since it was built.
The Coffee house was just as I’d seen it in photos except that now it looked more tired and somewhat grubbier. Maybe the photos did it more justice than it deserved.
Several waiters were swanning around the tables in white Punjabi uniforms with head gear that looked like fanned serviettes. A brick and wooden bench was being manned by the cashier. Nothing fancy in this place, especially the service. We waited sometime for our serviette waiter to take our order. It didn’t matter, I was too busy photographing the entire room and the incredible balcony that overlooked the hall and housed the second floor.
Our coffee arrived. It was nothing to rave about, In fact it was pretty awful. A watery tasteless cup of nothingness. But at 16 cents Aus you can hardly complain. And anyway we were not there for a great coffee, however nice it might have been, but for the history of this amazing building.
We sat for a while, soaking up the ambience. The whirring sound of ancient fans added to the atmosphere and old photos of a bygone era brightened up the faded walls. A huge photo of Rabindranath Tagore on one of them. There was a smoking area which seemed to be the whole room. No one other than us, the only foreigners there, cared about the haze, they were too busy in conversation with each other. It was a welcome sight. The majority there communicating without the need for a smart phone!
We watched the waiters lazily taking orders, the customers hardly glancing up as they ordered another watery coffee between another important sentence.
We sat long enough to feel the ghosts of the past and imagine the conversations and debates that possibly changed the face of Kolkata’s politics and provided India with its famous poets and writers of the time.
Sadly we were unable to access the balcony & the second floor but we left knowing that the search for a coffee had given us an unforgettable experience.