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A lot can happen over coffee

Cafés have become a cultural melting pot where people go to read,write and work

It’s such a Western thing, the café and bar culture. After a hard day’s work, people halt at a bar and have a drink. It’s this nebulous space — public and private at the same time — where people throng to unwind. Subsidised coffee houses developed into cultural hubs that hosted the Left-leaning, communist discourse. Revolution, it seemed, was stirred in a cup of coffee.

Not just in India, much of avant-garde art, poetry and literature are conceptualised over café discussions. The Café de Flore in Paris is a standing example. In the early twentieth century, the greatest existentialist writers and avant-garde painters would regularly congregate, the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. Cafés were in that sense played a key role in the advent of modernity in the West.

A hundred years later, in its own organic way, with quintessential Indian flavours, the café culture is catching up in Delhi. Delhi is not just the political capital of India, is a cosmopolitan hub. Many of the freelancers working for different employers or self-employed, of varied nationalities and ethnicity, who don’t have to put in fixed hours at work, like to slip away from the familiarity of their homes to work in cafés.

Lately, many cafés have sprung up in various parts of city as ‘co-working’ spaces. Not just expats, many locals like to spend time working here. This café culture is increasingly getting indigenised as major venue to hang out and work.

Walk into any of these co-working cafés, and you’d find a mixed crowd, some of them regulars, typing away to glory on their iMacs over coffee. Many expats are seen writing mails or dissertations or articles or stories; even their PhD thesis with pages of photostat reading material lying in pile on a small coffee table. There are some who ended up writing books while café hopping.

Take the case of Arthur Dudney, an American who’s a Persian scholar and now teaches at Cambridge University, England. He recently authored Delhi: Pages From A Forgotten History. He likes to write in public. “Writing is a solitary activity, but I don’t particularly like being alone at home when I work,” says Dudney. To him, not just the smell of coffee, but the background noise, the people coming and mingling and going, are integral to his writing process. Not to forget the “generally reliable air-conditioning”, which is a protective shield against Delhi’s incapacitating summer.

There’s a sociological impetus in writing in a café: they are a perfect venue to observe people in action against a neutral background. It helps shape narratives “especially if what you’re writing about is the city itself,” concludes Dudney.

Traditionally, the moment a customer enters a café, they are expected to place an order and as soon as they are done, are required to pay and leave. Freeloaders who can spend hours nursing a drink are discouraged. But that seem to be a thing of past, now customers are encouraged to come and spend long hours working in a café. It may seem paradoxical, but makes perfect business sense as explained by Avijeet, or AJ as he’s popularly known, the owner of café-cum-bar No Filters, “On a working day, there’s hardly any crowd during the day. We, therefore, encourage people to come and work here.” Also, as a matter of policy, the waiters don’t harangue customers to place an order. Free wi-fi is provided as an incentive. “Some like to work out in the open in 40 degrees while sipping beer,” says AJ. Perhaps, tanning while working will soon become a new fad.
Derek, from the US, 35, speaks Hindi like a native. That was made possible because he’d spend hours in cafés to practise his Hindi. It was in a café that he met his best friend who has been, over past few months, such an important aspect of his Indian experience. “If you have to learn about a country, especially when you’re alone, go spend time in a café. The city will open up to you,” Derek says, adding a qualifier, “Liquor is expensive here.”

Some of the cafes have started system of monthly fee, to the tune of R5,000, which can be redeemed by placing orders. This is a strategy to encourage floaters to become regulars at a particular venue. Some even have their earmarked places in a café and the management takes good care that regulars get to sit at their favourite spot.

Cafés in that sense are a powerful space to bring about social change. For that reason, Bilal Zaidi, with his sister Rabab, has started CAFÉ (Centre for Art and Free Expression) in his old family house in Jamia Nagar’s Ghaffar Manzil Colony, to host a range of activities to promote free expression. Many expats join activities there with the locals. Under renovation at the moment, Zaidi’s vision of CAFE is to create a space where long-held perceptions are challenged, one that outsiders hold about the denizens of Jamia Nagar and the one that denizens of Jamia Nagar hold about the outside world, both contributing to ghettoisation. “The business model is that of a cafeteria,” says Zaidi. “It will be a venue of interventions designed to bridge this difference of perception,” he adds.

Julia from Sweden is another writer who likes to work in a café. “It’s not part of the social custom of a co-working space to interact, yet all seem to be connected,” she says. “I’m an open person, like to observe people,” she adds as an afterthought.
India is different. Here people smile at each other, enter into polite conversations, which is not the case in Europe. “They are like colleagues doing their own thing but all draw inspiration from each other,” explains Julia. A kind of solidarity for being in the same boat. Working out of cafes helps her maintain a routine like that of a regular job, but out of choice and not due to any compulsion.

Then there are places where only conversations are encouraged. Like Café Turtle in Khan Market. They provide no internet or plug points to charge electronic devices. They believe in the traditional concept of a café as a venue of discourse, arguments and discussions. Still, many like to work there. “They had a wonderful terrace, no more in use. I like to write, conceptualise my stories, sitting here. I feel a certain calm in the crowd,” says a foreign correspondent with a major news agency of Europe who doesn’t want to be identified. “I like to meet people in cafés. Unlike many of my Indian friends, I hardly invite anyone home unless they are very close,” she adds.