Saturday, March 04, 2006

India Coffee House: A fine type

India Coffee House on MG Road, with its faded lithographs of traditionally dressed turbanded and rakish moustachioed men captioned 'A fine type' is more than just a icon of a Bangalore gone by - a pensioners Bangalore reminiscent of misty morning walks past treelined boulevards, listening to the birds chirp, and ranting about government subsidies while having your morning filter coffee over the morning newspaper.

But before that, lets turn the clock further back. This extract from the novel Devadasi by Kasturi Sreenivasan, under Chapter I The Course of True Lovers (1877) throws some color around the early days of coffee drinking in the south. If it took a few generations of Dutch immigrations to the U.S. to introduce apple pie and several Italians later to introduce pizza, it sure didnt take us too long to lap up filter coffee.

"Outside the temple, the petty vendors along the dusty street were doing a brisk trade by the light of smokey oil lamps...

Though Palayam was only a small town, one of its eating places started serving a new drink called coffee. It had been introduced by the British rulers and there were many stories about it. Some argued that, since it was of European origin, it must necessarily be unclean; others said it might be alcoholic. In any case, very few tried it, since a tumbler full cost as much as half an anna, while butter-milk was served free in many places and coconut water including the tender coconut meat was only a paisa. Only the most daring or the wealthy could afford the exotic brew. There was animated conversation about this and about various other things among the men who were slowly gathering in the temple courtyard. They talked about a new thing called a railway which had just been extended to the town from Madras recently... "

Fast forward to the frenzied pace of life in Bangalore today, the city mired in its own web, choking with traffic, a bursting population, pollution, filth and grime. Tiffanys is gone. So is Victoria. No cenotaphs on Cenotaph road.

As Lewis Carroll's Red Queen says, "Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place".

But then almost like a metaphorical symbol of defiance, in the midst of the most bustling and busy streets of them all lies a quintessential symbol of the past. Enter India Coffee House, and you are put at ease by the unassuming ambience - a large hallway with rows of tables and chairs, flanked by 60s and 70s lithographs of coffee drinking posters, a tilted mirror occupying most of one wall, and a framed picture of Mahatma Gandhi at one end. The ageing waiters clad in jaded red and white uniforms and turbans, are probably as old as the four decades old joint itself. Nevertheless, service is brisk, the waiters are sprightly, and regular patrons are offered the personalized welcome only small family run establishments can offer.

Most of the patrons need no menu - they already know what they want. Dosas. Idlis. Pakoras. Omlettes. Toast. A Cuppa. One more cuppa. The dishes, served in stainless steel plates with cutlery, blend classic South Indian tiffin items with Raj style snacks. The large glass windows offer plenty of people watching - tourists in Tantra tees, yuppie hipsters on the way to the nearby Barista, passerbys digging into their fresh bhutta, persistent beggars on the sidewalk, there's never a dull moment here.

In one mystic moment, the thin glass almost appeared to be shielding us from the present, the harsh reality of the hustle, the bustle, the traffic, the world as we knew it as it worker bees raced along in clockwork fashion. The workers run the machines, but the machines run the lives of the workers.

If morning in Paris starts with petit noir coffee and Gauloises, Bangalore begins with filter coffee with a dosa, and it is best had at Coffee House.

Cost: Rs 20-50
Cleanliness: Good
Quality: Good
Service: Good
Ambience: Good
Bottomline: The finest type of old Bangalore joints - stop by for breakfast or a cuppa on MG R.

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