The Indian Coffee House is a chain of coffee shops whose chief virtue is that they still look more or less like they did when they were established in 1936. In the 1950's, when the corporation that owned the chain wanted to close it down, the workers successfully petitioned the government to be allowed to take over the operation of the coffee houses. In Shimla (where I fell for the brand) the Indian Coffee House clings to a misty mountain ridge. From the well aged darkness of the shop you look out into the mist and feel like you’re sipping your java at edge of the world. In each coffee house the waiters wear the same curious hats.
The legendary Indian Coffee House is the one seen here, the one in Calcutta (Kolkata). Since 1876 a coffee shop operating here has been the haunt of the city’s artists and writers. As Calcutta is the intellectual and cultural capital of India, the country’s seminal revolutionaries, writers and artists all met here. When the company that owned it tried to close it, the government was petitioned to keep it open by the president of the adjacent college. It re-opened as a worker owned Indian Coffee House. When Allen Ginsberg traveled to India in 1962 this is where beat poetry was introduced to Bengali literature.
After coffee I walked a few blocks to the family home of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1913 Tagore became the first non-European to Nobel Prize for literature. He was this coffee shop's most celebrated customer and remains India’s most revered poet. In addition to being a poet, Tagore was a renowned author, composer and painter. A larger than life photo of him dominates the back wall of the cafe.
Tagore was the first great poet to write in colloquial Bengali. He translated some of his poems into English and many of his lines, even out of context, have a lovely aphoristic clarity:
“I cast my own shadow upon my path because I have a lamp that has not been lighted.”
“Every child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged of man.”