Sunday, 12 March 2017

Mystique of a Coffeehouse

  According to a report in 'Daily Mirror' (UK), a team of researchers at Glasgow University has found a link between coffee and intellect. The exhaustive report states that those, who love coffee, are normally above intelligent and that a lover of coffee has a sharper mental faculty. Coffee and intelligence are dovetailed. One can experience this inseparable bond in Calcutta's famed coffeehouses on College Street, albeit declining. London, Milan, Cairo and Vienna's coffeehouses are still frequented by artists and intellectuals, who discuss a gamut of recondite subjects over numerous cups of piping hot coffee. The legendary Argentinian Che Guevara would sit in a very old and dilapidated coffeehouse in Bolivia to chalk out his revolutionary plans. The turbulent sixties witnessed Calcutta's intellectuals frequenting coffeehouses. Their intellectual regurgitation used to be as hot as the coffee served there. Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, young Aparna Sen were the regular visitors to the famed coffeehouses on College Street, Calcutta. 
The coffeehouses in Madras started losing their mojo and mystique in the early sixties. Ironically, it was Madras that gave coffeehouse culture to the rest of India, including Calcutta, which usurped coffeehouse romanticism from Madras. Today, I hardly get to see old coffeehouses in Madras. There used to be one very old coffeehouse near Spencer Plaza. It's not there any longer. 

So many affairs d' heart took place in coffeehouses. It was a nostalgic era, when if you didn't go to a coffeehouse in Calcutta, you were considered an intellectually deficient person. The Bengali poet Jibananando Das wrote a series of poems, eulogising the aroma of coffee, particularly the Calcutta brand coffee. One of his female characters had coffee-coloured tresses. Coffee was his muse. Legend has it that, the great landscape painter Claude Monet would go to a coffeehouse on the road, leading to Sorbonne in Paris and paint his landscapes there.
The redoubtable Edward W Said was so enamoured of coffeehouses in Cairo that he would spend at least 8-10 hours at a stretch, sipping close to 60-70 cups of black coffee. He would call it 'an intellectual's elixir'. I remember way back in 1996, I was privileged to be present in an informal discussion with my professor and mentor Dr Edward W Said of Columbia University, Egyptian Nobel laureate for literature (1984) Naguib Moufiz and the father of Semiotics (science of signs and symbols) Umberto Eco of Italy, at a coffeehouse near Al-Azhar University in Cairo. We sat there at five in the evening and left with the morning azaan! During our nearly 12-hour sitting at a 24X7 coffeehouse, we discussed literature, poetry, religion, god, women, her enigmatic beauty and what not over numerous cups of black coffee and cigarettes. The legendary Spanish poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda would sit in his favourite coffeehouse near Madrid university and would write his exquisite love verses. Legend has it that once he was served coffee by a beautiful Hispanic waitress who was just 19-yr-old. She had a dusky complexion. Neruda was floored by her simple but stunning beauty and observed that, 'Beauty, when unadorned, is adorned the most.' 

While leaving, he called that waitress and told her that her complexion enhanced the taste and aroma of coffee. When she blushed, he called her 'A coffeehouse Beauty' and extemporaneously immortalised her in his sonnet 'Coffeehouse beauty'! Pakistani Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz, who's much loved in India, would go to a coffeehouse near Hira mandi in Lahore and furtively meet his beloved. When she left him for a man much wealthier and more resourceful than him (Faraz), he wrote a poignant nazm, 'Tumhein koi aur mil gaya.......'  By the way, she was an unnamed courtesan from Hira mandi, a locality with a dubious reputation, but very popular among Urdu poets and connoisseurs of feminine beauty. 

But that aura and aroma have all gone, at least in India. Whenever I visit Cairo, Milan, Paris, Ankara and London, I unfailingly go to a coffeehouse to inhale that aroma and recreate those nostalgic memories. Alas, Calcutta's coffeehouses wear a deserted look and one wistfully remembers Manna Dey's immortal song, 'Coffehouser shei aadda ta aaj aar nei'(there's no infectious bonhomie of a coffeehouse any longer). Yes, that soul-gladdening coffeehouse culture has gone forever. Today's 'intellectuals' require something else to stimulate their grey cells.
    
                                                                          ---Sumit Paul


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