Saturday, June 9, 2007

Dharampeth Coffee House

I was a regular visitor to Dharampeth Coffee House [DCH] for around 2 years; between the period when i was just around end of my college and my regular job. The period when i was mostly unemployed or trying things and failing consistently.
We were a group of guys, who had recently passed their Engineering and were looking for either jobs or generally taking the next career step.

Now get this, Nagpur was not exactly the kind of city where one could launch a career in a technical field. It was neither a manufacturing hub like Pune nor a professionals paradise like Bombay. In terms of lack of employment opportunities Nagpur ranked higher than most cities.
The only option we had was to move out from Nagpur and look for *greener pastures*.
Moving out of Nagpur? - well that required some motivation.

That was a period when the IT revolution was slowly unraveling in India. But we Nagpuris were sort of detached from this phenomenon. Not that we were not aware; oh no, we were actually very aware. Only thing we did not know the gateway to that revolution.

At 21-22 , we simply were the young turks who had the energy but not the direction to get it right. The growing expectations of our family was not helping either. We were the quintessential *Educated unemployed* romanticized in some art movies of bollywood. Not that we considered ourselves to be that.

Given this situation where at one end i was trying to avoid eye contact with my father and at the other end was not motivated enough to go out of the city and find something, I found a haven in Nagpur called the Dharampeth Coffee House [DCH]

DCH, a place where you could spend hours together and not spend more that 2.50 INR by sipping one cup of coffee. Being a government run house, neither the manager nor the waiter would give you those condescending looks for ordering "just one coffee" and occupying the chair for hours and along the way consuming the resources like newspaper endlessly. They were least bothered. They were equally laid back.

The thing about newspapers at the DCH was that you would never get a full version of "todays news" in a single bunch. The daily and its supplement would usually be scattered amongst different tables of the DCH. The sports section would be at one end while the editorial would be lying under someone else's cup.
Anyway our interests were not about current affairs. We were more interested in solving the crossword puzzle; a thing or liking we picked up while preparing for the MBA entrance. (ya right!)

So even as we *were* discussing the current situation, we were more bothered about that English word which was not fitting the puzzle.

The real charm of DCH was in its visitors. The absolute regulars. From around 10:00 am in the morning till 5:00 in the evening you would end up seeing the same faces all the time. It made us wonder what these "professionals" , some of them dressed always in formal attire were actually into? Were they really working somewhere? Or they had come so far at a point in their lives of trying to dodge an eye contact with their fathers that they had made DCH their professional home?

Nevertheless it helped build the place into what it was. A bustling and breeding ground for wannabe professionals. Professionals discussing complex world issues around a table complete with empty coffee cups and cigarette ashtrays. The *smoke screen* that those cigarette puffs created couldn't have been more ironical given the situation.

We were all having our own SMOKE SCREENS. We were escaping the hard realities and DCH provided us with that escape route. It was a place where you were not accountable for your actions. And spending hours without the monetary counter balance for doing that was economically viable for unemployed like us.
2.50 INR [less than 10 cents] for 3 hours or more made perfect business sense. The Government of India after all was taking good care of us.

DCH had more to it than the regular faces. It had regular waiters. The ones who came from Kerela and were in Nagpur for their respective "onsite" opportunity. Nagpur offering some one with an onsite opportunity was in itself a notion, lot wouldn't find amusing. But so it was. The same waiters who would become so familiar with our faces, they would hardly ask us for orders. They knew we could not afford more than one cup, ok may be two on good days tops. They were humane enough to understand our "situation".

But there was also a class of people, the achievers, who strangely found a safe haven in DCH. This was sort of a mystery for me. Whom were they escaping from? These guys were successful doctors [my own family doctor was a regular visitor], successful business men [some of whom i knew personally] , successful lawyers etc. What was bringing them here? And everyday.

I realized that DCH was a magnet that was attracting people of all walks of Nagpur's life. In some sense it was a true melting pot of Nagpur's educated young/old turks. We had people from age of 25 to 50 sitting on the same table, having coffee and cigarettes and often not even in conversation with each other. Yet they were bound by the same thread of DCH. You were *cool* if you were a DCH regular. You don't know the person, you never speak to him, yet you probably KNOW him. He is the same guy who like you spends hours in DCH and yet is un-apologetic about it. He may occasionally come over to your table for taking a "current" from your puff [current - a term used to take another persons live cigarette and using it to light your own] and move on without saying a thank you - yet in strange ways acknowledging it.

DCH for me is symbolic of Nagpur's professionalism , or lack of it. Laid back and non-demanding. Easy going and not too convoluted.

A place that actually made you feel more intellectually empowered. A place where unemployment wasn't a taboo. A place where waiter was called Anna and he would feel endeared. A place where the super achievers shared the space with non-achievers or potential achievers and yet feel perfectly comfortable.

DCH was that one stop shop for all our miseries. And we did not have many in fact. Yet Coffee House somehow filled that vacuum. A day not spent at DCH was a day wasted. We felt like we were integral to that culture. Our only contribution being warming the chairs of DCH for hours together. The style accompanying the puffing of your cigarette and entering through the door, the association of adulthood to that place was unmistakable. The putting up a facade of maturity and forcing yourself into the men's world was an act of desperation and yet it was endearing.

After almost a decade I did visit the place again in recent past; probably last year. I somehow did not like what i saw. The old faces were replaced by new less known ones. The waiter wore the same attire but he was not the same. The aura was missing. The DCH i knew was not there anymore. May be it is for the new unemployed of my city. But for me the DCH i knew had passed.

For those years of my life when nothing concrete was being achieved, when i was not contributing locally, domestically or nationally to the economy and was Indian government's unwanted guest , a parasite if you will, an era when i was visiting DCH so that i could feel amongst the MEN of Nagpur and associate myself with a community that virtually existed on cigarette and coffee, an era when my only achievement was solving the crossword puzzle incompletely and an era when i did not feel left out because i had for my own convenience created a social mechanism of which i could be a part of without paying for it ; the DCH, Dharampeth Coffee house was my second home.

In some sense it was my last stop of the splendidly relaxed days i spent in Nagpur.


rshmi said...

wow! what an absorbing account!Even if i havn't visted that place...your article makes one feel the surroundings....
Good writing!

Kaunteya said...

Thanks rshmi

binzy said...

Amazing article........I'd also been to one of the indian coffee house (either in dharmpeth or sadar) where they serve scrambled eggs on toast and it was mind-blowing.My experience with indian coffee house were same as yours when I used to visit one of this chain regularly in calcutta next to presidency college.

Kaunteya said...

@binzy : Great to know that !!

Kontynuuj said...

Yes , That was real flash back for me. Thanks for remembering me those moments. Yes ... I too moved out of nagure after spending of time at DCH. Your article really touched my Heart & refersh old memories. Thanks Yar ..!

Kontynuuj said...

Yes , That was real flash back for me. Thanks for remembering me those moments. Yes ... I too moved out of nagure after spending of time at DCH. Your article really touched my Heart & refersh old memories. Thanks Yar ..!