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The Indian Coffee House

India's coffee houses are analogous to the classic British cafes; those iconic, vintage 'greasy spoons' that have almost disappeared in the last decade. Just as those were symbols of London's post war optimism and modernism, India's cafes speak of a moment in time - an era of romantic, Gandhian intellectual socialism that has almost been eclipsed by the coming of the market and 'India shining'.

One of the most famous coffee houses is Baba Kharak Singh Marg in Delhi, which is run by the Indian Coffee Workers' Cooperative Society. It dates back almost fifty years, first located in central Connaught Place, then Janpath and now at the top of a rather shabby shopping centre. Once a regular haunt for politicos in Delhi, its clientele is still renowned for being well-read and intellectual.

In their heyday, artists, poets and politicians used the coffee houses to debate the issues of the day, and they provided an arena where workers and students could sit together. Culturally, they provided the backbone for the Indian avant-garde Hungryist movement.

The coffee houses remain largely unchanged. Their decor is a mixture of each of the last four decades. Formica tables, grimy chairs, garish colour schemes and cheap coffee make for a fascinating visual mix. There are around 400 cafes still operating countrywide, each staffed by waiters in the same white starched uniforms with plumed turbans.

The cafes are, however, under serious threat. Years of financial ineptitude and internal wrangling amongst the cooperatives have left them underdeveloped and under-funded. The majority are leasehold properties on prime land, which makes them an easy target for the plush coffee shops and fast food outlets that have taken India by storm.

Recently, several of the coffee houses, including the one in Delhi, have teetered on the brink of closing but have been saved by public campaigns and rather touching outpourings of sentimentality by an aged population in newspapers and television. They represent a moment in time that is fast fading. India is changing rapidly and the coffee houses, important historical and cultural icons, may well be swept away in the rush to modernise.
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