It’s a hot Delhi summer afternoon, and three senior citizens occupy a table inside the Indian Coffee House at Mohan Singh Place. They are discussing the aftermath of the recent election, aided by a glass of cold coffee each and an old but trusty ceiling fan.

They have come here forced by a habit imbibed over the decades. On the adjacent table, a group of youngsters are having fried noodles. They are here for the relatively cheap food, and the central location of the place.

On a similar summer day, another Indian Coffee House outlet some 350 kilometres away, located in the heart of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, is bursting at the seams with a huge crowd of tourists and locals.

It is located in a heritage Raj-era building that has pride of place along the famous Mall Road. The kitchen is busy churning out masala dosas, vada sambhar, cheese omelettes and more. The stewards here wear white uniforms with a Gandhi cap or turban (which designates their seniority) and are a busy lot.

In distant Allahabad (or Prayagraj) on a similar afternoon, things look sleepy. A couple of tables are occupied by some old men and a couple of waiters are standing around talking. The building with an impressive façade is again from the Raj era and is located at the fashionable Civil Lines area.

But today it lies hemmed in by malls and shopping arcades on either side, looking more and more like a relic from the past. It still draws a good crowd but they will troop in only by evening, after Allahabad University winds down for the day.

400 such branches of Indian Coffee House are in operation across this vast country of ours. Each boasts of a rich past. Some are still riding on that rich legacy and doing well, while others, nudged out by the numerous new coffee chains, are barely surviving.

Of the public and public intellectuals

For many people, drinking coffee at Indian Coffee House has long been akin to protecting our increasingly scarce and sacred public spaces, which are the bedrock on which any vibrant political, literary, artistic, progressive and liberal society stands.

It may sound like a tall claim, but it’s not off the mark. A glimpse into the history of Indian Coffee House and things will become clearer.

Over the decades Indian Coffee House has attracted important public figures, artists, literary minds, journalists, workers and students. It has provided an environment where free debates and discussions flourished. What helped was the excellent location of the outlets, the huge properties, relatively cheap food and the old-world charm attached.

Many have loved the mutton dosa, cutlets and masala omelette served here over the decades.

It was way back in 1935 that the Indian Coffee Board established a number of coffee houses, where natives in British India could do as the gora sahibs did. That is, have a cup of coffee, snacks and converse about anything under the imperial sun.

The first outlet opened in Churchgate, Bombay in 1936. But after independence these coffee houses fell on hard times, and by the mid-fifties the Coffee Board had decided to close them down.

That meant the possible retrenchment of around 850 workers. Enter A.K.Gopalan, a Communist Party leader from the state of Kerala. He accompanied a delegation of the workers to meet Prime Minister Nehru, who asked the workers to form a cooperative that would take over the running of the coffee shops. Thus was born the Indian Coffee Worker’s Cooperative Society, which took over the business from the board.

In 1957, the first coffee house under this cooperative society was opened, inside the Theatre Communication Building, Connaught Place, where Palika Bazaar is situated today.

A nationwide presence

Among the 400 Indian Coffee Houses around the country, there are a few that are uniquely important.

Kerala has two coffee workers’ cooperatives running more than 50 Indian Coffee House outlets, the highest among the states. Many of these have important historic value. The outlet at Thrissur, founded in 1958, was the fourth to open in the country and was inaugurated by A.K.Gopalan.

West Bengal is also home to many Indian Coffee House outlets, the most famous one being on College Street, Kolkata. The huge eating hall here is dominated by a sizeable portrait of a young Rabindranath Tagore: it is a famous picture where he is dressed to play a part in a play.

The outlet is primarily remembered for having served as the meeting place for many twentieth-century intellectuals and artists, including the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen.

A house where minds met

In Allahabad, the Indian Coffee House building in Civil Lines looks more like an anomaly today, hemmed in as it is by modern day malls. But still, its decades’ old presence here, and the crowd assembled inside, are testament to a successful business model, and an ideology that refuses to fade away in our brave new world.

In its heyday in the 60s and early 70s, this was the place to be seen. It was here that the famous poet and public intellectual par excellence Firaq Gorakhpuri would hold his informal darbar, often speaking impromptu on literature, taking up a literary figure or even a word and then expounding on it for hours.

Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, H.N.Bahuguna, Indira Gandhi and Janeshwar Mishra among others, all came here. Also seen regularly were the poets Sumitra Nandan Pant, Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Nirala.

And in the central park of Connaught Place, New Delhi, the Indian Coffee was a landmark from 1957 to 1975. The well known writer Narendra Mohan, now 83, recalls how it was “the regular meeting place of all the writers of Delhi. Eminent writers such as Mohan Rakesh, Manohar Shyam Joshi, Vishnu Prabhakar, Devendra Satyarthi and Maheep Singh among others were regulars here. We would all meet and spend hours discussing literature.”

Many young and upcoming writers also turned up to learn and soak in the intellectually charged atmosphere. If any writer from outside Delhi was visiting, he or she would invariably come to the Coffee House in the evening to meet other writers.

All were welcome here, and anybody could join any group and participate in the informal discussions. It was a place where people would discuss the politics of the day, plan public protests, review books, meet with friends, and share space with one’s rivals and competitors.

The place was visited by the likes of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Chandrashekhar, I.K.Gujral and many others.

No wonder, then, that it was the only eating place to be shut down by the government after the Emergency was declared in 1975. Sanjay Gandhi himself is said to have decided the matter. That says a lot about the place.

When it reopened, it shifted to the characterless space on the top floor of Mohan Singh Place, where it still operates. Even after a year-long renovation in 1995, it was never able to regain its lost past glory.

It is struggling even today, having largely lost its old identity. “At the coffee house here, we used to spread tables on an attached open terrace, which was very popular with the clients and was always full in the evening. But the NDMC has disallowed us the use of the terrace. This has hurt our business,” says one of the stewards working here.

The Indian Coffee House has a presence in smaller cities as well. The outlet in Gwalior is spread over two floors and fills up especially in the evenings, with whole families dining together. “I have been coming here for years, earlier as a student and now with my family. My kids love the noodles served here though I still prefer my mutton biryani,” says S.P.Srivastav, a regular.

Back on the Mall Road in Shimla, it’s evening and the place is packed with locals, and everything is being discussed.

Dr Ghanshyam, a retired professor from Shimla University, is one of the regulars here. “Most of the regulars have been coming here for years. People socialise, exchange views on a variety of topics, everything from local issues to national issues. A lot of university students also come here. It is a very vibrant place. Easily the most important public meeting place in the city.”

Above the cash counter hangs a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, clicked when, not very long ago, he too visited the Indian Coffee House.