A Love Letter to Indian Coffee Houses, From Stuart Freedman

Freedman is an international photographer who has a two-decade relationship with Coffee Houses in Indian cities. 

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Stuart Freedman’s <i>The Palaces of Memory </i>captures the timelessness of Indian Coffee Houses around the country. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)

“You know, I’ve been an assignment photographer for 25 years and... thanks, boss..” He trails off, momentarily distracted by his just-arrived staple order for the last 20 years. One coffee and a plate of cheese toast.

I first came across Stuart Freedman’s The Palaces of Memory while researching the legacy of Indian Coffee Houses in India. Before I knew it, I was on my way to meet him at the Indian Coffee House on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place (CP), Delhi. I made my way across worn-out leather chairs, dented steel-top tables and a handful of people chatting luxuriously, drowned in filtered sunlight. Flashbacks of Delhi winter evenings spent out on the terrace with one cup of coffee and one butter masala dosa came rushing by. Nothing had changed.

The view from up top at Indian Coffee House, Kolkata. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)
The view from up top at Indian Coffee House, Kolkata. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)

“I have always tried to work on stories that I felt were important, and this was important for me,” he picked up from where he left. Freedman came to Delhi in 1994, at the beginning of his long professional and personal relationship with India. He found the CP Coffee House mentioned in a guide book by chance, or providence, and he has never stopped coming back.

The Coffee House was a kind of translation device for me. When I first came to India, it was a place where I could just come and be here, away from the stares.

Freedman has visited over thirty of the 400 branches of the Indian Coffee Houses in India. Run and managed entirely by the Indian Coffee Board Workers’ Cooperative, the coffee house really came into essence when communist leader AK Gopalan revitalised the dying chain in the mid-1950s. The menu remains the same – and so does the price, for all purposes. All workers start at the bottom – in the kitchen – and make their way up the management.

“India is very different from any place I have worked in. It seems much more strange to me..much more unknowable. Delhi is an incredibly difficult Indian city. It’s brutal and in a lot of ways it reminds me very much of what Dickens wrote about London,” Freedman replies as I ask him why he felt the need to seek out a refuge at all. It’s easy to forget how an outsider feels in a strange city, with a stranger language.

A chair at Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Sing Marg, New Delhi. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)
A chair at Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Sing Marg, New Delhi. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)

His interest in Coffee Houses escalated from that of a refuge in an inscrutable city to the lone subject of a photo book; The Palaces Of Memory remains the project closest to his heart. When TV crews swarmed the Coffee House in CP one evening in 2009, as rumours of it shutting down spread wide, I imagine him almost orchestrating the book together, stitching up history, memories and sharp observations.

I wanted to know more. What did the Indian Coffee House stand for back in the days? There is something about the Coffee House; an ongoing tradition of sorts, that I feel proud and obliged to uphold every time I need a coffee or some company in Delhi.

As I took a sip of my coffee, I found it had turned cold. I realised, and Freedman agreed – it was never about the coffee. “I talk about an old guy coming here with a woman and just sitting here. You know, it’s anonymous. You can come here and be with someone. It’s somewhere away,” he says, summarising my thoughts of all the dates my parents didn’t know I was on.

My reverie was broken as he told me of his experience, through the years.

“The Coffee House now is a different beast than what it was. This used to be in Palika Bazaar, until the Gandhis shut it down for sedition during the Emergency and I think the flavour of coffee house changed. In that sense, India has also changed and the Coffee House is a kind of metaphor for that change. In 1991, they opened to the market, and I think the Coffee House is a wonderful hangover from that moment that no longer exists. That Nehruvian moment, that kind of optimistic, socialist – whether you agree with it or not, whether you think central planning ever worked – whatever – but that old kind of socialism has gone and the Coffee House is the last vestiges of that idea.”

In that sense, Coffee House has earned a reputation for being the place artists, literati, politicians, philosophers and poets once met and talked over endless cups of cheap coffee.

But it’s not just a place for the famous, or intellectual. More than anything, the reason Indian Coffee Houses still thrive is because they are cheap and far removed from social judgement of any kind. “It reminds me of where I grew up. I’m from a working class family, and this place is a lot like the cafes of East London,” Freedman confided. He began flipping through the pages of a copy of his book, and lay flat in front of me, this photo:

A family dine at the Indian Coffee House, Chandigarh. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)
A family dine at the Indian Coffee House, Chandigarh. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)

He explains, “This. That’s this guy’s best suit, right? You understand? This is where I come from. I understand why he’s wearing that suit. Because it’s cheap, and it’s the best he’s got. And because once a week he can afford to take his family out somewhere nice. That’s what I recognise from where I grew up.”

I sat looking at the photograph, silently. I noticed that book was dedicated to the heritage branch in Kollum, Kerala which shut down. He ordered another coffee in effortless Hindi; twenty years is a long time.

A woman customer at Indian Coffee House, Thrissur, Kerala. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)
A woman customer at Indian Coffee House, Thrissur, Kerala. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)

When he showed me the photograph below, I exclaimed at the unexpected monkey. He added quickly that it’s not just the monkey that makes the photo interesting. It is the “chair and everything.” Then, I saw it too. The hazy glass, the morning coffee, two old friends, the empty ashtray and a chair that has witnessed scores of conversations.

It, perhaps, also represents the everyday brilliance of an almost-anachronistic institution, which is slowly being eaten by an rapidly-altering urban topography, and demography.

Two met sit and talk at Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)
Two met sit and talk at Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi. (Photo: Sent by Stuart Freedman)

We were about to say our goodbyes, when I asked him about the title of his book. A memory palace is a mnemonic – a tool to remember things. For Freedman, the Indian Coffee House at CP constitutes a significant repository of the city’s memories.

I made my way down the dingy stairs while my fingers trailed down the rails. I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to order my staple dosa, having lost myself in the conversation. That’s when the shabby charm of the Indian Coffee House finally became overwhelming.

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