Coffee Tables

Ambitions. Srinagar is too small a place for ambitions. Across the table, at Books and Bricks Cafe, B told me how he lost his job abroad and how the dimness of Srinagar wears him down. He had to return when the floods came and destroyed his house. Then he had decided to return for good or temporarily. He wasn’t sure. 

Outside, the large windows of the cafe, constables in a police Gypsy were shooing away cars to make way for a VIP vehicle. Civilian cars were lined on the side, as a guarded procession passed by.
Sigh. Let your ambitions accommodate this too. This is a police state.

We have noticed with delight how one cafe after another opened in Srinagar and we discovered how much we loved coffee. Coffee, in Kashmir, had lived for a long time under the long shadow cast by Nun chai and ‘Lipton’ tea. It was the drink your father or the busy uncle had once in a while and the one your mother never liked. Yet somehow, now we have one cafe opening after another and coffee is the new cool in Srinagar.

No. We are not complaining.

At Books and Bricks, a cafe opened by two friends, the ambiance is warm and inviting. The walls are lined with old Readers’ Digest’s pages and the ceiling is of old apple boxes. And there are books, lots of them. Charles Dickens to James Patterson. “Pride and Prejudice” to “Narrow Road to The Deep North”. Also the music. The first time I was there they were playing Sweet Home Alabama which was nice. But the second time I was there, Adele was on, and it was symptomatic to my friend’s tale of woe.

There is so much yearning in that cafe, that I may return there just for that (and the burgers, of course). The owners of the cafe are around and approachable. They even requested for a Facebook review in passing, and I said to myself, “Boy! You are getting a blogpost!”. (Though then I had planned to write an entirely different post.) It is the new breed of entrepreneurship in Kashmir, well educated professionals with a desire to succeed, and if coffee is what they are pinning hopes on, I say it is a clever choice.

I wish this duo all the luck and also hope they expand into a slightly bigger location which would really help with the “reading cafe” ambitions.

By comparison Coffea Arabica is an old haunt cafe. On an extremely dreary March day, I was to meet a friend there for coffee and pasta. He wasn’t pleased. He had hired a new assistant, Asif, in his office and was appalled by the standard of education the kid had been put through. But instead of firing the kid, my friend decided to coach him in the basics, things he should have already learnt in two years after tenth and three years of college. He wanted to give Asif a chance, despite his lack of basic skill and clouded thoughts. Everyone, must be given a chance, after all. He said he had had assistants slow on the pick up before, but there was something about Asif that made him skeptical. I thought he was just too involved, being a Kashmiri.

We are not risking anything; we are gambling away our life. It was 7:30 in the evening and Srinagar was closing down. The last few Tata Sumos were ferrying the last few people back home. Two coffees later we left, wondering if everyone else found this city of tourists that difficult to live in.

PS: This is not a review of the restaurants. 

PPS: While the events described are mainly/broadly true, the names are not.


Thank God For Little Pleasures – XX

Strangers. Everywhere.
The gathering was singing “Ya Nabi Salaam Alaika” in a large chorus. Together, like one person with a large voice.
When the prayers finished people wrapped their arms around friends, relatives, people they knew. No one said anything to the stranger, the alien, the faraway wayfarer. He waited for someone to hug him too. But no one came and he went away.
No one hugs a stranger even on Eid.
He got his shoes polished. And walked away.
“I’ve decided. You and I are going to this coffee shop before we go for dinner.” the youthful voice of his colleague was telling the stranger. Usually he is an annoying brat, but today he was uncharacteristically friendly.
“Uhm. Are you sure?”
The brat was a young person, with no care in the world. The stranger had known him from work and kept his distance initially. He had had a string of phone calls, but no one had actually called him. The stranger was a gust of wind, with no origin.
He looked at his shoes. They were still neatly polished.
The coffee shop the brat had chosen was a long distant away. The stranger tried to keep up with the brat’s antics. He realised as a traveller he had to play along. The Cheshire Cat’s wisdom played along too. “If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take”.
He followed the brat to the coffee house. By the time they reached, it was late evening. The wind was cool and murky with the city’s pollution. A few dusty plants in over sized pots waited for them at the side of the road. People were going up and down the pavement. A merry looking group was celebrating inside the glass walls of the coffee shop. A demure maiden was nodding to her lover on another table. A man with pointy eye-brows was talking on the phone. A few waiters were shuffling on their toes. 
They ordered coffee. The brat asked the stranger where he came from? What did he do? How did they celebrate Eid in his place?
The stranger smiled. He told of his home, his friends, his food.
An hour passed.
When they left, the stranger paid the bill. The money felt light, useless and abundant.
He looked at his shoes. A layer of dust had covered his neatly polished shoes.
The dinner place was a famous restaurant. The brat was a vegetarian. The stranger felt sorry for him.
“Shouldn’t you order something mutton, not chicken? Feels more like Eid, I suppose.” the brat suggested.
“What will you have?” the stranger wanted to know. Alien in the city, he didn’t know that vegetarians avoid places with a common kitchen for veg and non-veg.
“I’ll see. You go first.”
The stranger ordered. The meal was good. It felt like Eid. A strange, lonely Eid. An Eid held together by long distant phone calls and wistful greetings.
The young brat had an ice cream. The only thing he decided he could have.
The stranger hadn’t had anyone to accompany him for dinner in months. He realised he hadn’t had dinner in months.
It felt like Eid.


He looked down at his shoes. They had gathered dust. 

A Coffee Revolution in Egypt

From Aden, the use of coffee extended to Mecca, Medina and other cities and towns of Arabia, the knowledge and taste for it rapidly spreading outwards from that country to Syria and Persia. Public coffeehouses being everywhere established, also in many of the other countries in western Asia, affording, according to one authority, ” a lounge for the idle and a relaxation for the man of business, where the politician retailed the news of the state ; the poet recited his verses, and the Mollahs  delivered their sermons to the frequenters.” But the  mania for coffee becoming so great about this period,  particularly in Syria, that an effort was made by authority  of the government to check, if not to entirely suppress, the further growth of its consumption among the inhabitants, on the alleged ground of ” its intoxicating properties,” but in reality because of its use leading to social and festive gatherings, incompatible with the strictness and teaching of the Mahometan religion.


PS: Aden is a seaport in Yemen.

Thank God for Little Pleasures – IV

Coffee. Be thankful for it. 

There are traditions and myths all over the world about it. However, the first credible source of coffee drinking comes from the Sufi shrines in Yemen. (Weinberg, Bennett Alan; Bealer, Bonnie K (2001) )Just one of the many things the Muslims popularised in the world.