The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part Three

The Cold Facts

MY GRANDFATHER MIGHT have had heard a lecture or two by the likes of “Surrender-Not” Bandujje (sic, for the original tag is spelt বাঁড়ুজ্জে) in the Albert Hall; he wasn’t the opera-going type, anyway. My father never sipped a single cup of coffee, by his own admission, till he had joined the Royal Indian Air Force. The Coffee House is a rather recent phenomenon; far too recent to be called a tradition. The Albert Hall, founded in 1876, is just another myth. Both the avatars are much talked and written about, and sung paeans of, without too much substance or logic. It began as an opera house, I’m told (wishful thinking on the part of old India hands!), and then limped along as a general auditorium-cum-lecture hall, and was finally converted to a cafe called “A Cuppa at Coffee House” in 1942 by the Indian Coffee Board to popularise its ware to the desi public, later rechristened by retaining the last two words of the original title. It had never been one of a kind; Indian Coffee House is now said to have 400 such outlets — two of them in Calcutta itself: Central Avenue and Jadavpur — all over the country run by thirteen coöperatives. (Source: Wikipedia).

Mystification (রহস্যায়ন) and deification (দেবীকরণ, বা সংক্ষেপে, দেবায়ন, not দেবী করণ for heaven’s sake) are ethnic traits of ভদ্রলোক Bongs. That leads to self-aggrandisement. The upper crust, an insignificant group in percentage terms, and the downtrodden, by far the most superior numerically, do not suffer from this malady. That is how the entire credit for the struggle for Independence is claimed by ভদ্রলোক Bongs alone, while the others are উড়ে, মেডো, খোট্টা, বাঁধাকপি or তেঁতুল! “আমরাই স্বাধীনতা এনেছি বাওয়া; সব আমাদের বাপঠাকুদ্দার কীর্তি!” [Incidentally, Avatar Singh Bains (Siliguri, RKM Scholars’ Hostel at Golpark) and George Dieter (W.Gemany, same Hostel) were members of our larger, amorphous group. Avatar played the violin more than competently. George could any day out-Sanskrit Chaitanya Pande from Sanskrit College. The first was a বাঁধাকপি, the next a লাল মুখো, and the last named very much a খোট্টা from Patna.] 

Let us also consider the deification of Subhash Bose to Netaji (প্রণাম হই সার!). I don’t see much harm in that, except that those who deified him had never read a line by their idol, not even তরুণের স্বপ্ন in which he was visibly confused between fascism and communism; or care to know about his military achievements, if any; or had ever known the fact that his postures in uniform were far older than the INA. Remember the show during the 1928 Calcutta Congress: for reasons best known to him, and to the raised eyebrows of many! And we always ignore that he had joined hands with Nazi Germany and militarist Japan in his struggle for independence, and deny the existence of his Austrian wife and daughter of that marriage! Gandhi’s dislike for him was, perhaps, not unwarranted, given that the former was at least committed to peace in his own way! Many would beg to differ with these views of mine if they ever get to read this, but these, my genteel readers however few, are the heartfelt thoughts of yours truly, ossified over the years to firm tenets. Our Coffee House is yet another of those Bong myths, mystified to a haven of all intellectual pursuits in India!

My Merry Days at the Coffee House

WE, THE ETERNALLY cash-strapped boys could only afford two four-anna cups of infusion between three of us. The girls, butterfly-like to look at in their colourful আঁচলs (they all wore sari then, except Lutfa who sported salwar-kameez and got ogled at and thus chased out of the Coffee House rather too soon) but bee-like in thrift, were better equipped to feed the occasional single plate of pakora (onion with green chilli) for the entire table, or one third of a vegetable cutlet (popularly VegCut) per head. Gautam, heir apparent of a very successful Marwari business family, had treated the entire gang once, including his pure vegetarian self, with chicken cutlet (ChicCut), served with tiny bowls of English mustard, and not enough French fries with liberal daubs of cheap ketchup, one plate of each for each of us!

What else could you get at the Coffee House? Frankly, I can neither remember nor care. We didn’t go there to eat. Tea, if you were not fussy, was far cheaper per burnt-clay cup at any street-side stall near about. The hungry had butterfly biscuits out of glass jars for five paise a piece. The thirsty could always go to Paragon or Paramount close by; both (a lady Twitter friend has since questioned this, and only one might have had it; memory is a tricky staff, anyway) had a few curtained cabins for groping couples, thirsty all the same! And one, I forget which, also had a sign, presumably meant to be an ad, hand-painted segment by segment on the glass panes of the wall cupboard that displayed some of their concentrates:

Pane one: “এই দারুন গ্রীষ্মে…

Pane two: IN THIS TERRIBLE SUMMER…

Pane three: প্যারা***-র শীতল শরবত…

Pane four: DRINK PARA***’S COLD…

Pane five: পান করুন.

Pane six: DRINKS.”

The Stars That Were

SOME READERS MIGHT be impatient to hear details about the stars of our time, those who frequented the Coffee House, and what they ordered, and the drifts of their vibrant conversations, and such trivia. I am sorry indeed to disappoint them for we couldn’t care less at that time. I do remember that most of them, when they were not on bidis, would smoke Charminar, the brand franca of our group, fondly but erroneously translated to Four Castles (Three Castles was a real and an expensive brand that came in a flat, green pack of 20s, but a minar was never a castle!). They too couldn’t or wouldn’t order much more than milkless coffee known as infusion. When their voices were heard from our distant tables, they weren’t discussing their own brand of art but the audacity of the then newly appointed chief minister, Praphulla Sen, or pounding their fists on the glass-covered table tops to drive home some other political faith. Yes, politics, mostly anti-establishment, anti-US on Korean and Vietnam wars, or some other far left of centre views, including pros and cons of the wok-hot Sino-Indian war and the subsequent ideological division of the Communist Party of India, were very much the currency then amongst the students too. So the raised voices of stars who were not yet stars didn’t cut much ice.  All said and done, in that regard the Coffee House lived far below its reputation in my college days.

Yes, I had seen Shakti Chatujje quite a few times, Malay Roychowdhury of the Hungry Generation, Subimal Basak—the unsung talent who later penned ছাতামাথা (the initial aspirated consonant pronounced sibilantly), a novella written in chaste ঢাকাই dialect, Dipak Majumdar (বেদানার কুকুর), Sunil Ganguli (হাঁ করো অরুন্ধতী, আ-আলজিভ চুমু খাও, প্রচন্ড শব্দ হোক ব্রহ্মান্ডে পাতালে!) with his own brand of camp followers, the inimitable Tarapada Ray (১. খিদিরপুর ডকে তিন জন সারেং; ২. ছিলাম ভালবাসার নীল পতাকাতলে স্বাধীন!) — my all-time favourite in whom I saw reflections of an irreverent George Barker (অবশ্যই একদিন ঈশ্বরের সঙ্গে দেখা হবে,/ দেখা হলে কাঁধে হাত রেখে বলব “সাবাশ ওস্তাদ,/ কি  কল বানিয়েছিলে,/ ফিলিপস অসরামের চেয়ে ঢের ভালো;/ এখনও তোমার সূর্য, এত লক্ষ বত্সরেও ফিউজ হলনা!”), and other literati of that period. Once I had also seen Sudhendu Mallik who was not yet known to be a poet. Binod Bera (মাধবী, গাঁয়ের মেয়ে, আমি চাই তোমার সখ্যতা sic), somewhat older and never in the limelight, used to come with his own friends once in a while. Basudeb Deb, with a bigger halo then but much less of a poet, was a frequenter.

I saw Paritosh Sen (already a true star and no longer young) one day, and never again, with a few artists in attendance; a very young Ganesh Halui was the only one I recognised. Ajitesh Banerji, known not so well as a group theatre actor, then teaching in Shyambajar AV School, was there on occasions; he was admired for the timbre of his voice that carried quite far amidst all the din of the House of Commons. One of these stars-to-be, I forget who, had once borrowed a precious Charminar from one of us, when we couldn’t dream of affording full packs; we weren’t thrilled for the lack of soothsayers’ eyes that didn’t spot their future stardom. None of them, the literati and the intelligentsia, could be called frequenters by any stretch of imagination. Either they didn’t visit as often as the myth claimed, or their days didn’t coincide with mine.

But there were very many other regulars to the Coffee House, students most of them, a few teachers, and others who came to re-live their carefree youth in vain. Badri-da, or Baddi-da, a retired army general, presided over a table of the military-minded on certain days of the week. I didn’t know him then but later, during my early working life, he became a senior friend in our Sunday ‘My Club’ adda. “Peace is war interrupted, or so think the politicians; to the likes of me war is peace needlessly fingered by Gandhi-topi-wallahs,” he told me one cold Sunday morning before he vanished for ever, perhaps, just faded away like all retired soldiers. A grey-haired gentleman (who during the brief period of মুক্ত মেলা, held on the maidan every Saturday a few years later, used to sing “হাজার টাকার বাগান খাইল পাঁচসিকার ছাগলে” and Lalan’s “আমি একদিনও না দেখিলাম তারে” to the accompaniment of belly-claps and general applause, and once two broken asbestos pieces struck percussively by a professional beggar) used to be there once in a while, but he hadn’t yet sung his ovine swan song or any other in public. An elderly gentleman, slight of build and balding, was there every afternoon, his collar button always done — summer or winter, at his usual wall-side table, with a tin of Number Ten, a brand not favoured by most Coffee House goers. The brand had a catchy ad emblazoned above the windows of buses: “Ladies only. No smoking in Buses, not even Number Ten”. Usually alone, another elderly gentleman used to visit this universal দাদু every Wednesday. Otherwise, all other Coffee House goers were in awe of him. We, the have-nots and four-anna-infusion-worth cheapskates would never dare even to nod him a wish. It was পিটু (who else?) who had mastered courage one day. Since there was no supply bar at Coffee House on sugar then, beyond the usual pot per table, we usually emptied the pot when the girls weren’t looking, but craved for more. “You never seem to take sugar in your coffee, দাদু”, পিটু remarked. দাদু was obviously diabetic and nonplussed. When his head wasn’t bitten off, পিটু continued timorously, “Would you mind, দাদু, if I borrow your sugar pot?”

Test matches were covered by All India Radio. In the Coffee House we played match tests. A boxful of sticks would be shaken well in a well formed by interlinked palms of one’s hands and then cast on the table top in such a manner as not to scatter them. One had to remove the sticks, one by one, without moving any other in the heap. It was so exciting that one monsoon afternoon melted in to late evening closing time; the streets were all flooded. Near closing time, it was পিটু who thoughtfully looked for stray girls to escort home, but there were none. I think Manojit of Keyatala was the only guy from my part of the city. The two of us waded through all the muck and reached home rather late. Jyetha-jyethi, with whom I lived in 202, Rashbehari Avenue, didn’t speak to me for days! The other game that we played then was known as ‘মরণফাঁদ race’ and had nothing to do with the Coffee House. We played it at busy crossings, Park Street and Chowringhee Road, Park Street and Lower Circular Road, Esplanade crossing and a few places else. A man’s game, it involved crossing the road faster than other players when the lights were green to traffic. Years later I saw the same game described as ‘death-death’ in one of Sunil’s pieces. The traffic at the College Street area was thick but far too slow for the game to be exciting to champions like us. Do they still play such games, I wonder!

Kalyani of Presidency, Partha-da’s (famous now, several years our senior, then studying overseas) girlfriend, was a regular visitor. She sat alone, or with her women mates, in a Garbo-like, unsmiling aloofness, preferring the House of Lords upstairs. A bevy of attractive girls from assorted colleges and also the university chose their regular table close to ours and some had later joined the বহিরঙ্গ group. I too with my pimply countenance had a few followers who, alas, admired my clowning more than my poetic efforts. I should add, lest I forget, that the বহিরঙ্গ group had no age bar; one or two of the regulars in our gang were in their late twenties or early thirties. Samiran-da must have been forty something but we thought of him as ancient. One of the Coffee House regulars (very much a male and older than most), who shall remain nameless, later had some claim to fame in the world of literature: he began a little magazine to which I had contributed a few poems and a thoughtful article, “ছড়ায় স্লোগান”, before it closed down after a year or two. I don’t want to embarrass him but he had stolen two of my translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets for another magazine that ran a special issue to celebrate the 400th birthday of the bard. Not Lolita (sic, and no connection with Nabokov) Chaterji, but her young daughter — I forget her name — who did act later in a Bong film or two, was the only Tollywood person whom I had seen with some jetsetters more than once. I had never seen Soumitra Chatujje. Calcutta race jockeys, “Tiny” Jadeja and “Monkey” Anwar, were very much there during the season; they were gregarious and generous too.

That was the long and short of the Coffee House that I had seen: not a very exciting place, never frequented by the glitterati who had already risen. I had often seen the rising but not in large groups, nor too frequently to qualify as regulars.

DISGUSTING WORMS WERE, however, making steady inroads in to my rose garden, as is their wont. Pitambar, the North Calcutta boy, whom I had dragged to the Coffee House once or twice, died in a swimming accident one summer vacation, not by drowning (for he was a good swimmer) but by smashing his head on concrete in a careless dive. Srijay (commonly known as Joy) Deb, the boy who topped the Higher Secondary in 1962 and was studying in Presidency, had found another watery grave elsewhere and else when, perhaps a mite earlier; we were just on nodding terms. And my poetry was infected with  a darkening parasite like Kala Azar!

Some of us had set out for Bakkhali for a picnic at the height of our last college summer (only mad dogs and madder students were out then) just before the part two (final) examination. One of the two Ambassadors broke down midway and, while exploring a bleak side-lane, we found a kotwali. The carcass of a Bedford that had once been hit by a larger something was lying on its frontyard, covered in dust and cobweb and grinning in a skull-like mirth. Bishakha challenged me to write a poem on it. Someone tore the page of a lesson book and I scribbled unhurriedly for a few minutes.

একটা অলস রাস্তা দীর্ঘকাল শুয়ে আছে মাঠে,

আকাশের দিকে চেয়ে তার দিন কাটে,

মাঝেমাঝে বৃষ্টি এলে করে নেয় স্নান

গায়ে মেখে ধুলোর সাবান;

ত্বকে তার বয়স ব্রণের মতো অগণিত ক্ষতI

কেউ তাকে ভালবেসেছিল কোনও দিন?

বসন্তের মায়াবী সকালে

জোড়া তেঁতুলের নিচে শুযে আছে অস্থিচর্মসার

হরাপ্পার বেডফোর্ড,

এতোদিনে ভুলে গেছে নিজের আকার;

অলস রাস্তার দিকে চেয়ে চেয়ে কোনওক্রমে তারও দিন কাটে…

There was more in that vein on that piece of paper. It had survived because I had put it as a page mark in a book that I had borrowed from someone the very same day and had never read or returned. It has surfaced from the detritus of my fossilised past recently. I did recognise my own hand but the moth-eaten poem itself I had totally forgotten. The woolly memory of that trip and Bishakha’s challenge did come back with some effort, though. Reading from the yellowed page after so many years, I clearly saw that dark worms had got into my poetic ability that day and later the paper it was written on.

Then my father died intestate in July, 1965, at 53, without much warning. We found to our consternation that his mother, not mine, long dead by then, was still recorded in the relevant papers as his chosen nominee in the LIC policies, the provident fund and wherever else. He held his bank accounts singly too. Overnight we were left paupers but for my mother’s meagre bank balance, and a huge burden of death duty that we would have to pay before getting a succession certificate. My brother was not yet nine then. I had to enter the big bad world with only a bachelor’s degree, second class honours, to show, results pending, and a head full of useless erudition and too many pieces of scrap papers with equally useless poems.

That was the end of my eager youth, three months short of nineteen, with a provisional admission to MSc in the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, but nary a spare penny in the family coffer that could be touched to keep us afloat, let alone pay for the course I chose. I didn’t want to keep in touch with any of my friends. But পিটু, true to his nature, didn’t let me go. Both of us were infected by a plague that was then tainting the air, a scarlet virus that had no antidote, didn’t even have a name till years later, and that too was merely the name of an obscure place in North Bengal. My need to keep the family’s head above the water restrained me from going the whole hog. পিটু didn’t have any such hindrance. Having finished his Masters, he vanished from the scene for a while. One day, returning from work rather late one evening, I found him, accompanied by a slip of a girl (not one of our gang), chatting volubly with my mother at our Latbagan residence. She was rather fond of পিটু. This time he had come, unannounced and virtually incognito, with his wife of a few days, to seek refuge. Something indeed was rotten in West Bengal then! I, on my bicycle, escorted their rickshaw to the dilapidated hideout on Sarat Sarani that his network had chosen for him. I never saw them since. He vanished in to thin air like some other of my friends, heavy with suspicion of that era, for SS Ray was the chief minister then. “পুলিশ তুমি যতই মারো, মাইনে তোমার একশো বারো”. I didn’t think of his wife whom I didn’t even know.

That was also the end of the Coffee House for me. I still remember a fragment of my last ever poem to Sudeshna.

…. পিপুলপাতির মোড়ে, তোকে দেখে রিক্সা থেকে নামি;

এখন সময় বদলে গেছে, ওরে, এখনও তুই অযথা দূরগামী.

Not that I hadn’t ever gone back to the Coffee House. I went there quite a few times, at a time when I could afford to treat my friends to a ketchup-soaked chicken cutlet each (the mustard pots had vanished by then), but the old gang wasn’t there and it was never the same without them. For the Coffee House of my callow youth was not much more real than Sudeshna. We all adore the Coffee House, for its name brings back the happier moments of our carefree days, and it basks in the false glory of reflected light like earth’s satellite.

_____________________________________________________________________

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