Brew for the brains: Coffee and the Coffeehouse culture
Unlike Tea that exudes a soothing, calm, and relaxed feel, Coffee in comparison allures a rustic, invigorating and intellectual charm.
The very fact that tea generally takes more time and attention to brew and has more nuances and subtilities, makes it the preferred drink for someone who cares more about the journey than the result.
Coffee, on the other hand, jolts the weary senses with its high caffeine dose, attracting people who are more into the approach.
Fast paced and frantic, coffee conjures up images of jam-packed coffee houses, where the burnt smell of coffee beans, cigarette smoke, the clink of cutleries, and the muffled sound of deep to casual conversation populate the landscape.
Since the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia by a herder named Kaldi, who observes salutary effects on his goats after consuming some red berries from a coffee tree, the drink by the 14th century had established its sway over the Middle East, where it led to the emergences of Istanbul coffee houses called Qahveh Khaneh.
Those coffee houses were so full of intellectual activity that they came to be dubbed Schools of wise.
London established its first coffee shop in 1652, Boston in 1676, and Paris in 1686. Being easily accessible, and conveniently placed and the egalitarian ambiance it offered, the coffee houses soon become the sanctum of political discussions, free flow of ideas, and the refuge of artists and philosophers.
They also brewed subversion. King Charles famously declared “ A place where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports regarding the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”
The caffeine induced conversations that was known to loosen the tongue began to garner fear of the authorities both religious and political, earning coffee the name Sinful Drink.
But nothing was able to stall the march of coffee. In an age when water was insalubrious, and alcohol the only alternative, coffee emerges as a sobering stimulant as opposed to intoxication.
It increased mental alertness rather than numbing the senses, and allowed focused productive activity.
All in all, a wholesome drink that “ heals stomach, makes genius quicker, cheers the spirit without making mad”
As for the patrons, the coffeehouses served as centers of information exchange, business discussions, social connections, and a place to experience the bonhomie of friendly strangers.
The attractive “ Third place” ( the first being home and the second the work place) to gather, talk to people, or spent time in solitude without the pressing demands of societal manners and etiquettes associated with home and work.
The atmosphere of the place are laced with the feeling of being a part of a clique where coterie needs and individual privacy are perfectly harmonized.
The peculiar ecosystem that had risen around the habit of coffee consumption had a special attraction for the brightest minds.
The coffee houses become the mecca for the geniuses of the age for literary meetings, philosophical debates, and artistic daydreaming.
Existential master Jean Paul Sartre frequented cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots in Paris.
For long hours he would be seen scribbling away in his corner seat, aided by endless cups of coffee.
He once wrote, “We are completely settled there; from nine o’clock in the morning until midday, we work, we eat, and at two o’clock we come back and chat with friends until eight o’clock. After dinner, we see people who have an appointment. That may seem strange to you, but we are at home.”
To give him company was his long-time associate and partner Simone de Beauvoir, another proponent of existential philosophy, whose seminal work Second Sex, became a classic of feminist literature.
These places were also patronized by the Lost Generation of writers that included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot. The Ye Old Cheshire Cheese cafe in London had earned a mention in the classic novel “ A tale of Two cities” which Charles Dickens uses to frequent.
The archaic wood paneling and the vaulted cellars of the cafe had also inspired the likes of Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Elephant House, a run of the mill coffee house in London, is famed for being the birthplace of Harry Potter. It was here J K Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in longhand.
Besides her, the cafe also boasts novelists Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith in its clientele list.
This discussion would be incomplete without the mention of the Indian Coffee house in Kolkata. This was the place where poetry was written, films conceptualized, novels plotted, and in the pre-independence era revolution brewed.
All this happened in between endless cups of coffee and a liberal dose of adda.
Among the regulars were filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak; actors Utpal Dutt, Soumitra Chatterjee; economist Amartya Sen; and writers Sunil Gangopadhyay and Samaresh Majumdar.
A Psychological study of the interrelation between coffee, coffeehouses, and stirring intellectual activity has revealed some interesting results.
“Stochastic resonance” is the phenomenon in which the right level of noise benefits the senses. Also dubbed the coffee shop effect it means the slow music, the muffled conversations, and barista banging coffee grounds are not nuisance rather they elevate creativity and help to concentrate.
This combined with the casual crowd, the air of informality and visual variety of the place provides just the right meditative mixture to reach the state of “ creative flow”.
In the last couple of years, Guwahati has seen mushrooming of cafes. Places like Zoo road and Uzanbazar are dotted with swanky coffee houses that have become the favorite chill-out zones for the youths.
Guwahati is in a state of transition, a flux that is turning the city into a metropolis. High-rise buildings, shopping malls, international brands, and the fast pace of life that characterize urban dwelling are descending on its landscape with a dazzling speed.
But the metaphor of a city cannot be just steel and concrete. There is a need for something more profound, a belief system, a set of ideas nurtured by the thoughts of its inhabitants. The cafe houses had lived up to this expectation in the past. It would and should do the same for Guwahati.
The need of the hour is just a little mindfulness and a connection with the past and a vision for the future, to brew the present into a delicious latte.
This wedding of cafe culture and intellectual discourse, have always yielded new ideas and discourses. Draft manifestoes, shorts stories, and novels scribbled at times on pieces of paper or typed with fury in typewriters are images integral to the coffeehouse culture.
These places were a refuge for the greatest minds to thrive, a sanctum of desultory debates and original maundering.
[Images from different sources]
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