1. Literal: Will you 'eat' coffee?
2. Actual: Will you consume coffee?
Why has a blog that has of late focussed on social issues like the environment, rising religious intolerance yada-yada suddenly shifted to the mundane issues of coffee drinking? Has Deepak finally decided to go the way of 'abstract' writing? Has he decided to write about coffee in a cryptic fashion which does not give out the hint that the writing is about coffee till the very end? Has he decided to earn applause and have his blog link circulated throughout the WWW?
The answers to the above are NO. I am currently going ga-ga about this book "In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings In Cultural History" by A.R.Venkatachalapathy (ARV). This is part of a series called 'New Perspectives on Indian pasts' published by Yoda Press. I picked this up at the Pragati maidan book fair in New Delhi in January.
FROM THIS POINT ON, THIS BLOG IS GONNA CONTAIN SOME DIRECT QUOTATIONS FROM THE ABOVE MENTIONED BOOK. BEFORE YOU ACCUSE ME OF PLAGIARISM, PLEASE SEE THIS DISCLAIMER, "SOME OF THE FOLLOWING LINES ARE NOT MY WORK. I DON'T WANT TO BE ANOTHER KAAVYA VISWANATHAN".
The coverage of topics in this book is awesome. It begins with the divide between one's mothertongue and English in the study of history. He begins by quoting a Bengali historian named Jadunath Sarkar from a piece in The Modern Review of December 1915 from an essay titled "Confessions of a History Teacher",
"Our boys have to attend lectures and write answers in an alien tongue of which the immense majority of our freshmen have no such mastery as breeds confidence and facility in using it...Their limited power of English composition makes it practically impossible for them to express themselves in their own words freely"
"This unnatural arrangement of boys having to read and write in a foreign and imperfectly acquired tongue, is responsible for a twofold mischief: the meagre acquisition of knowledge..and the inadequate expression in writing".
Mr.Sarkar also bemoans the abscence of advanced historical in the vernaculars as an 'insuperable difficulty' that compounded the problem of lack of knowledge in English. He also confesss that it was beyond his power as a mere teacher to abolish the unnatural system of teaching and examining students (a clear dig at Lord Mccaulay's educational system which aimed to make Indians clerks to the British Crown); but he claimed that he had experimented with the method of 'vernacular seminar'.
This argument was countered by K.A Nilakanta Sastri whom ARV names as arguably the most distinguished historian of twentieth century Tamil Nadu. Supposedly Mr.Sastri is the author of 'the magisterial' The Colas (Cholas) and 'the synthetic' A History of South India. ARV even adds tongue-in cheek "...In the 60 long years that he (Sastri) lived after responding to Jadunath Sarkar, he wrote no book, nor to the best of my knowledge, even an essay, in the Tamil language".
What did Sastri reply in response to Sarkar's article? He wrote, "...I cannot confess to better success with a vernacular medium atleast in my college and in this district (Tirunelveli....this place is famous for halwas)....". He also went on to add that inspite of committing grammatical mistakes, his students spoke and wrote English better than Tamil.he also says that he himself found English a better medium of instruction than Tamil atleast in handling historical subjects. The last straw was the words, "..perhaps the vernacular is not so well off in this part of the country as it should be".
Sastri was cut to pieces by none other than Subramania Bharati, he of the "Acchamillai Acchamillai" (no fear! no fear!) fame. He wrote, "I must pity Sri Nilakanta Sastri. The wonder of persons who cannot speak their own language straight, teaching the sciences may be seen only in our country". And in the characteristic way linguistic fanatics ask questions, Bharati wondered why Sastri had to proclaim his ignorance of Tamil in a Bengali journal.
ARV also recounts the struggle between the two schools of thought: English and vernacular history writing, and how they missed the bus on some creative history writing and the social history bus.
Such is the mouthwatering preface to this book. ARV has divided the book into two distinct sections. According to him, the essays in the first section "contribute to an as yet unwritten history of consumption in colonial India." He takes up "both material (coffee, tea and tobacco) and cultural (cartoon, the city and modern literature)" consumption issues. In the second part he concerns himself with "the politics of language, literature and identity in colonial Tamil Nadu."
I'll provide a review of each chapter starting with the chapter on coffee from this blog onwards. Hope you like it....
Chapter 1: In Those days There was no coffee: Coffee-Drinking and Middle-Class Culture in Colonial Tamilnadu
Coffee was regarded as a modern intruder into the Tamil life. Sample a quotation like
"In those days there was no coffee",Va.Ramaswamy Iyengar, "Aimpathu Varushangalukku Mun" (fifty Years ago), 1943.
Coffee was seen as an essentially British and upper caste drink and its consumption by other Indians was seen as an intrusion, nay, a curse if I may say.H.R. Pate wrote, "The old practice of taking kanji, or cold rice-water, in the early morning is rapidly giving way to coffee drinking, a degenerate innovation at which the older generation shake their heads. Even Pallans [a Dalit caste] in some parts insist on having their cup of coffee before they go out to work; with the younger members of the richer classes the custom of drinking coffee is almost general."
The author beautifully says, "The incursion of coffee into Tamil society was marked by a cultural anxiety which was matched only by the enthusiasm with which it was consumed. This ambivalence and tension, bewteen the threat that coffee was supposed to pose to both Tamils' physical and cultural health on the one hand, and the fascination with coffee as a beverage with all its attendant cultural associations on the other, is something that the tamils have yet to get over."
The volley of criticism that coffee had received is to be seen and heard to be believed. probably we missed out a lot by not being in that generation. Sample the following points:
1. Fundamentalist Gandhians christened coffee as 'kutti kal' (junior alcohol)
2. Anjanenjan, "Filter coffee is more addictive than even beer and arrack".
3. Stri-Dharma, the organ of the Women's Indian Association, "These days the enemies called tea and coffee have entered all homes, wreaking havoc. They are not food. They seem to stimulate cheer for a little while after drinking, but gradually subvert the vitality of the digestive organs, and when the body is weak, they create all sorts of unknown diseases".
4. A 1914-chapbook titled "Englandu Kappikkum Indian Palayathukkum nerntha Chandai Chindu" (the battle between the English coffee and the Indian soaked rice) there is a debate between Cold Rice and Coffee where cold-rice potrays coffee as an immoral woman, who has led people astray and disturbed the (fasting) austerities connected with amavasai (new moon day), karthigai and ekadasi.
5. A letter from a correspondent to Gandhi, "The greatest obstacle in the way of success to our [non-cooperation] movement in Madras are our women. Some of them are very reactionary, and a very large number of the high class Brahman ladies have become addicted to many of the Western vices.They drink coffee not less than three times a day, and consider it very fashionable to drink more."
6. Stri-Dharma agin accused coffee by saying, "emaciated by coffee-drinking, young women are unable to suckle their children with the god-given, ambrosia-like breast milk and instead feed them with bottled milk bought with money."
If this was the scale of abuse, how did coffee entrench itself? The answer lies in the words of Maraimalai Adigal, "People who claim accomplishment in education, wealth and culture have begun to see the consumption of beverages through the day as indispensable and a matter of pride." Steven Levitt will be definitely happy to see his 'principle of incentive' leading to the success of coffee in winning the hearts of the Tamils!!!
From the war against coffee, the issue shifted to the caste wars over coffee. Brahmins considered themselves the high priests of pure coffee made out of cow's milk. Buffalo milk based coffee was considered a sign of cultural and moral degradation. Consider this writing by A. Marx, the tamil critic, "...signboard of 'pasumpal kapi klub' (cow's milk cafe) in Kumbakonam, the stronghold of Tamil Brahminism; whereas in North Arcot district, historically at the margins of Brahminism, this phenomenon is not only absent but also 'beef biryani' is widely available and advertised."
The consumption of coffee reached such proportions that, humorist S.V.V. wrote in an essay titled, 'Don't Meddle With Coffee', "..I cannot understand why every domestic retrencher starts with coffee. But that he does;...the step develops in the human body canine tendencies of the most ferocious character. I tell you seriously, and after bitter experience; whatever you do, don't cut out coffee. You may cut out food, you may go out in rags, or walk three miles to your office, but don't meddle with coffee."
Coffee also became a metaphor for writers to put forth their ideas. Invariably the metaphors were of both kinds, coffee as an enhancing metaphor and as a degrading metaphor. It also came into arguments about Tamilness - what constituted tamil identity, how the tamil language was to keep pace with the demands of modernity etc.
With coffee, came 'Coffee Hotels' a few of which in bangalore i can proudly say are the Janatha Cafe in malleshwaram and India Coffee House on M.G.Road. Nowadays, they serve tea also, but I don't think they would have done so at the beginning of the last century.
The setting up of these 'hotels' was at about the same time that the Dravidian movement against the Brahmins started to take roots in TN. The Tamil equivalent of the Devil's Dictionary defined a coffee club as, "A Public tavern instituted by Brahmins. A messenger from God to break Brahmin orthodoxy." This was because these 'hotels' were generally set up by Brahmins.
Bharatidasan, the fiery poet of the Dravidian movement called Brahmins as 'kapi kadai mundangal' (the wretches of the coffee hotels).
Caste divisions were practised in these 'hotels' by way of seating arrangements and it needed Periyar Ramasamy to eradicate this menace by symbolically tarring the word "brahmin" on the nameplate of Murali's Cafe in Tiruvallikkeni (present day Triplicane), Madras (present day Chennai).
The chapter also traces the effect of tea in a similar way to coffee. Tea was to the urban working class as coffee was to the Brahmin, middle class.Advertisements for tea also highlighted this fact.
The author quotes an interesting statistic at this juncture, "..in the Buckingham & carnatic Mills of Madras, the management had made arrangements in conjunction with the Indian Tea Marketing Board for a tea canteen which supplied a daily cup of tea to all workers at 4 annas per month. By 1943, as the factories Act: Administration report recorded, scores of mills across Tamilnadu, in Coimbatore, Madurai, Tuticorin, Tiruchi and Madras, served only tea to its workers. Only the Hindu, the acknowledged seat of Brahmin-hood, served coffee to its press workers."
The author also makes an important point about tea being widely consumed cutting across caste and class barriers in north india. I have experienced this personally. Tea is the staple drink in my mess at IIT Delhi. Coffee is provided only during special dinners. Contrast this with NIT Surathkal where there was an option between tea and coffee. Of course plain milk is an option in both places. (except that at the NIT we had to obtain a special permit to get plain milk).
The concluding remarks of this chapter draw the contrast between coffee and tea in the following manner, "..If, as we have seen earlier, the coffee hotel was seen as a Brahmin institution,and serving and consuming good coffee a Brahmin habit, tea had another derisive association apart from its working-class patronage. To this day, it is generally accepted that the best tea can be had only at Muslim households and non-vegetarian restaurants, run often by muslims (popularly called 'military hotels')...."
Such is the brilliance of this historian's writing. Now, if only our history textbooks were so interesting!!! I pat myself on my back for selecting this book and expect your congratulations too, my dear reader.(my, my, what a modest man I am!!!)
Looking forward to writing the second installment of this series, and hope that you are looking forward to reading it..........