Cafés with coffins in Ahmedabad and London

IN CENTRAL AHMEDABAD, a large city in India’s state of Gujarat, there is a curious café called Lucky. This popular eatery is not unusual because it does not serve coffee but because its tables and chairs are placed between Moslem graves. Lucky’s is sited on an old Moslem graveyard, but this does not put off a steady flow of customers from enjoying a wide variety of vegetarian snacks in this eatery. Closer to home, near the south side of London’s Lambeth Bridge, there is another café sited on a former graveyard. Unlike Lucky in Ahmedabad, which is housed in an architecturally unremarkable building, the café in Lambeth, The Garden Museum Café, is a marvellous example of contemporary architecture.

Café at The Garden Museum in London

The café, completed in 2018, is at the east end of the Church of St Marys, Lambeth, which now serves as the home of The Garden Museum. The church stands next to the main Tudor entrance of Lambeth Palace. The tower was built in about 1378. The rest of the church contains structural elements that were built in later eras. Appropriately for a museum dedicated to gardening history, the repurposed Church of St Mary’s is the burial place of the famous gardener and plant collector, John Tradescant the Elder (c1570s-1638). It is also the final resting place of Captain William Bligh (1754-1817) of The Bounty Mutiny (1789) fame. This famous mariner owned a house in Lambeth. Customers of the café do not sit on the graves of these two well-known persons, but on gravestones that, unlike the graves at Lucky in Ahmedabad which are raised above the ground, are level with the rest of the café’s floor.

The graves at Lucky in Ahmedabad are coffin shaped and probably contain the remains of the deceased. I am not sure whether there are human remains beneath the grave slabs in the floor of the café in Lambeth. A young waiter, whom I asked, was concerned to reassure me that he believed that there are no skeletons beneath the gravestones upon which customers walk and sit. I wonder whether this is really the case.

The Garden Museum was founded in 1977 by Rosemary and John Nicholson in order to preserve the church, which was due for demolition (https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/the-museum/history/). In 2015, the museum was closed for a year and a half whilst it was being redeveloped. Part of the improvements made was the construction of an extension at the eastern end of the retired church. The new construction, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and Dan Pearson, includes the café and other structures that together surround a new courtyard that contains a lovely garden, The Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. It contains several tombs including that of the Tradescant family and of Captain Bligh.

The café borders the western side of the courtyard. Its mainly glass walls provide good views of the garden, the buildings across the river and the leafy remains of the churchyard west of the café. Where there is no glass, the walls are covered with overlapping brown coloured metal panels. Serving great coffee and both snacks and meals, the legs of the chairs and tables rest on the gravestones that form part of the floor.

Compared with Lucky, which is in a very busy part of Ahmedabad, the Garden Museum café, although close to a busy main road, is far more peaceful. However, both are delightful places to enjoy refreshments.

Tragedy at the tombs

The Paigah family were involved in ruling the Princely State of Hyderabad in the 18th century. Most of the family is buried within beautiful tombs in a peaceful area south of central Hyderabad

After visiting the collection of tombs, we waited in the rustic street that leads from them to a big highway. Cocks, hens,and goats roamed around. Eventually, an autorickshaw (‘auto’) arrived. We hailed it, then boarded it.

Before heading out of the rustic enclave, our driver stopped by the entrance to a yard. A little boy approached and greeted his father, our driver. The latter gave his son a package. It was rotis, which the driver had specially fetched for his mother. The boy took them indoors to his grandmother and returned to wave goodbye to his dad and us.

We left the area and began speeding along busy main roads towards the city centre.

The auto driver’s mobile phone rang. He pulled up by the side of the road, and answered it. Immediately, he burst into tears, crying uncontrollably.

We asked him what was wrong. He told us that his mother had just died.

Our driver resumed driving. Every few seconds, he wiped tears from his eyes. We told him that we were very sorry for him, and that he must return home. He did so, but only after making sure that we were safely aboard another auto to take us to our destination.

Even though we did not know him from Adam and are unlikely ever to meet him again, his grief was infectious, palpable.