Industrial action and a library

The Madras Gymkhana Club library was not devoid of interest. To enter it, one has to climb over a tall step. This is designed to protect the library when rainfall causes flooding of the Club’s grounds which are on low lying land close to the Adyar River estuary.

Another interesting feature was pinned to the shirt of one of the library staff. It was a rectangular plastic badge with a hammer and sickle on both of its sides. One side had words in Tamil, and the other in English. These words explain to the reader that there was a grievance between the staff and their employers, The Club. The problem about which the employees were protesting concerned pay. Seeing these badges of protest reminded me of a visit to Nizam’s restaurant in Kolkata a few years ago. There, the waiters were wearing similar badges, some in Bengali, some in Hindi, and others in English.

As for the library, it seemed well stocked with books and journals. Several old books were being sold, and there were three that I could not resist!

A fine old coffee house with waiters in turbans

WHEN I FIRST VISITED Bangalore in 1994, there was a coffee house on MG Road close to the now derelict Srungar Shopping Complex. This venerable ‘hole in the wall’ was a branch of the Indian Coffee House (‘ICH’) chain. In both appearance and atmosphere it reminded me of some of the older coffee houses I had seen in Yugoslavia when it was still a country.

Customers sat at old wooden tables on wooden benches with upright hard backrests. Old Coffee Board posters hung on the walls. The waiters were dresses in grubby white jackets and trousers held up by an extremely wide red and gold belt with huge buckles that bore the logo of the ICB. These gentlemen wore white turbans with red and gold ribbons on their heads. On addition to rather average quality South Indian filter coffee, a variety of snacks and cold drinks were also available.

During the British occupation of India, admission to most coffee houses was restricted to European clients. In the late 1890s, the idea of establishing an ICH chain of coffee houses for Indian customers began to be considered. In 1936, the India Coffee Board opened the first ICH in Bombay’s Churchgate area By the 1940s, there were at least 50 branches all over what was then British India.

In the mid 1950s, the ICHs were closed by the Coffee Board. The Communist leader AK Gopalan (1904-1977) and the Coffee Board workers managed to get the Coffee Board to hand over the ICH outlets to them, and they formed a series of Indian Coffee Workers’ Co-operatives. The cooperative on Bangalore was formed in August 1957. There are now several branches in the city.

The MG Road branch, which opened in 1959, closed in 2009, at about the sane time as the nearby Srungar Complex began becoming closed for redevelopment, which has not yet happened.

The branch reopened in the Brigade Gardens complex on Church Street. Apart from being accommodated in a room which is rather nondescript compared to its former home, not much has changed as a result of the move to a new location. The furniture is that which was in the older site. Likewise, the old posters have been transferred. And the waiters are still attired in their stained white uniforms with belt, buckle, and turbans. The ‘atmosphere’ of the old ICH on MG Road has been recreated or maybe continued in the coffee house’s new premises. The quality of the coffee served has neither improved nor deteriorated. The ICH remains as popular as ever, and for me it is always a pleasure to enter this old-fashioned place in a city that is addicted to change.