The iconic Indian Coffee House in Puducherry, that inspired Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi, is back in business and aspires to be a model for branches across the country

It is the capacious green cane chairs that Gautam remembers best. The posters that adorned the walls in 1960 are vivid in Ajit’s memory. The decorous stride of men with imposing turbans brings to mind memories of a lost era for Selvam. But it is the coffee and the conversations, that make all of them gush.

The Indian Coffee House, on Jawaharlal Nehru Street, has just opened the doors of its restored heritage building, after a five-year hiatus. Ordinary brown plastic chairs and Formica-topped tables have elbowed out the elegant cane to create more space, the LED lights are a cost-cutting measure, and the famed brew of yore seems to have lost some of its aroma. But the pale green walls, the whirring fans, the wooden rafters and the unhurried air are all there — hoping to recreate a much simpler time when people who had time to stop, to share a coffee and chat.

The coffee houses in Kolkata and Kerala were said to be home to intellectual and literary circles. The one on Nehru Street had its singular aura, inspired by the unique mix that is Puducherry — Ashram residents, Aurovillians, Pondicherrians, expats and tourists. Though its days of glory were in the sixties and seventies, the ICH here acquired international fame when it appeared in a book that regularly makes it to ‘best books’ lists. Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi began here. “I was at the Indian Coffee House on Nehru Street. It is one big room with green walls and a high ceiling…You sit where you can, with whoever is at a table,” he wrote.

It is this brand that Ajit Koujalgi, co-convenor, INTACH, who is at the helm of the restoration project, feels the coffee house must build on. “We have tried to maintain the essence, with a little value addition.” It was a conscious decision to retain the ground floor ambience of the Franco-Tamil building, says Arul, the architect involved in its restoration. But the first floor will soon offer air-conditioned service with WiFi, a move to attract the young, savvy coffee-drinker,

“We hope through restoration and modernisation, the ICH can be developed as a model for the rest of the coffee houses in India,” says Ajit. At the same time, it is important to keep an eye on the quality of food and service. A self-proclaimed coffee-house addict in his youth, Ajit says, “It was not just a place to have a vada or coffee. It was where you went when you were sure to meet an old friend or strike up a new friendship.”

“There was Mathur Café down the road and Café Lune on Suffren Street, but nowhere could you order a coffee and sit down for hours to talk like at the coffee house,” recalls Goutam, who used to be a regular visitor.

When a proposal to demolish the 50-year-old building came up five years ago, a group of aficionados, appealed for restoration instead. The Chief Minister complied with the request. “The CM used to come here regularly as a student,” says a member of the staff.

“Our old customers are returning,” says a thrilled Vijayan, manager, for three decades. The temporary location in a basement on the opposite side of the street did not find favour with many, but the restored building with its lime-green walls and bright blue balconies can hardly be missed and business has doubled.

“The regulars return as they are addicted to our coffee — it is prepared without chicory.” But there are no dabaras here “That’s our signature — we have always used the white ceramic cups, though they get chipped easily,” says Krishnan, a staff.

Though the taste of the coffee has changed since 1970, the affordable food (coffee at Rs. 15 and dosa at Rs. 30) brings businessman Selvaganapthi here right everyday, from 1970. “I come here twice or thrice a day to meet up with friends.”

“The Indian coffee house has been a landmark in Pondicherry,” shares Ganesan deputy registrar, department of co-operative societies. “It was part of local conversations when people used to say, ‘I’ll meet you in front of the coffee house.’”

As much as it has changed, I realise Martel had a point when he wrote, “The coffee is good and they serve French toast. Conversation is easy to come by.” I leave after a second cup of coffee with two people I’ve never met, and an e-mail address of a new acquaintance — all under an hour.

There’s something in the air, perhaps the ghosts of old conversations or the shadows of moments when strangers became friends or just the fact that when there is a cup of coffee on the table, anything can happen.

Café Trivia

1. The coffee house on Nehru Street is the oldest and the headquarters of the Tamil Nadu-Puducherry branch of the Indian Coffee House (ICH).

2. While Indian coffee house branches across the country are known for mutton cutlets and other non-vegetarian dishes, only vegetarian is served here, with the exception of scrambled eggs and French toast.

3. On the walls are pictures of the Mahatma and A. K. Gopalan — fixtures at all branches. But Nehru occupies pride of place — only you may not recognise him at first sight — for his trademark cap is missing. This picture reportedly hangs in very coffee house. But the photograph was clicked in Puducherry during his visit here. It is said his cap flew away when the picture was clicked.

4. The coffee house in Pondy has also eschewed the grand turbans and full-sleeved shirts in favour of white trousers and shirts.

5. What is the best bet here? Vegetable cutlet and masala dosa, we hear. And of course the coffee!

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Puducherry MetroPlusJanuary 31, 2014