Once bustling with arguments on politics and art, the Indian Coffee House and Kerala Cafe in Allahabad stand as pale reminders of a glorious past

N. Gopalan Nair arrived in Allahabad in 1967 during the heyday of the Socialist movement. He was brought here as an aide by a Keralite woman, the second wife of an Allahabad-based doctor who again was Jawaharlal Nehru’s classmate.

Thereafter, he joined the staff at the Indian Coffee House (ICH), the famous chain of cooperative-run-restaurants. Within a decade, he gained enough experience and ambition to start his own little cafe, some distance away from ICH. A kind man let out his plot to Nair without any rental and the ICH general manager helped him acquire the necessary permits for the setup. He called it Kerala Cafe, after his home State.

“I had to make a choice, to see a better future for my children,” says 68-year-old Nair, who despite harbouring academic ambitions had been compelled by economic constraints to drop out in class VI.

Nairji, as he is respectfully called, stands barely over five feet. He prefers simple clothing, is terse with his words — using fluent Hindi with a calming Malayalam tone, and rarely loses his smile.  His tiny cafe is a replica of his character and attachment to Idukki, his birthplace, known for its rugged mountains and forests.

Its walls are green. The roof is green. So are the cupboards, the wooden frames, the pipelines and the grills. Two plain Malayali calendars, eight plastic chairs and two tables, and an old fashioned television set make up the furniture.

Even at its largest, it could have never been as airy as the ICH. But, through the 70s to the late 80s, when it was tasteful to sit for hours and discuss politics and arts, Kerala Cafe shared some of the illustrious crowd of ICH. Prominent Socialists like Gnaneshwar Mishra, renowned politicians, future Chief Ministers, High Court judges, advocates and Allahabad University professors would frequent Nair’s cafe. He was backed by a formidable staff, which filled in demands of birthday and marriage parties on a regular basis. Unfortunately, today, much has changed.

The Kerala Cafe signboard is missing, and the cafe has no proof of its once popular existence. A much ordinary board, listing a handful of items Nair can prepare himself stands clumsily in the small compound outside the cafe.

Not keeping a commercial signboard saves Nair water and electricity tax, things he can no longer afford to pay. With the menu, the quality of items has also been compromised. The coffee no longer comes from the agents in Bangalore but from the nearest retailer in Allahabad, instant coffee replacing the natural, southern brew. “Natural coffee turns stale if not used regularly. Since sale is poor, Bru coffee works fine,” he smiles.

Nair can also no longer afford to keep staff and serves the customers himself. He was kind enough to offer me a plate of upma and Kerala style omelette. He has few customers today.

To add to his worries, he is close to a legal battle with the daughter of the landlord, who gave away the plot to Nair. He got the plot by word and has no documentary proof. Yet, he won’t budge. The city is his home, and the cafe his family. “There are around 1,000 Malayalis in the city. So I don’t feel left out. We celebrate Onam together, and gather at the Nair temple on the western fringes of the city,” he says.

Fortunately for him, the son of a ship merchant, some of the risks have paid off. His children are well educated and happily married. His elder daughter even helps him with the maintenance.

But one can rarely live for 60 odd years and not keep regrets. He feels he could have earned a little more. And he wishes he had visited his only brother in Kerala more often. He has gone back home just once, that, too, for his marriage. But there is no money for the travel. “I only earned goodwill, nothing else,” he says, smilingly, mocking his own fate.

Rather ironically, Nair today shares a lot more with the ICH than he would have predicted some 35 years ago. ICH, once a hub of serious intellectual and political discussions, and poetic imagination, is a shade of its past. It has little to inspire. The decor is untidy, and hardly game for any sort of intellectual activity. A group of men, dressed in clean white kurta pyjamas, probably bearing affiliation to some political party, are having a heated debate. Their rants do not really qualify as meaningful discussion.

Lallan Prasad, a Socialist and a retired Bharat Scout principal, has just finished his coffee and sits alone, wondering how the atmosphere decayed over the years.

The no-smoking sign is clear, yet abusively ignored.  There used to be a signboard at the entrance reading ‘Dogs not allowed’, Prasad remembers. The only dog allowed inside then was the hot dog on the menu. His withdrawing words probably intended to poke cruel humour at the current state of the ICH.

Both the cafes have fallen victim to rapid urbanisation witnessed in Allahabad, the new running over the old, amid a string of changes. The few things retained by the ICH: the high walls, five large fans, a framed photo of Mahatma Gandhi on the facing gallery, the old signboard saying ICH, waiters with fan-tailed headgear and a low-cost menu, minus the hot-dog.  The Kerala Cafe has just a jolly old man to prove its existence.

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