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More than just coffee 'n snacks

The Indian Coffee House is more than a coffee place to many who frequent it. These joints in Kochi function as meeting places, where people unwind and also where many politicians mull over the next step, all before a cuppa. JOHNY PAZHANILATH meets a few who get nostalgic about the Indian Coffee House

MR. R.K.NAIR IS an addict. A leading criminal advocate in Kochi, he has been known for his addiction for the past 25 years. Interestingly he picked up this addictive habit while he was a student of the Ernakulam Law College three decades ago. Today, his colleagues know his weakness and take advantage of it, to discuss legal matter over his favourite mood elevator.

Interestingly, the case of Mr. Nair is not an isolated one. Since 1958, many Kochiites have been getting addicted to this drink, known for its rich aroma and strong flavour, served in Kochi's good old hubs. Now, if you think it's a heady brew, you are mistaken. It's unblended steamy coffee served in Kerala's premier coffee shop chain called Indian Coffee House (ICH).

Indian Coffee House, over the past 44 years, has been the most sought - after coffee nook in Kochi. Primarily for the pure taste of its coffee, and then its club-like ambience alive with smoke and small talk, where one can sit comfortably chatting and cracking jokes.

Founded by Kerala's legendary communist leader AKG in 1958 in Thrissur, the Indian Coffee Workers Co-Operative Society Federation today has 52 coffee shops and 1,809 employees in Kerala. And its strong presence across India, especially in Calcutta, has gained ICH a nation-wide recognition among tourists. While labour unrest and trade union militancy have put a spoke in many profit-making ventures, the ICH had no such haunting issues. "There is no politics here. It's a society of Indian Coffee Workers, and we get all the benefits and promotions in time", says ICH manager, Mr.Maniyappan.

Just how much politics and social issues can one discuss over a cup of hot coffee for Rs. 3.50? Well, for those regulars who occupy their favourite corner table, it is unbelievably unlimited unless some unrelenting `chotta' politician's pounding fist spills the coffee over an embarrassed customer sitting next to him.

The ICH had been once the safe rendezvous of many mild-mannered sales executives, bespectacled intellectuals, fist-pounding politicians, absent-minded professors, legal luminaries, small -time businessmen and, of course, insatiable book worms, who used to sit for hours, devouring words, just for Rs.3.50 for a coffee until the annoyed cashier started staring at him.

Since the 50's, Kochiites have been enjoying this unblended rich coffee served by amiable ICH waiters clad in stiffly - starched uniform in a classical ambience, unique to ICH. Its liveried attendants, warm, dust-free interiors, and good old wooden furniture et al were considered by many to be the right settings for a perfect coffee break. When eating out was not so common in Kochi, ICH was considered to be an exclusive domain of the fashionable. Today, even after four decades, the addictive taste of Indian Coffee and the coffee shop's nostalgic interiors continue to lure many.

"The lingering taste of ICH filter coffee that we used to enjoy during the 60's has not changed even today", says Mr.Janardhanan , a retired English Professor in Kochi.

Before the star hotels' invasion into Kochi, ICH had the luxurious western concept of `pot coffee'. The hotel offered a set of hot milk, sugar, coffee decoction and spoon on a platter for the customer to make his own coffee according to his taste. It had in fact, raised many eyebrows as the Malayali was not used to it. "Its royal service, inimitable food quality and impeccable neatness are what made ICH the best hotel choice in Kerala", says Mr.Ramachandran Kartha, another addict of Indian Coffee.

"I still remember the days when Indian Coffee distributed free coffees in the Subhash Park to propagate and market Indian Coffee", recalls Mr.Kartha.

Many flock to the ICH to spend a lingering coffee break over a hot, filter coffee, predictably to be followed by yet another one. It is just the kind of place they like to unwind, after hectic work schedules. Many of them are regulars who occupy their favourite tables, draining cups of coffee. ICH has always been the den of some select groups. "In ICH, one can see a cross section of our society", says Mr.V.D.Ajayan, a Financial Consultant of Cochin Stock Exchange. "It's so easy to make friends here. Regulars meet every day and you cannot find the camaraderie and bonhomie found in ICH Coffee groups in any other restaurant or club".

"News also takes wings here. We get all kinds of news fresh here as we've customers coming from different walks of life" claims Mr. Unnikrishnan, a waiter with 24 years' service. Like the `news service' an active rumour mill also works among the groups that assemble under the roof of ICH. More than a coffee shop, ICH has been a safe rendezvous for many those make a living with politics. For a budding politician of a national party who manifests himself before the ICH as its shutter goes up in the morning and remote controls his operations over a cup of hot coffee, the restaurant has been the safe joint to meet his clients. "Everyday many people come here in search of him and most of them have our telephone number to contact him." reveals the manager with a chuckle. For those unemployed who frequent ICH, the coffee shop works as a placement bureau too. "Job vacancies are discussed over a cup of hot coffee. And most often, interview and placement also take place across the table." reveals Mr. P. Suresh Kumar, manager of Mayo Pharma in Kochi.

Since the inception of ICH, 44 years have passed. Of course, Kochi has undergone a sea-change. Many who were once regulars to ICH have become ministers, chief ministers, super stars, writers, legal experts and social heroes. But the ICH continues to be the same. The same old coffee. The same old tradition. And of course, the same old smiling, turbaned waiters.

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