To be honest, I am not a ‘coffee’ person; I drink coffee primarily because I am a ‘not tea’ person. So, I am quite a stranger to the oodles of fondness for the fresh aroma of just brewed coffee, the lilt of its swirl, and the lingering of its addictive taste. I do not revel in the beauty of classic coffee or the picturesque coffee plantations, and I have tried hard to find romance in the cosiest of cafés in my reach. And no, I do not think of a piping hot cup of coffee when it rains.
So why write about coffee on International Coffee Day when its not quite the object of affection? I could perhaps counter the beverage, or worse, its drinkers, with some unnoticed downsides (if any) to the coffee phenomenon. I could argue why coffee is overrated, much to the satisfaction of hardcore tea lovers who lament the rise of coffee over the royal liquid. Yet I won’t, because the point is not to berate coffee in the (entirely unnecessary) coffee v. tea debate.
Over the years, as a coffee-neutralist, I have come to develop an as-per-need relationship with coffee. It might not have delighted me and gotten me to fall in love with it, but it has addressed my challenges, handled awkward social situations and served my needs well.
Can you imagine two typically middle-class Indian families meeting without tea? I can’t. At countless such visits, I have sparked expressions ranging from raised eyebrows to sympathetic exclamations whenever I have – politely – denied tea. My feeble “not at all” to the loaded question “just today or you don’t drink tea at all?” has further complicated the situation.
It is here that coffee has stepped up to my rescue. A wizened old granny has often had the wisdom to suggest a “she might have coffee, ask her” and save the day. Happy endings, in real life, consist of families sitting together and sipping on steaming cups of tea; coffee has saved me time and again from being the party pooper.
Growing up, coffee developed new meanings and opened up new avenues. At college, coffee was the path to just about everything. Want to make friends? Break the ice over coffee. Need notes? Ask over coffee. Wish to gossip? Head to the nearest café. Want to waste time? Keep sipping.
The only area which coffee could not cater to was dating; as someone who sincerely loved food, I found it essential that the prospective suitor and I bonded over food, and not some lone cup of frothy beverage going cold before going down my throat. To date meant to hold hands over (under) a table teeming with food, and that, no café could truly muster.
And yet, through its absence, coffee turned out to be a filter in my life. It told me that boys who did not show interest in food and insisted on meeting over a “cup of coffee” were actually a waste of my time. Coffee uncomplicated the dating scene for me, and that by itself is no mean feat.
Beyond college, coffee has been a great connector. Meals, especially in India, do not always work; they are usually rich, elaborate and long, meant to slow down the pace of life and indulge in it through tastefully laid out intricacies. Coffee is quick, brief, professional and to the point – just as any work conversation should be. Also, cafés are cost effective, and in most Indian cities where neutral spaces designed for the sole intention of conversations are almost non-existent, they are important in enabling people to meet formally with minimum costs and hassles.
Coffee marks many important conversations and decisions in my short professional life. One of the earliest connections it got me was with an eventual boss who, with her bright and motivating presence, had me sign up for an internship in her office, a few floors above the café, before I knew it. The internship culminated into a friendship that persists, and a meeting over a coffee definitely has something to do with it.
Over the past few years, coffee has connected me to several people and expanded my network – corporates, activists, professors, freelancers, entrepreneurs and leaders. Countless cups of coffee are witness to the ideas, stories, rants, arguments, dreams, compliments, jokes, sympathies, possibilities and opportunities we have exchanged.
It was over coffee that I shook hands with the professor who guided my masters’ thesis. It was over coffee that I overcame my fears of travelling along a river alone. And it was over a coffee that I resigned, with great sadness, from a job I used to prize.
Life moves on. I keep encountering people and ideas, weaving in and out of my personal and professional life. Friends move abroad, get married, or fade into the background. Close circles have made peace with the fact that I do not drink tea.
I see all three through the coffee-smeared cup or glass on the table. It is here that we establish and re-establish conversations that would otherwise be unheard in the din of the world. Be it steaming, frothing or freezing, every version of the convenient beverage is the key that unlocks doors of the past, present and future.
Coffee may not buy me love or money, but it can certainly buy me conversations and threads of life that are threatened by realism and the tangle of the virtual world.
I do not love coffee. It seldom invigorates me; I mock the overpricing, and I do not give two hoots about its nuances. However, I owe coffee a lot. It has helped me open windows and put my foot in the door. It has helped me chalk new paths and learn of new destinations. It has helped me relax and bond and stand up and move on. It has helped me transit and adapt, while at the same time, retain a bit of the old comfort.
And it will continue to. Certainly, a lot does happen over a coffee.
(This was first published in The Tilak Chronicle.)
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.