BJP and Bagga’s stunt of storming the College Street Coffee House has come back to haunt them

When BJP activists stormed Indian Coffee House in Calcutta, people saw red. Posters of ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign were restored and fresh ones reminded BJP of the culture of debates at the Coffee House

BJP and Bagga’s stunt of storming the College Street Coffee House has come back to haunt them

Nazma Parveen

It was an affront. When BJP activists led by the notorious Tejinder Bagga stormed the Indian Coffee House in Calcutta on Monday this week, people saw red.

Clad in saffron coloured T-shirts, BJP supporters tore down posters put up by the ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign. Launched in January by people who say they do not care who people vote for, as long as they don’t for the ‘fascist BJP’, the campaign appears to have rattled the party. Never known for engaging in public debates, the activists by their rowdy behaviour and slogan shouting outraged coffee house fans. They deemed it a sacrilege even as BJP’s eco-chamber triumphantly claimed victory for successfully storming the left-liberal bastion.

It was short lived. Fresh ‘Anti-fascist’ and ‘No Vote to BJP’ posters were swiftly pasted back on the walls. The juvenile stunt by Bagga & company, it was pointed out, vindicated the charge that BJP revelled in a disruptive culture and anti-BJP activists got together to take out a rally against the BJP.

BJP and Bagga underestimated the emotional pull that the ‘College Street Coffee House’ as it is known to differentiate it from other branches has exercised over generations of Bengalis. Ever since the Coffee House was set up in 1942 in the vicinity of Calcutta University and Presidency College, it drew passionate youth, students, writers, poets and artists besides activists who all wanted to usher in positive changes. It was always a secular place, embraced fierce debates and claims a galaxy of icons and legends as its patrons.

The heritage building, once home to philosopher and social reformer Keshab Chandra Sen, over the years hosted among others Satyajit Ray, Aparna Sen and Amartya Sen. Before independence it hosted many brainstorming sessions of Indian revolutionaries.

In an interview, celebrated author Sunil Gangopadhyay, who stopped going to the Coffee House because he felt it should be left for the younger lot, recalled, ‘The poets had their own table, the short story writers theirs, and the film-makers their own. Artists Prakash Karmakar and Bikash Bhattacharjee and playwright Mohit Chattopadhyay would be around.’

Poet Buddhadeb Bose, it is said, once invited American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) to Coffee House. Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky), recalled old-timers, appeared suddenly with Ginsberg shouting: ‘Where is Shakti? Where is Sunil?’

Some thirty years ago Manna Dey sung a song that still haunts Bengali TV and music channels. Hailed as an anthem to the Coffee House, it is a lament for the golden hours in the Coffee House spent by an old-timer and his friends…the lyrics by Gouri Prasanna Mazumdar are still being hummed by a generation which had not taken birth when the lines were written: Coffee House-er shei adda-ta aar neiaaj aar nei

Translations do little justice to the song. But to give people some idea, the first two lines are roughly on these lines:

“Adda at the coffee-house is no longer there today

No longer there today Where have those golden afternoon hours disappeared

They are no longer there today...”

Adda is integral to the culture of the argumentative Bengali. It is as sacred as food. Over cups of tea or coffee and light snacks, the adda can be light-hearted banter or spiral into hot, angry exchanges. It can be on anything under the sun ranging from food, films, sports, literature, history or politics and the upcoming society tournament. It is food for the mind and indispensable for his health.

While the right amount of saffron helps to enhance the flavour of every dish, used in excess, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. BJP and Bagga’s saffron stunt did not go down too well. Coffee House, Bagga Ji, is less about coffee and more about ideas and debates.

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Published: 19 Mar 2021, 12:28 PM