Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Politics of Coffee Drinking: Filter Coffee Column in Kindle Magazine this Month

This had to happen. With a column called Filter Coffee, it was only a matter of time before the subject happened to be coffee itself. In Kindle magazine this month, I write on the politics of coffee drinking in our Southern states. Read it here or see below.

Coffee means a lot of things to a lot of people: a shot of energy, a family tradition, hospitality, regional heritage, or a caste privilege, for example. Deepa Bhasthi muses on the customs and power-dynamics of the favourite drink of a people.

First you boil the milk. Do not add water. Pour, and stretch it with a clever, practiced flick of the wrist, from the vessel to a tall steel glass and back and forth till it is frothy. (I do not add sugar to my coffee) Add the decoction – from coffee powder from a particular shop in town, 70% coffee, 30% chichory - to taste. NEVER bring to boil after adding the decoction. Pour into a mug with a stretch of the hand again, so there is froth, so a layer of yellow cream doesn’t work itself into a formation on top, so the coffee stays hot longer.
That is how my mother always says a good coffee is made. Her coffee is rather famous in family circles. So I suppose she is right.

I try to make coffee like hers sometimes. But sometimes there isn’t time (and added lack of interest to do so) to stretch the milk into this glass and back to that pan and so on.

Most times I don’t buy milk. These days only black coffee, only slightly watered down for proprietary’s sake, without a grain of sugar, cuts it. If faraway family visited and I served them that coffee, even if the powder was from that particular shop in town, they would think I was poor, a poor struggling writer who couldn’t spare for milk and sugar.

What would they know that black coffee is the artists’ elected drink for times when harder liquids aren’t on the table?

Jaggery is much cheaper than sugars, brown or white. It sweetens the house of those who work for us in estates where they pick the coffees we dry, pulp, sell, roast, powder, blend and make into decoction for the mornings.

Across the district where the beans are grown in fragrant, well lined estates under the shade of pepper vines, ‘writers’ supervise the rest of the labour force, harder every passing year to get on the payrolls. They are merely the literate among the unlettered, they maintain the books of account, who gets paid what, how many bags of beans one day to the next. Their wives when we visited served bella-kaapi, thin milk coffee with shreds of jaggery that my mother insisted I drink quietly, even if I wasn’t used to the unusual taste. It was rude to refuse, just because we had sugar in our house.

To recreate traditional cuisine, for themed parties in homes with well-travelled friends, we place bella-kaapi before them with the veneer reserved for the exotic voyeur tourism that is always in fashion. In homes of writers’, it is still a sign of unaffordability.
The Hindu newspaper is deemed a morning ritual in several South Indian homes. It is one of those Madrasi clich├ęs, a white-lungi- filter-coffee-in-steel-tumbler routine. It is unvarying, hereditary like the four varnas and their innumerable offshoots that choke the assumption of secularity this country, most of us, try to pretend to embrace, and regularly fail.

The suitable boy begins to emulate the elders. A suitable public image for him is where he just “is”, oiled hair, newspaper in hand, coffee ordered with a bark at the low caste waiter. The low caste waiter brings forth, with a slight quivering hand, coffee filled in a steel tumbler and inverted on to a steel bowl, to keep it hot. He will stretch his hand and keep the coffee on the edge of the table, lest his fingers brush against the suitable boy’s. The first few times, the boy will invert the glass in a hurry and spill the coffee, but he will soon learn to do it right. He will never meet the waiter’s eye. So what if he made the coffee and washed the cups that the boy, his father, the caste elders drink out of? Surely you can’t let his fingers touch you, especially not on a Monday.

“Some things are just not done. That is how it has always been.” The suitable boy will learn this. Even if he reads The Hindu and the other liberals every day. Why mix these things, when this is how it has always been, he will wonder.

Over 4,000 kms from the south, in villages of Meghalaya, they have a story. The story tells of a poor couple who invited a rich friend for lunch. Ashamed that there is no food to serve the guest, the wife kills herself. The husband goes to see what’s taking her so long, sees her dead and kills himself. The rich guest peeps in to see what’s taking them so long, realizes what has happened and ashamed that they died because of him, also kills himself. A thief, escaping villagers, enters the house, finds it quiet, rests there till morning, sees the gore in the kitchen and assuming that the villagers will think he killed the three, also kills himself. The Khasi elders, in whose community this tragedy transpires, consult at the dorbor and decide that from then on, rich or poor, every household will offer all guests the inexpensive betel nut, betel leaf and lime.

I wonder what the story behind coffee is in houses rich or poor. There must be one. Human beings are after all made of stories.

In the thin land of waterways, houseboats, coconuts, fish and Communist men, Che Guevara overlooks the proceedings of party meetings. Sagave! Viplavam Jaikatte! Comrade! Victory to the Revolution! Kattan chaya or black tea charges the party workers. Not coffee, I’m told. But then they grow a lot of tea there, perhaps that’s why. Who determines these drinks and community habits? Did the state assign the workers tea?

Neighbouring Kodagu where most of India’s coffee comes from, also mainly drinks tea. It’s hard to explain why. It can’t be economics. Single malts and Old Monks are brought out after hours. The morning after, doesn’t coffee work well enough? The British left behind the expansive coffee estates; it is very British to drink a cup of tea. Perhaps that’s why.

Apart from tea, coffee is a drink (leaving alcohol, varying reactions to it aside) which doesn’t supply any nutrients to your body. They say it can cut risk of cancer. They say it can give you cancer. Have the scientists made up their minds yet?

Coffee. Its varieties, many, many varieties. Like the many, many parts of routine rarely singled out to examine, to culturally anthropologize, coffee is many things at once, a definer, a separator, a unifier. I suspect cultural conditioning might have something to do with it, but as your years go by, coffee becomes one of the few stable, reliable pick-me-ups in daily lives.

“Some things are just done. That is how it has always been.”

A tall mug of dark black coffee, without sugar, slightly watered down, with the morning newspaper.

1 comment:

Sudha Marakini said...

While making coffee if we use buffalo milk & fresh decoction then the taste of the coffee is wonderful.