Coffee, A Tribute

Dasu Krishnamoorty

What can be more appropriate than remembering R. K. Narayan, one of those pioneers who discovered the creative properties of coffee, on the World Coffee Day that falls on October 10 ?  His writings, that popularized coffee drinking more than the Coffee Board did, smelt of coffee, more specifically of filter coffee the making of which he so lovingly describes in Coffee Worries. Around coffee, Narayan weaves an entire philosophy glimpses of which surface when some one talks lightly of coffee before him. I agree with him when he says good coffee, brown and fragrant, is not a product achieved in a day. It is the basic minimum for a happy and satisfied existence. For a South Indian of all worries the least tolerable is a coffee worry, he says and defines it as all unhappy speculation around the subject of coffee as a habit, its supplies, its price, its quality, its morality, ethics, economics and so on. When serial killer Auto Shankar was hanged his last wish was appropriately a cup of coffee.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Though Japan is a tea-guzzling country, Haruki Murakami whose novels are full of Panchatantra clones, thinks that the smell of coffee is what separates day from night. The Hindu (Chennai) edition smells of coffee. Delhi lost some of its shine when the coffee house at Mohan Singh Place closed down. For sometime, the Coffee Board served the ambrosia from a van parked outside Hindustan Times building.

One admirer of R.K. lamented that though Mysore was his home, “there is not a road named after him, not a circle [roundabout] named after him. There is, however, a Malgudi Coffee Shop in the upmarket Green Hotel just outside Mysore.” Other littérateurs attribute Narayan’s short story telling genius to his devotion to coffee. Coffee helped him indigenize the English language.

Of any South Indian not proud of his coffee culture you can say, “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said this is my own land, my native land of coffee. Just as it separates night from day, coffee separates the tea-drinking North from the South. One part of contemporary Indian mythology is that when Sherpa Tenzig Norgay reached the summit he was astonished as well as relieved to see a small South Indian kiosk selling coffee.

When I was a kid some cynics from a different civilization recorded a gramophone disc that asked people not to drink coffee. The record had a short life but coffee prospered. Even in Beethoven’s time Europe regarded coffee as a vice. In anger, Johann Sebastian Bach, a notorious coffee fiend, turned an amusing poem by his collaborator, Picander, into The Coffee Cantata in 1732. The cantata mocked public outcry about the rise of the Vienna coffeehouse scene.

Read this Virginia Woolf’s poetic outpouring stoked by coffee: “How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” (From The Waves). There is a whole army of great writers, composers and painters who owe their greatness to drinking coffee as the first thing in the day.

Narayan is not off the mark when he says there are persons who call for a cup of coffee before starting a fresh sentence while writing or conversing. He exempted himself from this crowd when he told Ved Mehta, “You know I find that my pen moves only when I have a betel nut in my mouth.” But he never wrote as tenderly about betel nuts as he had about coffee. In the new twenty-first century thesaraus, coffee and Narayan are synonyms.

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