In the former Raj hill station of Shimla, where sweaty beetroot-cheeked Brits once flocked to escape the blistering heat of the plains, there exists an absolute gem of a coffee house. And not one of those fancy identi-kit modern coffee bars with imported Arabica, beige abstract paintings on the wall, sumptuous faux-leather armchairs, and petite almond biscuits, nope, this is the real deal.
Frozen in time, suspended in the nineteen-sixties, the Indian Coffee House is a bubble of old world delight. The posters advertising the merits of Indian coffee are faded, smiling and cracked faces looming down on you; the framed picture of Gandhi is distorted by dust, even the wall-hung menus are museum pieces. And it has an air of properness too: a top button done up when it would be far more comfortable to have it undone.
It feels like you are sipping and slurping within a sepia photograph, the yellow-brown filter of age omnipresent. Two gas heaters pump out warmth from the middle of the room where waiters hover surreptitiously close to the three blue-orange bars, with their be-feathered caps and starched white uniforms.
Old couples and refined Indian gentleman sit in the ancient furniture (they don’t recline, nestle, or sink – the hard contours force them to be upright, to take on the burden of respectability) and talk, read the newspaper, laugh, muse gently on just what the day ahead might hold. The waiters ask only one question to each new diner – “Coffee?” Once this simple but essential point is established, anything from a two egg omelette with buttered toast to a masala dosa can be obtained. But first, the coffee.
I enjoy two rounds of coffee each morning. Not so much for the coffee, but for the atmosphere and the opportunity to be, for however brief a moment, part of an institution that is cemented in so many peoples’ routines. If I lived here it would feature at least twice in my day, morning and evening, sandwiching the events of my day like two dependable antique and much-loved bookends.