Surveying its mismatched chairs and spare, functional decor, you wouldn’t imagine that Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place (CP), New Delhi, is particularly dangerous. In the 1970s, however, the Indian government disagreed. While there are several hundred Indian Coffee Houses in India, part of a worker-owned cooperative, the Delhi branch was the only location to be shut down under the “Emergency,” a nearly two-year suspension of civil liberties under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. While some say its glory days have passed, Indian Coffee House’s Connaught Place location still retains its gaggles of intellectuals and old-school charm.
Connaught Place, the center of the British colonial city of New Delhi and a current-day shopping hub, is now full of glossy global brands, including a popular Starbucks. Half a block away from the air-conditioned storefronts, however, you’ll find Mohan Singh Place, a building that seems to have been suspended in time. The first couple floors are home to a thriving clothing market. The top floor is Indian Coffee House. Established in 1957 as the first Indian Coffee House in the country, the CP Coffee House’s vibrant atmosphere of intellectual discussion embodied India’s postcolonial socialist ethos under prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Connaught Place location has also played a unique role in India’s political history. Staff claim that the location was a favorite haunt of at least nine prime ministers. Its atmosphere of political adda—long-form intellectual conversation—attracted the ire of the Indian government in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government suspended civil freedoms. During the political upheaval, the CP location was shut down; some say that Sanjay Gandhi, the prime minister’s son, personally ordered the closure. The building’s old location in the middle of Connaught Place was demolished, though the Coffee House was re-opened at Mohan Singh Place soon after, where it remains to this day.
Today, India Coffee House retains the no-frills atmosphere typical of establishments from the Nehruvian Socialist era, with a touch of faded glory. Mismatched chairs bleed stuffing. Layers of hand-painted signs fade from the walls. The fans swirly lazily and the waiters are in no rush. The menu, consisting of time-tested tea snacks such as dosas, omelettes, and finger chips (french fries), boasts retro pricing: A cup of coffee costs 40 rupees ($0.56), compared to the 200 or so rupees ($2.82) one might pay at a global coffee chain. The tradition of intellectual vibrancy persists. Table full of older men deep in discussion, some of whom may well have been here since the ’70s, are interspersed with young intellectual types chatting or having a bite to eat after a protest. Time doesn’t pass quickly at the Indian Coffee House, so slow down and enjoy a cup.