A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee: Cafes and the Fetishized Subject in 21st Century Kolkata

Image source: chaiwallahsofindia.com

  “….Wires are cut very often, fuses go off

              But the lights are always on:

              This is Kolkata, Kolkata!

             Whatever happens, it is always alive!” (Gulzar 83)


There has always been something ‘romantic’ about the city formerly known as Calcutta: once the capital of the British Raj, it has always fuelled an artist’s imagination by evoking ever-changing ways of grasping this hustling and bustling city-space. If Kipling spoke about it as having “Palace, byre, hovel—poverty and pride—/side by side” (Gupta 4), then Dominique Lapierre’s novel made the moniker ‘city of joy’ famous. It is a space where the past and the present mingle seamlessly; the ghosts of an ever alive colonial history and Naxalite movement sit side by side with the burgeoning I.T sector and share a cup of tea.

The influx of foreign brands and coffee chains seems to threaten the mythic quality of the city. As Ipshita Chanda puts it succinctly, “Going to the College Street Coffee House where political and aesthetic revolutions are rumoured to have begun, is an attempt to live a myth, to synecdochally participate in the living history of Calcutta as it happens…” (Gupta 241). This mythic quality has its roots in a typically Bengali cultural phenomenon, that of the ‘adda.’ Historically born out of the gathering of unemployed youths over a cup of tea at the temporary, dingy tea stalls in one’s neighbourhood, this coming together has been a fertile space for intellectual/ artistic/ political debates and arguments as the years have rolled on. Not only has it provided intellectual stimulus to, borrowing a term from Amartya Sen, the ‘argumentative’ Bengali, it has also become a cultural signifier. In recent years this trend has, however, been replaced by sights of Gen- Y (or is it Z now?) thronging the various coffee outlets that have opened in Kolkata, whereby we have become passive consumers and victims to a typically western consumer culture.

One of the reasons why these retail brands have managed a foray in a somewhat conservative Bengali culture has its roots in the changing economic dynamics of the earning youth. Madhumita Roy, in her essay Cha- er Thek: Teastalls argues that “With the declining number of educated unemployed youth who were addicted to a pastime called idling, these addas are a vanishing culture in Calcutta. The young of Calcutta today seem to prefer the growing Café Coffee Days, Baristas, Adda Bites and Indthalias to the street culture of yore.” (Gupta 170). And yet, it seems that there is a sharp division in this trend. North Kolkata has emerged as a difficult fortress for the tentacles of a globalised market to creep in; this part of the city has held on to its pastness with greater fondness and force than her rapidly urbanizing southern counterpart. With its now crumbling and dilapidating colonial buildings and narrow by- lanes, it provides a sharp contrast to South Kolkata, a hub of the city’s emerging mall culture and home to some of the most upscale eateries in town. In a way, there are two cities in one, one structurally/architecturally belonging to colonized India and the other, the face of a country rapidly developing, working hard and partying even harder.

The new, ‘modern’ cafes, catering to a particular economic class raises uncomfortable questions about the manner of consumption and the way in which we negotiate with the globalised market making its presence felt. Do these cafes, armed with Wi-fi, a delectable seating arena, with music and jukebox contribute to a sense of a false ego- massage, by privileging a kind of ‘commodity fetishism’?

As Marx would argue, every object or commodity carries within it something greater than its economic or market value. These become a marker of a social statement, a signifier of social belonging, a way of distinguishing oneself from the rest of the population, by assuming that certain choices underline an intellectual/ aesthetic and social refinement. This fetish for well packaged and advertised commodities is what seems to be behind the emergence of the coffee chains like Barista, Café Coffee Day and the ilk which end up making a customer believe that one is a person of ‘Culture’, having access to a particular circle, internalizing a sense of difference and alienation from the tea-stalls and coffee shops that are part of the city’s history and culture. This manifests a kind of internalizing and naturalizing of the western cultural hegemony which leads to an erasure of native/ local traditions with the blind imitation and acceptance of things/customs perpetuated and popularized by/ in the west through a surrender to the allure of consumer capitalism. Blunden sums up, “Appreciation of culture is thus reduced, with little or no residue, to pretension—people acquire and express a taste which expresses their pretension to be recognized in a given class fraction, refusing the vulgar or the common, the difficult or the fancy, according to the need for distinction.” (Blunden 3).

What it does is to give the fetishised subject an aura of exclusiveness, a desire of setting oneself apart by inhabiting a space which “looks” expensive, open to only those who can afford it. The desire to set oneself apart from a particular habitus is also paradoxically a desire to belong to another, with the West as the marker of standards and acceptance. One realises that “People make their consumption choices based not only on a product’s utility value, but from the personal symbolic meanings they invest in objects.” (Zepf). Sitting in dingy tea shops, without the fancy brand names is something that today’s commodity driven subjects cannot identify with, for it in no way lives up to the images of the cafes and pubs popularized in American sit-coms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother. It is that image that has been played over and over again and which serves as a marker of social belonging and acceptance. Coffee bars today capture the spirit of the age, not only because of the customer profile, but also in terms of the entrepreneurial flair that is demonstrably on show. For the youth in Kolkata, shunning the traditional “cabins” that have been enmeshed in the political and cultural history of the state and accepting the coffee pubs above named is more of a status symbol or a lifestyle thing. If history suggests that coffee houses were fertile spaces for the germinating of political and intellectual ideas, the new age coffee pubs are sometimes tools for the fashioning of a particular identity for the “self”. The old world of Kolkata is a rapidly disintegrating one. In the face of globalization and the opening of the Indian market, there are remnants which are still holding on and celebrating their “pastness”: a sort of celebration of nostalgia by which these tea/coffee joints try to preserve a slice of what had been. And yet, one cannot be too hopeful. The words of Marx echo in our ears when he says, “value does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic” (Knafo 160). But rather than decoding such hieroglyphs we would prefer the figurative forgetful snow and press our muddy feet to shiny coffee pubs that repeat the masquerades of time — eyes assured of certain certainties.


Blunden, Andy: “ Bourdieu on Status, Class and Culture.” http://home.mira.net/~andy/works/bourdieu-review.htm, 25th March, 2015.

Chanda, Ipshita. “ Selfing the City: the Myth of Calcutta and the Culture of Everyday Life”. In Nilanjana Gupta ed. Cultural Studies. New Delhi: Worldview, 2004.

Gulzar. Neglected Poems. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012.

Knafo, Samuel. “The Fetishiszing Subject in Marx’s Capital.” https://www.academia.edu/4038785/The_Fetishizing_Subject_of_Marxs_Capital, Accessed on 25th March, 2015.

Roy, Madhumita. “ Cha-Er Thek: Teastalls”. In Nilanjana Gupta ed. Strangely Beloved: Writings on Calcutta. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014.

Zepf, Siegfried. “Consermerism and Identity: Some Psychoanalytical Considerations. In International Forum of Psychoanalysis. Consumerism and Identity: Some Psychoanalytic Considerations, Vol. 19, pp1-5.

 -Sayan A. Bhowmik

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