Hot coffee and hotter political debates may soon stop brewing in Shimla’s iconic Indian Coffee House set up in 1962 as the tourism industry in Himachal Pradesh falls prey to Covid-19.
The coffee house, that even saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi savour politics with the hot elixir, lost steam over the past 15 months after the pandemic outbreak and is on the verge of closure.
“For the past one year we are unable to clear salary bills owing to non-operational and hampering of our service due to Covid-induced lockdowns,” Indian Coffee House Manager Atma Ram Sharma told IANS.
“Amidst this huge salary backlog and period of uncertainty, most of our employees, like those in other hospitality industry, are feeling disengaged and demotivated with work.
“Even if it becomes fully operational on the demand of our loyal clientele who have been devoted for decades, with the mounting losses I don’t think it is feasible to operate it smoothly,” he said.
According to Sharma, seven-eight coffee houses like this one being run by a cooperative society on a ‘no-profit, no-loss basis’ in cities like Chandigarh, Delhi, Allahabad and Kolkata have also seen drastic decline in earnings, enabling many of them on the verge of closure.
Besides Modi, Shimla’s one-of-a-kind cafe has seen many prominent customers — late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and BJP veteran politician Murli Manohar Joshi.
When he studied in India, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai was a frequent visitor too.
Modi, during his last visit in 2017, recalled that he used to spend hours at the Coffee House with his journalist friends to keep a tab on the state’s political developments.
And many from Shimla’s academic, legal, art and journalistic circles have been regular clients.
Before the pandemic, the daily sale of Shimla’s Coffee House was more than Rs 100,000. Currently, the coffee house is operating three hours daily owing to lockdown restrictions with the income shrinks by Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 per day.
“It is really sad to learn that the Coffee House has fallen on bad days. Our group, who has spent hours daily discussing politics and society over cups of steaming hot coffee, are thinking to evolve some mechanism to keep its ambience alive by contributing from our pocket,” B.D. Sharma, a former Press Secretary to the Chief Minister, told IANS.
Added an emotional Daulat Sen, a former government employee and a regular for over 35 years: “I visited Coffee House for the first time in early 1980’s and since then it is an integral part of my life, the hub for socialising and intellectual discussions for government employees like me.”
“Its closure will be a big setback for a particular class, which is called old-fashioned,” Sen said.
Old-timers recall that earlier the Coffee House had a carrom board, playing cards and newspapers for customers. A plate of salted peanuts was served with each cup of coffee.
According to Sen, a cup of coffee in the early 1980s cost Rs 2. Now it is Rs 25.
The Indian Coffee House at Shimla came up in 1962, the shop area bought for Rs 85,000.
Octogenarian Ramesh Sud too prefers this place not just to enjoy delicacies but to meet a class of old friends, who visit this place with dress codes the Britons followed, over endless cups of coffee to discuss everything, from politics to socialism and to national issues.
Prime Minister Modi had said at a public rally in Shimla in December 2017: “Sitting at the Indian Coffee House along with my journalist friends, I used to get an insight into the state’s political developments.”
Modi, who was the BJP’s in-charge of Himachal Pradesh from 1994 and 2002, had added in a lighter vein that he never paid for the coffee he had. His journalist friends used to foot the bill.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)