Nostalgia and the Indian Coffee House

One of my most endearing memories of Government Medical College (GMC) Nagpur is that of the Indian Coffee House. Bustling with energy, the fresh fragrance of South Indian coffee and the annas clad in their white uniforms still lingers on in my memories.

When we first entered the hallowed portals of GMC as zendus (as freshers were labelled in unique Lingua Nagpuria), the unsaid rule was that the first year students couldn’t walk into the coffee house. We then, didn’t know the pleasure of 8 AM lectures and the pleasure of going to the cafe. And cooking breakfast — the ubiquitous Maggi two-minute noodles — in your hostel room was no fun at all.

Come second year, and entry to the Indian coffee house was the most exciting event of the day. A place presumably where people came to satiate their appetite for food and for meeting the opposite sex! Beneath that nonchalance of youth were plenty of pre-mediated plans. How did one get a seat on the table with the prettiest girl or the most popular guy of the class? The 8 a.m. lectures and the clinics which followed were just the part of the cover-up operation. The 30 minutes between the end of the lecture and the start of the clinics was the most fulfilling part of the day! You should have seen the style statements people made to believe what an important occasion that was. If you saw Monika walk down with her new perm flying all over her face thanks to the breeze from the rickety cooler, making all heads turn you would know what I mean! Our batch were the trend setters where the ladies dared to wear trousers and short hair to clinics until Dr Chaubey threw a fit not wanting his lady doctors to be ‘dressed as rickshaw wallahs’! Permed hair, trousers and GMC in 1990…. it was straight out of Vogue!

Remember the anna-special British style of serving beverages that we loved so dearly? The sugar which was served separately in a katori? Now who loved that more than all of us but Sunil. So while he flirted or ogled at the beauties of the batch, as was feasible (He’s going to butcher me for this!), he made it a point to eat up all that sugar in spoonfuls. This went on for a day or two. And would you think our sharp shooter anna wouldn’t notice this? Thereafter, whenever he ordered tea or coffee, anna would be breathing down his shoulder, waiting for him to add two spoonfuls of sugar before the katori would be magically whisked away! Poor ol’ Sunil! Na kudi mili na katori!!

For me, the ICH had memories more wonderful. When I won the elections as Ladies’ Representative, I don’t know where the sandhal materialized from, the gulal flew and the dancing to the thump of the drumbeats was fantastic. The best thing about the guys at GMC is that they don’t even need a reason to dance. Play the sandhal and they will accumulate faster than neutrophils at a site of inflammation (I know, that’s the pathologist in me resurfacing!) And to have these guys dancing atop the table of ICH, and the annas frantically asking them to descend lest the tables gave way under their weight was a sight I will never forget!

We had our classification of annas– the tall one, the rotund one and the grumpy one who would scowl as the girls took abominably long to decide whether they wanted to order idli or sambar wada or upma as if the menu had a hundred things on it! And remember the expressionless senior anna at the counter with his vintage stand for securing the paid bills- that’s a contraption you won’t see elsewhere.

The waiters, naah, the annas tended to get shuffled around the various coffee houses. Imagine my surprise when while walking down Sadar after some serious shopping, Abha who was with me shrieked annnaaaaa…. shocking one of our familiar faces now sweeping the porch in the Sadar ICH branch. He looked like a rabbit caught between the glares of the headlights and then gave a sheepish grin. It isn’t too often that a pretty girl yells your name with such pleasure. But then to be called ‘anna’ ….. Hello brother! Oh bother!!!

As an intern and house officer I was stuck with some extremely attractive registrars (ahem! keep guessing!) who were unfortunately so miserly that they hardly ever took us out for even a cup of coffee in the ICH, irrespective of how hard you worked to impress them! So I often took to eating alone at the ICH when my chores were done. One mid-morning I had just started eating my favourite upma when who should walk in but Dr NK Deshmukh and his entire entourage… and horror of horrors… they chose to come and sit on the very table where I was seated! And such fantastic timing, just when I was planning to slink away unnoticed that anna should choose to bring a scaldingly hot cup of coffee for me. How I gulped down that cup scorching my entire mucosa is all that I remember, before slithering off to smirks and giggles of baitho baitho kahaan bhaag rahe ho!

The delicacies of ICH left much to be desired, but I guess in the years that we spent there we got acquainted and accustomed to the deadly flavours. For the other days, when you felt like mixing and matching there was always vada swimming in sambar, or vada served separately with sambar. As for the masala dosas, nobody makes them better than our ICH anna. For a little while, the annas decided to experiment with puri bhaaji and puri chana, but any non-Mallu item usually flopped. And two decades since I first tasted the cutlet sandwiched in the crisp or soggy toast, I still turn to the Indian railways to provide me the nostalgic flavours. But nothing comes close to anna’s left over aalu-gajar-beetroot cutlet soaked in that kaddu– morphed-as-tomato sauce! As for the priciest thing on the menu, when you felt very rich to spend 12 rupees on a French toast, it was cause for celebration.

Who can forget the poster lined walls of the coffee house come GFC or elections. The coffee house environment was the place where Cupid often struck, jodis made and dismantled over cups of coffee and toast. When I go back to GMC, one place on the top of my agenda is definitely the ICH. After all I decided to marry my better half after a long discussion lasting four languishingly slow cups of coffee on a Sunday at the ICH and a whole lifetime of acidity that followed. Memories!

Roll no. 89102, Class of 89, GMC Nagpur

This piece was originally written in December 2013 for the souvenir published on the occasion of the silver jubilee of 1989 batch of GMC Nagpur 


  • Jay Chalam

    Wow Anshu nostalgic indeed. I loved going to the ICH in J N Street in Pondy. Do you remember that. And my daughter visited the place when she was in India this summer and said she had the best coffee in the world!
    Keep writing my friend!

  • Mrinalini

    I enjoyed reading this so much! I could recognize the Annas you were talking about. I did not want this blog to get over! I want more and also the yummy cutlet you mentioned above!

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