The School of Small Bites

Potato-filled samosas and strong coffee nurture revolutionary ideas in India

India Coffee House
Kelly Campbell

Wherever my 80-year-old father, Amartya Sen, travels in India, a scrum of students encircle him, eager to shake his hand. As popular as a Bollywood star or pop singer, he came to his fame through his work as an economist: He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998. But he was not always a dutiful student, he told me when I joined him on a recent visit to his alma mater, Presidency College, in Calcutta. In fact, he spent most of his college years playing hooky at a café across the street. My father started his studies back in 1951, four years after India won its sovereignty. He was on his way to register for classes when a friend, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, stopped him.

“Forget that,” Chakravarty said. “I'm taking you to the Indian Coffee House.”

The two crossed College Street, climbed a dingy staircase, and entered a broad, smoky hall where waiters carried coffee cups and vegetable fritters paired with tangy chutneys on steel trays. The bubbling stream of conversation was so loud that one had to shout to be heard.

Adda nurtured revolutionary ideas that went on to define the subcontinent over the next half century

India is mostly a tea-drinking country; the Coffee House, now a worker's cooperative, was established in the early 1940s by the coffee industry to promote this alternative brew. Countercultural from its founding, it became a temple to the Bengali concept of adda—chatting sessions that swoop from poetry to politics, grand theories to local gossip. Over potato-filled samosas and strong coffee, my father discovered a world where books were handed around like priceless treasures, where the writings of American economist Kenneth Arrow and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm were as eagerly parsed as romantic exploits. By his final year, my father had skipped so many classes to go to the Coffee House that sitting for his qualifying exam required some negotiation.

For my father and his classmates, this adda nurtured revolutionary ideas that went on to define the subcontinent over the next half century. The filmmaker Satyajit Ray and the singer Manna Dey were denizens of the Coffee House, too, and Chakravarty, the boy who first brought my father there, later helped design India's Five-Year Plan economy.

Sixty-three years after his first coffee with Chakravarty, my father and I strolled across College Street, climbed the stairs, and settled in at a table. As a waiter brought over a tray of milky coffee and sandwiches, police guards held a crowd angling for cellphone photos of my father at bay. But within a few minutes, the hubbub outdoors was drowned out by the familiar din of adda.