Cafe Culture

It won’t surprise you to know that I’ve tracked down the best coffee in Guwahati (the largest city in Assam). Cafe Coffee Day is part of a chain catering to India’s new youth, and they do a pretty mean espresso. I like to be there around 5pm, when Guwahati students emerge onto the streets.

Outside on the balcony, 2 young women and a young man are sitting at a table. They are all drinking cappuccinos and smoking cigarettes. There are mobile phones on the table and a laptop case underneath it.

Both of the girls are wearing jeans. One has on a hoodie, the other a t-shirt and gold hoop earrings. The whole scene could be in London or New York.

Of the many things that have changed since I first visited India in ’94, the rise of ‘Western’ influences is by the far the most visible. Back then, Indian women wore saris and salwar suits all the way. In 3 months, I never once saw a woman in trousers. Now, I can walk the streets in jeans and be completely unremarkable.

Of course, Cafe Coffee Day is still in the minority. This western style is restricted to a very small group: young, educated, affluent. In other words, the new Indian middle class youth.

On the streets, men still serve chai (tea) from huge metal bowls, while others fry up samosas on their trolleys. In here, there are chocolate brownies, black forest gateaux and chicken tikka pizzas.

The students on the balcony will land jobs in multi-national companies, study for MBAs at NorthWestern or the LSE and work for McKinseys.

Down on the street, ragged children beg, men sleep on the pavement next to their cycle-rickshaws and families live their lives at subsistence level.

They seem to be 2 strands of an Indian dilemma. And their paths appear to be diverging permanently.

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