One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go

Coffee Mugs
We can only see coffee in the shape of the mug. We can buy those mugs, already in a given “form”, or create our own mugs.’ Doodles of coffee mugs by Samprati, partly inspired by her own collection (last someone counted there were 57 mugs) and partly an attempt to create her own mugs.

Imagine yourself in the lanes of 18th-century Delhi, playing a pipe as you are walking along and getting invited to a popular coffee haunt in the city. This is the arrival scene of James Allen (b. 1734), a ‘celebrated’ Northumberland piper, as described in an 1828 book on his travels and adventures (A New, Improved, and Authentic Life of James Allan). Allan found half the city in ruins, probably the result of Nadir Shah’s recent rampage, and on arriving at a ‘handsome street’, started playing his Italian pipe. He was approached by someone and led to a ‘spacious, elegant’ room where ‘a large company was smoking and sipping coffee’. Coffee houses or qahwakhanas such as the one Allan was invited to have a more noticeable presence in the more famous Muraqqa-e-Dehli, an account of the social and cultural life of the city by Dargah Quli Khan, an official chronicler accompanying a Deccan governor on his visit to Delhi. What were these coffee houses in the Delhi of 1738, the year of Quli Khan’s arrival, and was coffee a popular drink in the city? While much has been written about how the British introduced tea to the city, little is known of coffee’s arrival in the city and its later disappearance. In 1671, sixty-seven years before Quli Khan arrived in Delhi, the first coffee house opened in Paris. Is it possible−of course, with a stretch of imagination–that Delhi was a city of coffee houses, like Cairo and Istanbul, before coffee houses became a cultural phenomenon in Europe? (There are a few references to Aurangzeb’s [1618–1707] fondness for coffee.)

Details on the history of coffee houses in Delhi are hard to come by. But one particular poem, written around 1736, hints at the city being a connoisseur of coffee at the time. The poem ‘In Praise of Coffee’ by Shah Hatim is a fine example of Urdu in its early decades. The poem evokes the ubiquitous presence of coffee in the culture-scape of the city:

jahan dekho tahan har aan qahwa
hai bazm-e-aish ka samaan qahwa
Wherever we look, we find qahwa
At every soiree of pleasure, there is qahwa

The three main attributes of coffee are warmth, stimulation and, as already captured in the verse above, its importance as a social lubricant. Warmth here is in the sense of social warmth and coffee is even seen as the only source of warmth:

jahan men sard-mehri se khizaan hai
jo ham se garm hai toh qahwa-daan hai
The world is cold in its autumn
All I can keep warm is the coffee carafe

baja hai iski mujh se garm-joshi
ki jane hai meri paimana-noshi
Its enduring warmth is always pleasing
Knowing well my love for its reverie

In the first verse, it is the poet who keeps the coffee warm, and it is the only thing that he can keep warm, while in the second, coffee is described as providing warmth, by knowing the poet and his habits, by becoming his friend. Further in the poem, coffee beans become the poet’s confidante:

mera ek monis-e-dil bun raha hai
so us ka bhi kaleja bhun raha hai
These coffee beans give me camaraderie
Slowly burning away, like this life

Most of all, the poem cherishes coffee for its role in making sociality and companionship possible:

anees-e-rooh-o-jaan wa raahat-e-dil
jalees-e-bazm wa raunaq-bakhsh-e-mahfil
A friend of the soul and consolation of the heart
It bestows the gathering with its shine

Coffee’s appeal as a social drink is exemplified by a story about Nadir Shah. (Quli Khan reached Delhi a few months before Nadir Shah’s attack and a year or two before Shah Hatim wrote his poem.) I found the story in West Minister Review (1869), citing an unnamed ‘native historian’. After the city was sacked and massacred, Nadir Shah was participating in an event on the eve of his departure, where one Emir Khan was to serve coffee. Emir Khan was faced by a great dilemma on whom to serve first, Nadir Shah or his own king Muhammad Shah. He finally decided to present coffee to the humiliated Mughal king saying, ‘Let an Emperor do the honors of his house to a King of Kings; I am too inconsiderate for that office.’ In the 1869 issue of The Ladies’ Repository, this story ends on a more dramatic tone: ‘I cannot aspire to the honour of presenting the cup to the king of kings, your majesty’s honoured guest, nor would your majesty wish that any hand but your own should do so.’

Quli Khan’s description of coffee houses as a place for reading poetry seems fitting since Shah Hatim in his poem graces coffee with the staple metaphors of Urdu poetry—gul, lalah, dagh, chaman and so on. The following verse refers to the ambiguous nature of coffee as both faithful (to those who truly love it) and promiscuous (har ek sohbat):

ki is ko dil-jalon se raah haigi
har ek sohbat ki kab parwah haigi
Companion to the desolate
Why does it care to meet anyone else?

In his remarkable commentary on Shah Hatim’s poem, Walter Hakala mentions a verse by Shah Mubarak Aabru, a contemporary of Shah Hatim, ‘shab kun jo hai sote sen jag ke qahwe ki chah’, which refers to the poet’s craving for coffee on waking up. Hakala remarks that Aabru’s word play on chah, a homophone simultaneously meaning tea and desire, might give a sense that the word qahwa, in all these references, might be referring to tea. In Kashmir, for instance, the word qahwa refers to a kind of tea. In some parts of the world, coffee was prepared much like tea by boiling coffee leaves. But Shah Hatim’s poem mentions coffee beans and variations in its treatment and colour, indicating that at least some of the complex processes in extracting the aromatic drink from coffee beans were known to Delhiwalas of that time. This is how he describes the matchless colour of coffee:

hai sab rangon mein qahwe ka ajab rang
gahe taoosi wa gahe hai shab-rang
In all the colours, the hue of qahwa is novel
Saturating colours of the peacock, and now that of the night

I wonder why there are no references to the aroma of coffee in the poem or details on the methods of making coffee. However, the word biloren in the following verse probably relates to the Hindi bilona or bilorna, in the sense of stirring or churning:

biloren saat-pyale, pyala-daan mein
hai jin ki roshni haft aasman mein
Swirl into these seven cups this light
that illuminates the seven skies

And if you were thinking Shah Hatim would go on and on about coffee, he brings in smoking—coffee’s favourite companion—a connection that survives till date and might make the reader forget that the poem is almost three centuries old:

jahan mein zindagi Hatim do dam hai
idhar qahwa udhar huqqe ka dam hai
Life is but two fleeting moments, Hatim
A drag on the huqqa and a sip of qahwa

—Mohammad Sayeed

I would like to thank Syed Mohammad Faisal for procuring a copy of Shah Hatim’s manuscript from the British Library. And Sarover Zaidi for giving up on her afternoon snooze and being conned into translating the Urdu verses till midnight, Samprati for keeping up the enthusiasm with her cold coffee and pakodas and acting as referee during unruly disagreements over the translations and Shams aka Jamanji for dinner, companionship and calming support in the midst of a crazed adda.

 

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