Finding Comfort At An Indian Cafe

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The warp-speed transformation in India's economy, urban landscape and social fabric are straining family relationships and people's nerves. Every Sunday, a few dozen young people flock to a new, open-air "coffee house" in the city of Chandigarh, to renew their frazzled spirits. Guest host Daniel Zwerdling presents an audio postcard.


If you happen to find yourself in India and walk down a crazy busy road in the city of Chandigarh, that's the capital of Punjab, up north.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ZWERDLING: Just before you get to the gas station, turn left down a sidewalk. You can't miss this gas station. Its generator drowns out the traffic.

(Soundbite of generator)

ZWERDLING: Now, keep going down the walk and suddenly you're in an oasis. It doesn't look like much. Most days it's a scruffy little park. There's a rusty jungle gym and some sad patches of grass.

But almost every Sunday over the past year, dozens of young people have turned this shabby space into a refuge. They've scattered bright blankets on the ground and big bold pillows. Some are jamming.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: Another group is sitting cross-legged around a book. They're reciting "The Prophet" by Khalil Gibran.

Ms. SUKHMANI KOHLI: And as he walked, he saw from afar men and women leaving their fields and their vineyards and hastening towards the city gates.

ZWERDLING: And over at the corner there's an open shed with a tiny kitchen. And there's a big sign propped on a table. The sign proclaims the name of this makeshift outdoor cafe.

Ms. KOHLI: Cafe Kaffee Kuchh - the sublime art of hanging out.

ZWERDLING: Sukhmani Kohli is one of the people who came up with this whole idea.

Why sublime?

Ms. KOHLI: Because hanging out can be - it's an art, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KOHLI: It's an art.


Ms. KOHLI: Mm-hmm.

ZWERDLING: Kohli is a community activist and a filmmaker. She's 24. She and her friends created this cafe as an antidote to modern India.

Ms. KOHLI: India? Oh, it's going to the dogs.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: India is the largest market-driven democracy of the world and is expected to rank three…

ZWERDLING: I could rattle off all kinds of statistics about how fast India is changing. But forget statistics, just watch Indian TV.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Stocks, bonds, options. Sometimes you can double your money in two days.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Congratulations, you are truly dumb. So there's no point in telling you about the all-new Indica Zeta with 70 B.S. power, 14...

ZWERDLING: India is changing at warp-speed. And word's being trickling out around Chandigarh. If you're unsettled by this transformation, then come to Cafe Kaffee Kuchh. That basically means the cafe where many things happen.

Ms. SURBHI ARORA: First time I'm coming here. And I'm loving it - already.

ZWERDLING: Surbhi Arora just strolled in with her boyfriend, who has a few tattoos. They're just about to go to the kitchen and order some tea. But they pause and another woman named Kanchan Rana and a young man named Udai Gupta joined the conversation.

So tell me what you heard about this cafe and why you wanted to come?

Ms. KANCHAN RANA: I mean, I don't want to see big malls standing here.

ZWERDLING: The big shopping malls.

Ms. RANA: Everything that they're doing is so fake, you know, the youth here. It's all about big cars and expensive cell phones and the expensive brands that you wear. It's all about the money.

Mr. UDAI GUPTA: People have lost their moorings, their roots. They're losing their identity.

ZWERDLING: So what does this cafe provide that...

Mr. GUPTA: Like-minded people. People I can talk to.

Ms. ARORA: You see, otherwise I feel that people who would talk deep or think deep are just very scattered around. And this is one common ground where you can have deep conversations about meaningful things. When we were much younger, a lot of people came to visit us on the weekends, and relatives and family friends would all get together. Usually an aunt would bring some home-cooked food or some pickle that she made. Somebody is volunteering to make the bread, somebody is laying the table. The children are playing around, put down mattresses in a huge room and sleep together, chat until the middle of the night.

ZWERDLING: And that's not happening anymore so much?

Ms. ARORA: Now everybody is working from this time to this time. You're not available without a phone call. I think we're just turning into machines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: It's getting to be tea time. The discussion about "The Prophet" is winding down and people are drifting over to the kitchen shed.

Ms. KOHLI: We have mint tea, Darjeeling tea, then we have ginger tea.

ZWERDLING: You can order from a pretty big menu. Then you take your food to your blanket.

Ms. KOHLI: We have mushroom omelet today. We have grilled brown bread with butter.

ZWERDLING: There are no set prices. You pay what you want.

Ms. KOHLI: Yes, I feel it makes it less commercial. That's the beauty of it.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Welcome to the Hotel California.

ZWERDLING: This open air cafe feels almost like a big family picnic. But as Surbhi Arora looks around, she looks like she's going to burst in to tears. She's supposed to graduate from engineering college next year. And she says that makes her miserable.

Ms. ARORA: I can't even get any sleep now. I don't really sleep now, not more than two or maybe three hours a day.

ZWERDLING: Arora says she doesn't want to work for some computer company. She wants to be an artist. But her parents pressured her.

Ms. ARORA: My parents, they're doctors. They called me immature, they called -they told me that I'm having flying ideas. They told me that I've been brainwashed by my friends.

ZWERDLING: Did your parents say, but if you become an engineer, you can work in the software industry…

Ms. ARORA: Yes.

ZWERDLING: …the computer industry?

Ms. ARORA: They told me that you can work from nine to five and it will give you so much of money and a very good comfortable life, with lot of, you know, incentives and material pleasures. I don't want it. I don't want to be them.

ZWERDLING: So Arora says she finally forced a showdown. It was just a few days before she came to this cafe. She was sitting with her parents at dinner and she told them, I'm not going to finish school. I'm going into art. And everything blew up.

Ms. ARORA: All I saw was my mom breaking into tears and my dad's blood pressure getting higher. And he left the dinner table and he walked away. And then he comes back and then he starts shouting - you are our investment. We made an investment on you.

ZWERDLING: Harleen Kohli says she understands what those parents are going through. She's a mother herself. Her daughter helped organize this cafe. At the moment she's helping out in the kitchen. And Kohli says she also understands why these young people are frustrated. India has become obsessed with money and things and corporate culture. Kohli is a teacher and she's says schools are all about getting ahead.

Ms. KOHLI: Colleges are hopeless. There is no creative thinking being taught. There's this rote learning.

ZWERDLING: But Kohli is the only person at this cafe who doesn't agree that India is going in the wrong direction. She says the opposite. These kids have no idea, how much worse things were when she was their age. When Kohli was young, a lot of girls couldn't leave their homes without covering their heads. They got married off. They were isolated. When Kohli got married, she didn't even have a telephone. She had to go to the post office to make a call. But she says today look at these young women with cell phones. They have the Internet. They can explore the whole world from a chair. And their parents actually want them to get a job.

Ms. KOHLI: I think we are really lucky to be alive in this age and time where people's minds are expanding. People are coming out of their cloisters, their shells, and suddenly, you know, whiffs of fresh air from other cultures, from other countries, are coming in, into our homes, in to our drawing rooms. Wow, you can do so much here. And so much is possible.

(Soundbite of bird)

ZWERDLING: By around 6:00 p.m. the sun's getting low. Everybody folds up the blankets. They help wash the dishes. They lock them away in the shed. And Cafe Kaffee Kuchh disappears. It's just a scruffy little park again.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Daniel Zwerdling.

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