Remembering the old Coffee House

Here's the story of a Coffee House waiter who served famous poets and intellectuals back in the day.

Intezar Hussain February 07, 2011

Not a day goes by without somebody in the media asking me about the goings on at the Coffee House or the afternoons and evenings at the Tea House.

But everybody seems to be interested only in the patrons. Wonder if anybody at all is interested in the people who waited on them and how they survived and thrived in the midst of writers, intellectuals, artists and journalists. For I am reminded today of a Coffee House waiter.

Once India Coffee House closed down, Munshi Ji, moved on to Zelin’s Coffee House. After Zelin’s too had closed down I once asked him about the people he remembered best.

He named Maulana Chiragh Hassan Hasrat, Dr Taseeer, Abdullah Butt, Nasir Kazmi, Bari Alig, Riaz Qadir, Shakir Ali, Sheikh Manzoor Qadir and Ejaz Hussain Batalvi. Remembering he had also served at Delhi’s Coffee House, I asked him if he still remembered any of the people there. He fondly recalled Vijay Lakshami Pundit and Indira Gandhi. When I remember his conversation I wonder what stunning faces they must have been, for while Devdas Gandhi, too, was mentioned, the memory did not light up his face.

Munshi Ji’s formal name was Shamshad Hussain Siddiqi but I learnt this only when I asked for it. At the Coffee House, he was Munshi Ji. Some people affectionately called him Mir Sahib.

One of his regrets was that the poet in him had failed to break out. I once asked him what was holding it back. He sighed and said: “the fact that I need to serve you. The clinking of the cups drowns the heart’s whispers.”

But Munshi Ji was a contented person for he got to see Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nasir Kazmi, Safdar Mir, Saifuddin Saif. And Riaz Qadir, who wore several hats, besides the poet’s.

And it got better for there were also MH Latifi and Habib Jalib. Munshi Ji served them fervently; and not just with coffee, which was his job.

If a poet could not pay for his cigarettes or paan, Munshi Ji would take care of it. Many poets and artists owed him money but when Zelin’s closed down the magnanimous lender did not make the accounts public.

Riaz Qadir, he said, arrived early, smoking while he sat alone and sketched faces and nudes on the cigarette box. He was joined first by Nasir Kazmi, then other friends, and a lively debate would ensue.

Once he started talking, he would not stop. It was alright to stare at his feet but if he suspected somebody of looking at his bald head he was furious. He would also get angry at whoever cited his father, Sir Abdul Qadir, in the conversation.

And MH Latifi: what a poet. The unhappy life associated with Mir’s name was his share in our times. Latifi was always lost in thought. Munshi Ji said while several friends were always at hand to pay for his coffee, he somehow eked out money to pay for two slices of bread he had to feed the dog that awaited him at the Coffee House door.

After Zelin’s closed down around 1975, many regulars failed to settle down. Riaz Qadir tried the Tea House but realised soon that it lacked what it took to bear the burden. Munshi Ji, who moved on to a restaurant off The Mall, too, was never at home again at any of the restaurants he served at.

Several years later, his son visited me at the Tea House and told me about his passing away.

On his death bed, he said, his father had remembered the Coffee House friends and requested him to visit Intezar Hussain at Tea House and through him convey his last greeting. The friends he mentioned were: Kishwar Naheed, Yousaf Kamran, Kamal Ahmed Rizvi, Saifuddin Saif, Ejaz Hussain Batalvi.

Munshi Ji, I believe, was the last remnant of the Coffee House. The year was 1981.

Intezar Hussain An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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