In his story, Vendor of Sweets, author R.K. Narayan gives a crash course on how to make an honest cup of south Indian filter coffee. On one of his visits to the United States, at a coffee counter, the author was asked, “Black or white?” “Neither,” replied Narayan. “I want it brown. That’s how we make it in south India.”
Brown, milky and sweet, that is how I too love my coffee. Perfectly the South Indian way. I come from a household that grew and brew its own coffee. My maternal grandfather used to grow coffee along with rubber and other crops. Though the estate was replanted as more money grew on rubber trees [did I just write that line!] we always had enough coffee for domestic consumption. Branded coffee came about much later. The first brand of coffee to enter our kitchen was Bru. It became fashionable to sprinkle a little Bru on the freshly frothed coffee almost brimming over my tumbler.
Children were not allowed to drink coffee. My grandma used to say, “You would become dark like a roasted coffee bean.” I have driven her nuts by stealing and drinking coffee even from her maid’s glass. Drinking from the house maid’s glass was forbidden during those days and if caught the poor maid also got in trouble. Grandma was not just an elitist but also a coffee expert. A simple whiff from the store-bought coffee and she could tell how much chicory it had. Her kitchen was my favourite place to explore [or spill the long dripping decoction filter across the kitchen floor] ... and when she would have had enough of me grandpa would take me to the estate.
Chandra Estate was etched on its metal gates. The estate was a beautiful piece of land grandpa’s ancestors left for him by the banks of river Kallada in south of India. I vividly remember ambling there — picking, smelling, biting and spitting out the bitter raw coffee bean — just like the estate monkeys did. Children were luckier than monkeys because the watchman never shot us down for doing that — chewing and spitting bean. A dead monkey was usually hung by a tall branch to shoo others off. With fewer coffee trees this brutal ritual ended.
Today after years of guzzling coffee I have become one with this drink. I am a coffee artist. So they say. Art with coffee stains on canvas is an inspired thought that struck me like a bolt from the blue. It may seem silly but it was a closer look at my stained white coasters that actually gave me the idea that coffee can make tough but brilliant stains.
So I don’t really paint with coffee. I make stains. Stains that will last as long as they can... unfazed. I drip the decoction on canvas cloth. I use spoons and knives to make tiny rivulets. Then I arrest the flow where I wish. Blow. Blot. Bake. Spatter dry coffee on wet surface. I have explored most aspects of its diuretic nature to play the medium to its maximum benefit.
I almost owe my life to coffee. A hot cup of coffee fixes almost anything for me. I would not call myself a coffee addict though. I am inspired by coffee to see life with a fresh perspective each time it shows one of its not-so-great faces. Coffee keeps me happy, nostalgic, nocturnal, playful and in love with nature.
My grandmother still frowns at instant coffee because she does not believe in easy fixes no matter how relevant they have become. I guess it is time for a hot cuppa.
Archana R D is a Dubai-based senior freelance journalist, who is also a certified advanced energy healer and is known as artist B’lu.