The Third Place

“Meet me at the coffee shop near your house.”

My niece sounds excited on the phone when she calls me in the morning. We haven’t seen each other in months and have a lot of catching up.

The coffee house in my neighbourhood across the college is a favourite haunt for students. I don’t know if it is the loud music or the avant-garde artwork on the walls that’s the draw but within a week of its opening, the place was packed with perky young people.

The first time I brought my parents here they looked uncomfortable. They wondered why I was paying so much for a cup of coffee when the darshini down the road served better-tasting coffee and cost nearly a third less. My mother’s disappointed expression made me feel as if I was back in third grade. My father’s genial smile was wiped out that evening.

The old darshini down the road holds it own catering to different age groups. It’s a family favourite. Even if it doesn’t quite pass the hygiene test the taste makes all the difference. The dosas made at home end up being a poor second to the ones dished out by the men covered in grime and sweat standing over hot stoves. For the uninitiated the place is a hole in the wall – nothing fancy yet it gives a homely feeling once you walk in. The dilapidated walls and the standing-room only space doesn’t deter the regulars or even newbies from venturing in. The aroma of freshly-made decoction coffee vies with the smell of butter emanating from the benne dosa. The slice of tomato served as a dressing on top of the “khara bath” is waived off as an eccentricity as the dish itself stirs up the senses with its texture, colour and taste. The servers greet the customers with a smile and bonhomie. While the regulars are given a familiar nod, the absentees are given a earful for not frequenting the place albeit with a smile.

Yet, as with my niece, who’s no longer a college student – ever more young and not-so-young people people are beginning to spend more time at the coffee shop. From its beginnings as a novelty, the coffee house has evolved into a community meeting place. For an earlier generation, places of worship were the hub of activity where people chanted prayers, sang hymns and gossiped about the latest ondits in a household. Now people huddle over coffee or chai in a bright and open space – in an unhurried manner, unlike the fast moving crowd at the darshini. While music sometimes soft and throbbing at other times, plays in the background, the coffee shop has clearly arrived as the third place – after home and work, for people to congregate and just hang out.
As I now head towards the coffee house to meet my twenty-something niece, I gaze fondly at the darshini behind me. That would have been my preferred choice to meet her. Sigh. Then I remember that the benne dosa can wait for me, my niece cannot.

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