01 January 1970

From Canteen, Cafeteria To Cafe: An Account Of The Changing Picture Of Urban Culture

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From Canteen, Cafeteria To Cafe: An Account Of The Changing Picture Of Urban Culture

Canteen was essentially a humble affair. Cafeteria came into the picture when India was forced by circumstances to believe that control economy had not served it well and finally cafes entered the market when 'space' suddenly became central to the existence of people.

A sneak peak into a cafeteria
A sneak peak into a cafeteria Getty Images

From canteen to cafeteria to cafe is a journey from industrial age to information era to post- truth subjectivities. Canteen was essentially plebian, cafeteria patrician but cafe must rank as uber. As more and more cafes stick their necks out and as humble canteens recede into background, nuances of this journey need to be figured out.

The canteen was essentially a humble affair. Most of the workers and students would carry tiffin from homes and needed a space to share their lunch with each other. Canteen provided nothing more than very basic items like soggy samosas, cold patties and hot omelettes served with tomato sauce of dubious antecedents. With walls peeling, indifference written all over the wall, furniture in disarray and nothing fancy about cutlery, it spoke of utility, humility and poverty. Poverty as much of means as of imagination. But also solidarity, fraternity and rebellion. We would explore some of these aspects later.

Cafeteria came into the picture when India was forced by circumstances to believe that control economy had not served it well and even though market economy has had its pitfalls, it was an idea "whose time had come." As a genial Dr. Manmohan Singh quoted Victor Hugo in the Parliament while seeking to bolster his transformative proposals for the Indian economy, it was clear that it would not be business as usual. Rusty, rundown canteens gave way to cafeteria which spoke of colour, choice and alternatives. Walls sporting soft drink advertisements, transparent refrigerators storing fuzzy drinks of all manners and while Samosas would prove immortal, they would be accompanied by Burgers, Maggi and what was probably a Chinese dish- variously called Chowmein. Nobody was sure about its spelling so it could be anything- Chowmin, Choumein, Chowming, whatever. Nobody would carry lunch to cafeteria. You order it and they serve you.

But if cafeteria was bright-hued walls, cafe was fluorescent. It promised a different experience. A flying insect killer machine would work as effectively as a guillotine did in some other age. Guillotine could be revolution. Fancy furniture, funky food items, finicky girls but boys as hapless and harried as anytime before, cafe was post-truth. It discounted objective considerations and elevated personal belief as central in shaping public opinion. It promised and pretended to cater to whims and fancies of capricious Zen Zers. It was eclectic. A paratha-looking dish could be sold as Mexican Quesadillas. Nobody complains as long as everything sounds exotic.

College Canteen

Before fancy cafes with fancier menu and fanciest of names became de rigueur for different colleges across the country, a college canteen was always a rundown affair known not as much for fares it served but for the kind of place it was.

More often, a college canteen would have a standard menu including bread-omelette-tea-patties-samosas-bread pakodas and occasionally Coffee which was basically tea with a top-up sprinling of coffee and a dash of chocolate powder. Sugary tea, soggy Samosas, indifferently whipped omelettes and cold patties- it is how things would be. These would go with a generous dose of a semi-solid substance called sauce whose dubious ingredients possibly included all the organic and inorganic waste that ingenuity of mankind could generate.

By mid-80s and with an innocent but ambitious PM at the helm, college canteens could not remain immune to the winds of change. Maggi made its way to the college canteens; no one liked them in the first place but peer pressure is such a formidable thing. With the passage of time, our taste buds got colonised. Economic reforms in 90s opened new possibilities.

But college canteen was always about possibilities of non-cuisine types. Students would throng to the canteens because it stood in sharp contrast to class. While a class was about discipline, attention, regimentation and learning, a canteen spoke of freedom, fun, friendship and unlearning. Class was text but canteen context; class was about narrow and straight conformity; canteen was about deviation and even tolerable deviance. From the banality of the class, it was an escape to sunshine.

A college canteen was always a hub of subversion against the mainstream version of the college authorities. So it was from the canteen that subversive rumour against the shenanigans of the college management would emerge; it was from here that four students- first one tall and bearded, second one thin and bespectacled, third one short and clean shaven and the last one with a hint of limp in his left leg and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his lips-  would come out shouting slogans and mobilising students against the tyranny of the principal. Sometimes they would take out their rage upon the college property and canteen furniture would be the first to suffer their misdirected rage.

College canteen was also the place where gossip would find a free run and stories would be exchanged. Stories of success and setbacks, politics and sex, rebellion and revolution, Karl Marx and Groucho Marx- and it is these stories that spice up what is so nostalgically called college life.

And lest we forget, college canteen was about emotional flings- most of which remaining still- born but a few maturing into what is so blissfully but possibly euphemistically called 'marital bliss.' They revisit the college canteen to relive moments of innocence before choosing to bite the apple.

All in all, a college canteen summoned intimacy and warmth, informality and possibility, humour and subversion.

Cafeteria and college

By late 1990s, conventional canteens were panting for breath. Economic reforms had sort of turned irreversible even though reforms were taking place through stealth. Those on the left side of the spectrum would still try to mobilise public opinion against the 'predatory juggernaut' of neo-colonialism but people seemed to be moving away from such regimented position. To be poor was no longer glorious. Deng Xiaoping's agnosticism about the colour of cat was fonding traction in India as well.

There was increasingly more and more of everything- more and more TV channels, interminable soap operas beaming complicated conjugal relationships turning adultery kosher, upsurge of brands and unleashing of colours, eclecticism about food, designs, fashion. From disciplinarian martinets, college teachers tended to be more friendly. Miss Briganza in 'Kuchh kuchh Hota Hai' could ask students- what is love?- and could agree to an answer that 'love is friendship.' Kuchh kuchh Hota Hai was also instrumental in turning canteen into cafeteria. Canteen was lowlife, cafeteria was highlife with inklings of playfulness. Classroom tended to lose usual gravity associated with it and it became extension of cafeteria. Cafeteria itself became a vibrant space and students were suddenly spoilt for choice. They could enter into cafeteria bouncing off basketball and love floated in air. In terms of foodstuffs, different combinations-increasingly being called combos-tended to define the experience. Coca Cola following Pepsi had entered the Indian market with a bang. A brand like Campa Cola would be relegated into insignificance and a more resilient brand like Thums Up would be taken over by Coke. College cafeterias would offer combos like Samosa and Coke, Chhole Bhature and Coke, Burger with Coke. In terms of attitude, cafeterias-unlike canteens-were low on subversion. Students seemed to have lost their subversive instincts. Rebelliousness against powers that be, against authority, against anyone and everyone who arrogate to themselves hubris of permanence, rebelliousness that had always been their definition, and something for which the Prague Spring had become emblematic- was gradually but distinctly giving way to cult of consumerism. Mobile phones promised instantness. Internet promised salvation. Not inappropriately, fast food in its various avatars would make entry. Maggi would give way to a lot more and lot faster innovations. With opening up of the economy, Mcdonald and faux Burgers found their way into numerous cafeterias which were in no mood to be recognized and known as canteens. Sandwiches would follow soon. Not surprisingly, colleges ceased to be the cockpit for political struggle and mobilisation. With cafes into picture, sense of nuclearisation, anomie and self-containment would become the norm.

And finally Cafes...

'Neither home nor office but a third place', it is how Starbucks advertised itself in India. The world as it was-was not an agreeable place and it needed to be changed. Everyone was craving for independence, agency and space. Space had suddenly become central to the existence of zenzers. Space inside home. Space outside. Space from parents. Space from siblings. A common towel or a common bathing soap or a common bathroom would no longer do for those upwardly mobile. Night tended to be like day and day turned into night in terms of sleeping habit of youngsters. Early to bed and early to rise- became passe. Dinner gave way to multiple snackings at night. Everyone wanted to break free- from conventions, taboos, established pieties, customs. Family gave way to friendship; marriage to live-in; face-to-face relationship to Facebook; actual to virtual; virtual to metaversal; reality to augmented reality; responsible consumption to desperate consumerism; music to acoustical ugliness; canteen-cafeterias to cafes. 

(Sanjay Kumar is based in Patna. He writes on this and that)