Back in 2009 I was at a conference on “the new cultures of intimacy and togetherness in Asia” at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi. The NMML is housed at Teen Murti Bhavan, which used to be the residence of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and is now the site of a museum and a wonderful research library, where scholars from around the world congregate amid lovely, manicured gardens. It’s an open, public space, but one where you’ll mostly find academics and other elites, as well as some tourists and school children, tucked away as it is behind tall gates and between the magisterial monuments and most powerful government residences of the city.
At the conference, however, we were talking about other spaces, new, emerging, liberalized spaces that were representative of the way cities were changing; aspirational spaces (often equated with new forms of consumption and display), where people, often young people, were asserting themselves in new ways. The paper that stuck with me from the conference that day was by Shilpa Phadke who teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, on the Indian coffee chains, Barista and Café Coffee Day. These cafes started to appear in Indian cities from the early 2000s, and Phadke analyzed just why exactly these spaces were globalized ones. It was not just about the way the coffees and espresso drinks were sourced or presented, nor about their high cost (five times what a cup of tea or powdered coffee would be at a roadside stall). What was most significant, she argued, were the new ways in which people could look at each other in those spaces. It was about seeing and being seen. She talked about the use of glass partitions and about the positioning of furniture, for instance.
I spend a lot of time in Delhi in such cafes, partly because when I’m doing fieldwork, they’re good places to meet people, but mostly because I just like to go to cafes. Even though these were corporate cafes with their usual blandness and conformity, they were interesting to me since at least they were Indian corporate cafes. There was something to the collective newness of them, and they were good places to have a look at how different kinds of middle class people were getting on. Elite, yes, but also something more than that; they tend to be full and lively and you find them all over the city.
So, when Starbucks came to Delhi earlier this year, my heart sort of sank (would monster Starbucks stamp out my locally corporate Café Coffee Day?) I’d heard they were trying to come, and one time I’d even been sitting in a Café Coffee Day when I overheard the servers there talking about how Starbucks was coming to town (the first Starbucks in India actually opened in Mumbai in October 2012).
Starbucks is a 50-50 venture with the Indian Tata Group, so is officially Tata Starbucks. There’s a charming CNN video blog about the whole tie up and how it happened. The cappuccinos are 100 Rs ($2), so a bit more expensive than the Indian corporate cafes, but within the same range. I first passed a Starbucks in Delhi in Connaught Place (or CP, as it’s known), the center of the city. It’s not like it was the only place to get a coffee. There’s the large and airy, if spartan, Coffee Home just down the road where the 60s to 80s set hangs out; there’s also United Coffee House, an old-time but still favorite restaurant in the Inner Circle of CP. Coffee drinking has been a middle-class ritual, especially in southern India, since at least the colonial era, as documented in A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s cultural history, In Those Days There Was No Coffee. But the corporatization of coffee-drinking places is new, as the half a dozen Café Coffee Day and Barista outlets in CP alone attest to.
Still, when I saw the Starbucks, I was taken aback; it was so shiny and well, beautiful, with its high ceilings, polished dark wood furnishings, and immaculate displays – a far cry from the ubiquitous Starbucks outlets in the U.S. that often have the feel of doctor’s waiting rooms. I could see now why the servers at the Café Coffee Day had been nervous; it would be hard to compete with this. That first time in Connaught Place, I stood in front of the Starbucks, looking at my own reflection amid the coffee canisters. I walked in and was greeted by a smiling staff person and quickly walked out again, somewhat sheepishly, without buying anything.
The next time I saw one (there are only six to date in Delhi) was in the basement of the Nehru Place Metro Station. I study the Metro, so this time, I thought, I should go have a closer look at the Starbucks on its premises. I also happened to be hungry, so decided I should see what the fuss was all about and have a cappuccino and a sandwich. You could say I was seduced as I ate my curried something sandwich and drank up my foam. I felt a little guilty for being there, but also realized that it was precisely the kind of atmosphere that people did aspire to.
It wasn’t just neat and clean – there are many such spaces in Delhi – but it was an experience that people here in Delhi felt others were having elsewhere, and they wanted to have it too. The Metro is also a bit like that; Delhi-ites can commute in a cool, high-tech manner as people do in London or Hong Kong or New York. And in both cases, the cafes and the Metro are seen by locals as being both global and Indian.
The more I looked around and soaked up the atmosphere of the sleek Starbucks with its stylized ethnic art and bright orange panels, I realized Delhi-ites maybe didn’t know they actually had it better. If they try going to a Starbucks in the U.S., they might just feel like they’re slumming it.