India is the world’s sixth largest producer of coffee, which is mostly grown in the three southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, followed by Andhra Pradesh and present-day Telangana and Odisha. The thickly canopied Western Ghats, in the foothills of which most coffee plantations thrive, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s most vital biodiversity hotspots. Nearly 65 per cent of the total coffee production comes from Karnataka, 18 per cent from Kerala, Tamil Nadu contributes approximately 15 per cent and Andhra 2 per cent.

It is estimated that there are more than 2,10,000 coffee producers in India. The majority of them are small farmers with plots of around 2 hectares. In the 2016-17 season, India produced 55 lakh bags of coffee.

Judging by quantity, tea is more widely consumed in India than coffee. But in the southern regions, coffee has for long been the morning, mid-day and evening beverage, a mental kick-starter for college youth and an ambrosia for all ages. I personally cannot imagine my growing-up years without it. Every morning after breakfast, my mother would pour three-fourths of a steel tumbler of jaggery-sweetened coffee for each of us kids, and half a steel tumbler with the evening snack.

In college, coffee-drinking was unrestricted, until many dozens of large aluminium kettles at the canteen were all emptied out. When money permitted, we drank coffee in little cafes, where the price of 35-50 paise a cup suited our budgets.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, drinking coffee was still a Western habit in India. Through the generations, there has been a repeated flogging of coffee as a drink associated with wickedness and devilry – it is bemusing that coffee has been indicted through its entire history and yet held on to its unique reputation.

In the early years of coffee cultivation in India, it was drunk mainly by the British. Prejudice towards coffee came from all types of people, but mainly from those who could not stomach this vigorous drink, and those who virtuously frowned upon the bonhomie between coffee drinkers and their easy ability to sustain themselves during long hours of heated arguments.

Whatever the reason, in the early twentieth century, coffee-drinking was blamed because it encouraged indulgences of the joyful kind, some of which had the potential to make one too zestful.

Loud enjoyment has been everywhere roundly condemned by a long list of purists (for the younger generation, you could add ‘parents’ to that list). So much so that coffee came to be referred to as kutty kallu (minor alcohol) in parts of south India.

At first, the brahmins, and especially those involved in the freedom struggle who decried coffee drinking as an unwholesome ‘Western’ habit, soon fell under its spell. The brahmins nosed it out before other natives and set upon it in earnest. Coffee-drinking became an early-morning necessity, a 4 o’clock ritual, and a beverage served to guests at any time of the day as a sign of exclusivity. A handful of coffee beans would be roasted every morning, pounded and used to make a fresh coffee decoction, which was then drunk with hot milk. The right amount of sugar was used to lessen its bitterness without reducing the flavour.

Many staunch freedom fighters like Kamaraj, Rajagopalachari and others from the southern states loved their kaapi. It was soon to become a household essential. In 1921, Gandhi’s Young India received a letter which said that fashionable brahmin ladies drank up to three cups of coffee a day, used clothes sourced from Britain and whiled away their time in idle gossip when it was their duty to reject British-made goods and keep away from the evil drink and join the freedom struggle. Gandhi himself was sensible enough to raise no protest against the drinking of coffee (though he did go after the brahmin women for using foreign cloth instead of the hand-spun khadi).

A matter of concern for Gandhi was the caste-based segregation prevalent in coffee houses of the day, with hotels and coffee shops putting up signs like ‘Brahmins only’, ‘Shudras not allowed’ or ‘Shudras, Panchamas, Muslims and Christians will not be served food, snacks or water here’.

Some coffee houses put up boards to say that people of the lower castes should not walk on the streets where they were situated. Periyar (EV Ramasamy), the Tamil leader who fought for the self-respect and dignity of all castes, highlighted the caste prejudices of coffee shops in the early twentieth century.

This gave a fillip to the later political movements which were against Hinduism for this very reason. In Salem, Tamil Nadu, the Congress party fought for a resolution to cancel the licences of coffee houses and hotels which promoted caste prejudice. During that time, one of their leaders, Kannan, walked into a coffee house with his friends and insisted on being served. It was late afternoon and this popular hub of coffee drinkers of the area was abuzz with chatter. The owner found himself in a quandary. ‘You are a Congressman, and a leader, so I will make an exception,’ he said. ‘You along with your friends can drink coffee here; it costs only three pice . . . but you must wash your glasses after drinking because they would have been polluted by . . .your touch.’

‘Keep your coffee and the insult you are flinging at us,’ thundered Kannan in fury. ‘You will soon be paying for your pride.’ Two days later, the entrance to the coffee house was blocked by angry protesters demanding a ban on all such outdated customs. A resolution to that effect was soon in place and Kannan’s stand was vindicated.

The popular impression of a coffee planter living in the o mist-covered hills of Coorg, Wayanad or Chikmagalur in a sprawling bungalow, with a gorgeous wife who ensures sumptuous food on a rosewood table, surrounded by swashbuckling young men and comely women, living an utterly enviable lifestyle with a foreign holiday thrown in once a year – all of this is very real and very true.

There are, however, other facts which have been lost in the mist: a very small fraction of coffee planters belong to this elite group; few own more than 10 acres of land. Most of them survive on 5 or less; they struggle from year to year and are heavily dependent on bank loans in order to manage their coffee cultivation from one season to the next.

The Plantation Labour Act (PLA) has ensured that the workers get fair wages, housing and other emoluments which are revised every three years.

This expenditure swings up and never down, and even if coffee prices crash, the planters must continue to spend money to maintain their estates and pay fair wages. They are at the mercy of the vagaries of weather, water, prices, marketing, disease, and the export norms and regulations which govern the coffee industry. The small percentage of planters who own large estates are well tuned into the system and have enough finances to see two generations through.

But big or small, there are very few environmentally conscious planters. Others – both British and Indian – undertook large-scale felling of trees to set up plantations, thus initiating the process of the systematic denudation of the rich tropical forests that once girded the foothills of the Western Ghats. After the British left, the process of deforestation picked up speed. Prosperity brought better housing, private vehicles, more comforts and many luxuries.

Cherry Red, Cherry Black: The Story of Coffee in India

Excerpted with permission from Cherry Red, Cherry Black: The Story of Coffee in India, Kavery Nambisan, Bloomsbury.