India is being invaded yet again, but this time by Seattle’s favourite army masquerading as a coffee chain. In “Coffee vs Tea: Is India falling for the cappuccino?“, Rajini Vaidyanathan explores Starbucks’ imminent infiltration of the Indian streets.
In the land where chai was invented, what devastating effects will Starbucks have? On the one hand, chai stalls are already overshadowed by local and international coffee chains in the north. In the south, the traditional kapi has always held sway. Brewed and served pre-sweetened, kapi is made in homes and at South Indian restaurants. It is nothing like the lattés and cappuccinos of the west.
However, upper and upper-middle-class tastes are becoming geared towards western coffee—as much because it is a status symbol to be seen in a coffee shop as that the product itself is in demand.
So what of the poor chai vendors of the Indian streets? I doubt they will go extinct: simply because they are a staple of the working classes, which constitute a majority of the Indian population.
What the article says is fairly accurate: coffee shops provide community hangouts, and canoodling spots for young lovers who would otherwise be forced to go to parks, where they are harassed by cops for their PDA.
I briefly went to a girls’ boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas. While the students were from privileged backgrounds, they led very sheltered and regimented lives, where even catching a glimpse of the opposite sex was a luxury. The local Barista café was a place where the girls and boys of the town’s boarding schools could meet for a few precious hours each weekend. The café even kept a guitar for the sole purpose of serenading.
A culture is developing around coffee that has more to do with the atmosphere cafés provide than the drink itself. In India, its social purpose is magnified because of the restrictions placed on young people concerning bars and dating.
While these restrictions are not universal or as widespread as the article makes it seem, the exceptions are confined to the minority of comparatively wealthy, Westernized, urban youth whose families allow them to party.
So coffee shops are not dating hubs for the crème-de-la-crème or the very poor. They are more like a service for the middle-income and upper-middle-income youth. Starbucks is poised to cash in on this demographic, and as a coffee addict, I’m not complaining. What’s more, India can always export its extra chai to the west, where its novelty value will supercede any requirement that it actually taste good.
Oh wait, Starbucks already did that.