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Adda and lemon tea at Shaheen Bagh

In Shaheen Bagh, the hub of the protests in Delhi, a cosy café that began with a decade-long interfaith friendship has got an unexpected taste of revolution

Musician Haider Saif sings Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge at Café Temptation.
Musician Haider Saif sings Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge at Café Temptation. (Mustafa Quraishi)

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent takedown of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Why we forgot about the conspiracy that was uncovered in the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. How you have to be named Parvez to make it in politics in these parts. How the mainstream media is under-reporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests that are unfolding across the country.

In Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the hub of the protests, a cosy café has got an unexpected taste of revolution. In recent weeks, all the conversations here have turned sharply political.

At one table, a local youth leader dressed in a white kurta-pajama with a blue Nehru jacket sits under three wall shelves that are stocked with a mix of books from George Orwell’s 1984 and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma’s Highway On My Plate, and compares the reportage of the Anna Hazare movement against corruption in 2011 to that of the ongoing protests.

A television reporter tells local politician Ashu Khan that a portion of the interview he gave her earlier in the day had aired on her channel. Most people in this neighbourhood recognize Khan—a café regular—partly because of the posters that for several years have carried his photograph and phone number with the simple message: Ashu Khan For Any Help.

In recent weeks, the women of this neighbourhood have made international headlines for their protest against the CAA and rattled Union home minister Amit Shah so much that he has campaigned against their peaceful defiance on more than one occasion in the run-up to the Delhi election on 8 February.

Meanwhile, in Shaheen Bagh, the protest has spilled beyond the central tent where the women have sat for nearly 50 days and where the quality of patriotic speeches and poetry is inversely proportionate to the lateness of the hour. Now there’s a stage where indie bands perform; an overbridge that has been repurposed as an art gallery; protesters take photographs or stage tableaux—a group of students stands solemnly holding candles in their palms, unflinching as the wax melts on their skin—in front of installations of an India map and India Gate; a photography exhibition depicts how the protests began from Delhi’s top universities.

Thousands of people attend every day and the buzz extends to the parallel 40ft road where kebab and tandoor chai shops share space with dry cleaners, dentists, an Aggarwal Sweets and a neighbourhood café that has become the politically charged India Coffee House of the digital age.

Café Temptation, opposite juice store Juicy Lucy, has become the favoured hang-out spot for students, scholars, politicians, journalists, photographers, activists and visiting speakers such as Salman Khurshid, Shashi Tharoor, Sadaf Jafar and Zeeshan Ayyub.

“Hipster spaces like these don’t find a place in the recent and popular imagination of Shaheen Bagh, which is still perceived as a ghetto," says writer Salman Usmani, who visits regularly to observe the protest. “In the past few weeks, these small cafés and eateries have become the places where politics is discussed. The 40ft road on which this café is located is like an artery, constantly feeding in fresh energy and ideas on to the protest outside."

Visitors sit back on the comfortable black faux leather sofas amid walls decorated with an assortment of empty frames painted black, quotations—All you need is love and Wi-Fi—and images downloaded from the internet and printed on glossy paper. They sip endless cups of lemon tea, order Maggi with a side of boiled eggs and discuss politics. Why did the Congress party take so long to announce the candidature of veteran politician Parvez Hashmi from the Okhla constituency (which includes Shaheen Bagh) in the Delhi election?

If you are lucky you will be there on an evening when musicians Haider Saif or Saba Azad are cajoled to sing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, though you should also be prepared to encounter customers who play videos on their phone on full volume oblivious to their surroundings. “Delhi Police hai hai" echoes through the café on loop on one of the days I visit.

Azad posted on Instagram that after attending and singing at the protest, she wandered around looking for chai at 11pm and stumbled into the café. “It was full of fellow protesters and I found myself cornered into croaking again cause the only thing you can say no to in Shaheen Bagh is fascism." The later you go, the more people you meet.

The café began with a decade-long interfaith friendship that turned into a business partnership. “These days it’s tough for people from two communities to be friends, leave alone have enough trust to start a business. But we were confident about starting something together," says Kavita, one of the original trio of friends, who runs the place these days. The three friends rented a small space in 2017, selling ice creams and milkshakes. That winter they expanded the menu to machine coffee. They picked Shaheen Bagh because the area was a shopping hub and it didn’t have ice-cream parlours or big-brand coffee chains.

When a cavernous parking lot became available two doors away a few months later, they decided to take the plunge, and opened the new, improved café during Christmas 2018, says Kavita, who quit her job as a PWD billing councillor to work full time at the café. These days you will usually spot Kavita or her younger sister Vandana behind the counter.

For a few months, the friends hired a former Café Coffee Day staffer who helped them understand the café business and Kavita, who grew up in Varanasi, embraced YouTube to learn sandwich-making, as well as Italian and Chinese food. “My chilli potatoes are to die for," she says.

“Life changed overnight for us with the protest," she says, adding that for the first few days of the protest she was so worried she kept her café closed. “I didn’t believe my café would become so famous overnight."

Sales are up fourfold and even the businessmen who have been forced to shut their stores because they are located at the protest site meet here to discuss why the protests need to stop.

Local politician Parvez Alam says Café Temptation is a classic example of Shaheen Bagh’s inclusivity. “Vandana and Kavita feel safe here. We have space here for everyone and don’t believe in excluding anyone. This is what Shaheen Bagh is."

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