Hey readers! I'm excited to introduce my my friend writer Rheea Mukherjee to you! Rheea graciously agreed to be part of my "global update" project and this is her first entry. Enjoy!
Starbucks comes to Bangalore - Rheea Mukherjee
At age 30 my identity crises has much to do with Grande Iced Americanos handed over to me by a barista who knows my name.
In San Francisco, three years ago, I doled out unadulterated judgment onto the few fellow grad students who sauntered into class with venti soy lattes in hand. The climate was good for such judgment. We were in SF, in art school, acutely aware of the sharp teeth capitalism chewed the local economy with. There were limitless options to have a fine brew without having to step into the den of the green goblin. Blanket stereotype alert: poor writers in San Francisco just don’t do it.
Then this happened. Starbucks made its way to Bangalore earlier this year, stunning urbanites with their suave greetings, hyper customization and rocket-fueled prices.
Bangalore has been a coffee cafe city since about 2000. That’s when Cafe Coffee Day brought a string of cafes into the city and made lattes and samosas the staple after-college treat. Until then, espresso based drinks weren’t the most common fluid of choice.
Facts first, coffee has always been a South Indian staple. To be precise, we call it filter coffee, a version of espresso made in a stainless steel contraption. A blend of chicory and coffee is processed through hot water- the end result is called decoction and poured into cups with frothy milk and sugar. Coffee candy, I like to call it. Most South Indian households wake up to it’s delicious aroma, drink another small cup before lunch, after lunch, and before dinner for good measure. Local eateries that sell South Indian breakfast and lunch always serve filter coffee in the south of India.
This is our local brew, our limitless choice, and our local celebration.
Then there was Coffee Cafe Day that marched in as India’s first ‘foreign coffee’ cafe that spilt the fertile beans of cafe globalization in the country.
And boy did it sprout. Barista came in, and then there was Costa Coffee (a European Chain?) and they all did the mochas and the ice blended caffeine shakes and added other extra-sweet (Indian-tongue-enforced) options to drink the bean.
It also curated another division of globalized class. Now the middle class and the upper middle class could have their filter coffee at breakfast and relax with a latte and a veg puff in the evening. Espresso danced on the tongues of young Indians, at a time when disposable income was increasing faster than the next flyover being built.
It was all fair game for me, some filter coffee at a friend’s house, a cappuccino in the afternoon, using public transport, going on my fifth year of vegetarianism, being adequately aware of my privilege, and reading enough articles on gender politics. All in tune with my writer identity, my baby steps trying to be ethically thoughtful. It was easy enough.
A few months ago I co-founded a content and design company. Both my partner and I decided one part of our operations would be curating local champions in the city on our social media page. The ideology being local businesses should support our community and celebrate it. Nice, nah? Very San Francisco and all that.
Except we work out of Starbucks.
We drink, on average, five Iced Americanos and 2 plates of hummus and pita, or a couple basil and mozzarella on multi grain a day. Most people raise their eyebrows at us, not because of ethics but because of price. “It’s our office rent money” we snap back. It is: there is free Internet at Starbucks, and with their American-bred ‘space and individuality centered customer service’ they don’t care of you sit there all day. Their interiors are divine and seem especially luxurious since the outside of urban India (pollution, broken sidewalks, garbage, and the loveliest stray dogs) have never been in line with what lays inside our globalized malls, restaurants, cafes, and especially, Starbucks. The little happy world of green-aproned Indians who now have another coveted job opportunity in a country that is bustling with lower middle class upbringing and education. Those aspirational twenty-something’s who can’t make it in the engineering job circuit now have choices.
The educated being open to ‘menial’ jobs like waiters of cafe baristas is spanking new in India. I once explained this concept to a wide-eyed American over, well, coffee. If you are middle class then having a part-time job or working at a cafe or delivering pizza wasn’t something you would do. Period. The architecture of this mentality is simple labor economics. In a country this populous there are far too many poor who will do the job. It also helped that two decades ago their hadn’t been a need for candied American smiles and customer feedback.
The foreign market only opened in the nineties and boomed in the 2000’s leaving urban Indians to scamper and create new social parameters. Labor is still the easiest thing to find, it’s why the lower middle class can have someone who does the dishes, why our apartment guard also washes cars on the side, and why, most stunningly, we have man that pushes the freaking parking ticket machine button at the mall, takes out the ticket, and, wait for it, hands it over to you. The service force of India was just that, service people with no distinguished personalities for the privileged elite. People who had to work, and go back to sleep, and then work. Their purpose was to survive.
Now, a section of people who have an education, but perhaps not the polish and slickness of a yuppie finally had chances to jump into the new market energy and build an identity for themselves. They had to run away form the box of middle class thinking- why isn’t she just married, her husband can take care of her,nah? Why can’t he try to compete for a computer diploma? Then he can work at an IT firm. Some of them are at Starbucks. They have trained hard to shed our inherent Indian coyness. We are not an elevator conversation culture. We’re shy and only intrusive to semi-strangers about their marital status. We are not used to looking at strangers coming through a door and shouting "Welcome Sheetal! Will it be the usual Java chip?”
Some of the men have a ear piercings, some look like they hit the gym often, the girls, shyer, still make a joke or two, their traditional Indian gold studs and tiny bindis the only sign of their more traditional roots.
Starbucks crafts its baristas on the fact that they have lives that they are individuals who talk to you like your friend. American bred equality and individuality has (superficially?) coated the city. And we, as a nation are not sure how all this will pan out. I don’t think we are self aware enough to ask ourselves this one solid question: Will we all become creatures that build our social identity on the dictates of global economics and demand? The pros and cons are easy to identify and it sharply depends on ones personal cultural awareness, expectations and what we consider progress is.
I am not sure about ethics anymore. It’s a mix. I am a mix: I am an Apple consumer, socially awkward, a once politically active college student, a social worker, a writer, a compulsive clothes shopper, a privileged upper middle class urbanite.
Being back in Bangalore as a resident after the 90’s has me an infant all over again. Wide-eyed and gleeful at the prospect of getting my coffee right, relishing free internet and liking the expression of confusion and intrigue when I tell the Indian barista over here “Did you know, when I lived in the U.S I worked as a barista too?”
These are the thoughts in the life of confused Bangalorean. This has no moral or political ideology. It’s just, something had to be said. If this blog has you hankering for a deeper conversation, then if you ever visit Bangalore, coffee is on me.