In Those Days There was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History

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The essays fall into two distinct sections. The essays in the first section contribute to an as yet unwritten history of consumption in colonial India. Taking up both material (coffee, tea and tobacco) and cultural (the cartoon, the city and modern literature) artefacts, the first five chapters explore how these were consumed in colonial Tamil society. The chapters in teh second part, broadly concerned with the politics of language, literature and identity in colonial Tamilnadu, make an important contribution to the cultural history of the Dravidian movement. A historical exploration of how the Tamil literary canon was constructed leads to chapters on the ways in which this canon was used to construct identity. The author draws from sources as varied as poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, comment, advertisemnet, and notices to bring to life a rich and vibrant cultural history. As authoritative as they are captivating, the nine essays in the volume represent another valuable addition to the small corpus of history titles which also qualify as accomplished writing.

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Book Review:
In those days there was no coffee
Writing in Cultural History
AR Venkatachalapthy
‘History is not yet what it aught to be’ – Marc Bloch
This book narrates the day to day life of Tamil Nadu in colonial time and their cultural artefacts in those days. AR Venkatachalapathy explains how coffee, tea, tobacco and other cultural signs had significant meanings in the colonial time. Instead of going to the stereotypical, elite and traditional historical narratives, Venkitachalapathy, a disciple of KN Panikkar, searches what roles coffee, tea and tobacco engaged in the making of modern Tamil Nadu.
The book is divided in two parts and in the first part both material (coffee, tea and tobacco) and cultural (the cartoon, the city and modern literature) artefacts are elucidated and further the books related how they were consumed in colonial Tamil Nadu. And in the second part, it engages with the politics of language and identity in colonial Tamil Nadu. In the first part, the discussion is about the coffee. Coffee is not a simple word in those days. It is something very important sign, a cultural symbol which differentiates a range of cultures which transform through various trajectories. Drinking coffee was considered as a habit of middle class/ upper class/ caste of Tamil Nadu. Coffee has been accepted in the cultural domain of Tamil Nadu after years’ long negotiations with the tradition and practices. It was also considered as the symbol of acceptance of modernity of Tamil Brahmins and the reluctance of lower class/ caste people. It is not as easy as saying ‘drinking coffee’ but some opine that ‘One can write a whole puranam on coffee’; and ‘to go without my morning cup of coffee is like the world as crucial economic crises.
The story of coffee is a very recent one. According to the archives, the morning cup of coffee was unknown to people in those days. Coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia; but soon it reached in India with it’s its cultural other, tea. But when it was introduced in India, it represented the colonial Europe; soon the debate was centred on the replacing of morning drink –neerajaram- of Indians with an alien drink -coffee-. So the general opinion was that coffee drinking is not required in our nation. Our ancestors never ever consumed it. Coffee is a kind of liquor. Stri Dharma, a radical woman organisation claims: ‘coffee here seems to stimulate cheerful for a little while after drinking, but gradually subvert the vitality of the digestive organs that’s why the body is weak, this creates all sort of unknown diseases. People in Tamil Nadu used to drink the cold rice in those days, but coffee created a threat to that habit. So the debate soon diverted to the English coffee Vs Indian cold rice (payachoru) and cold rice personifies coffee as an immoral woman, who has led people astray and disturbed the (fasting) austerities connected with amavasi, ekadasi and karthigai. The patriarchal way of life taught that women are addicted coffee and consumed to western culture.
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Series Editors Foreword
Coining Words
Triumph of Tobacco
Street Smart in Chennai
Consuming Literature
The Making of a Canon
The Dravidian Movement
Excising the Self

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