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Cultural Signifiers

Vijaya Ramaswamy

By A.R. Venkatachalapathy
2006, pp. xxiv 199, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 12 December 2006

Reading this book was as pleasurable as having a cup of that delicious brewed coffee that became a cultural signifier of the Tamil way of life in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. To those who associate scholarship with dullness, I would strongly recommend Chalapathy’s book since it is consistently both scholarly and lively.   The book is a collection of nine essays covering a gamut of Tamil experiences from drinking coffee to writing literature and playing politics in colonial Tamil Nadu. The first two essays are definitely seminal to the cultural historian. The first is titled ‘In those Days There Was No Coffee’: Coffee drinking and Middle Class Culture in Colonial Tamil Nadu. This brilliant essay breaks through hierarchy of knowledge and hierarchy of sources that has characterized much of history writing. The hierarchy of knowledge is primarily created by looking at canonical texts in Sanskrit and their interpretation in English books written by Orientalists, Nationalists or any other brand of historical scholarship characterized by one ‘ism’ or another. Chalapathy uses collective memory, biographies, fiction and oral traditions to reconstruct the cultural past of the Tamils and in so doing, opens up refreshingly new dimensions to the study of social history. Since the second essay in the collection ‘Triumph of tobacco’ also treats of newly emerging consumption patterns, I would like to review the two together.   “In those days there was no coffee” was a stock phrase in autobiographies written in the early decades of the twentieth century. Coffee drinking became a cultural practice some time in the late twenties or the thirties. To add to the store of recollections recorded by Chalapathy and in some sense to go beyond them, my mother now in her eighties and herself the author of an autobiography Bride at Ten, Mother at Fifteen’, says that in the early decades what went in the name of coffee was lots of chicory, dried ginger and coriander seeds with perhaps a whiff of coffee, perhaps not. The sweetening agent was not sugar but jaggery. Maybe Chalapathy should interview women with memories of that era to have an understanding of these proto-coffee brews.   The growing popularity of coffee and tobacco among the middle class Tamils led to ideological battlelines being drawn between the pro-coffee and anti-coffee lobbies. Chalapathy quotes a 1914 ‘Chindu’ a poetic form of folk narration/song titled ‘The quarrel between English Coffee ...

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