Illiterati…… I first read about the café in Abhinav Chandel’s writings. His beautiful photographs of the place, his explicit description of the ambience, food and people made it a must visit café for me. I often wondered about the name. To me, Illiterati meant a not so secret society of people who seemingly know something about every subject. The dictionary says illiterati are the uninformed, insensitive or uneducated people. I wondered why it was called so.
I decided to lunch there the very first day. After visiting the Namgyal monastery, I walk out into the market and ask a few shopkeepers for directions to the café. No one seems to know where it is! So I decide to be tech savvy and use Google maps. The locator tells me I am standing on the road leading to the café!
So I walk down the narrow market lanes, past very interesting shops called Sharlo and Second hand shop and Tibetan Bakery and find myself on Jogiwara Road. It is a narrow road with mountains on one side and away from the hustle and bustle. In another five minutes, I am standing in front of a white building on a cliff with a simple sign that says ‘Illiterati’- books and coffee’. As soon as I enter the open front door, I am transported to another world!
The slate tiled floor leads one into a room with a huge collection of books. On the left is the cash counter which also has shelves filled with postcards and photographs for sale. There are freshly baked croissants and chocolate éclairs on top of the counter. The door to the kitchen is just beside the counter. It is a simple kitchen, clean, well maintained and well-staffed. To the right, there is a reading nook among the bookshelves. A wizard like man with a ponytail and beard is stoking a fire. There are incense sticks all around, most probably nagchampa. There is jaaz playing in the background. A coffee table with low sofas sits beside the reading nook apart from two large wooden tables with heavy wooden chairs, probably made of mahogany or teak. The best places in the café are the three balcony seats, overlooking the mountains with a panoramic view of the valley. Clouds float by the balcony and sometimes threaten to come in. In one corner stands a piano and guitar. Beautiful magenta bougainvillea branches hang outside the window to the right, just behind the music corner.
I sit quietly, as if in a trance, for a few minutes. I am surrounded by tall bookshelves on all sides. There are books in paperback and hard cover. Some of them are rare and unheard of. A book of poems by Jibananda Das catches my attention. I have read a few of his poems in the past and quite liked them. So I sit myself in the balcony and while I browse through this book, I order myself a chicken burger and herbal tea. It’s an awesome burger with a very generous helping of fries. The clouds float by as I sip my tea and eat my burger and I feel I am truly in heaven. I decide to come back to this café every day.
On my second visit, I discover Bhaisaab, a tiny beagle who belongs to the man in the ponytail, probably the owner. His job is to strut all over the café, look at people with his large beagle eyes and convince them to offer him a fry or two. Soon, we are friends. As I sit, playing with Bhaisaab after a meal of chicken snitzel and saffron tea, I receive a text message from Anju telling me about her day and that she is coming to illiterati for lunch. Soon she arrives with Lauren, an American she just met. Lauren is a physiotherapist and is on a solo trip to India. The three of us spend about two hours at the café, and get along like friends who have known each other for ever. Lauren loves dogs and cats and falls in love with Bhaisaab immediately. Anju is scared of them, and screams as Bhaisaab tries to convert her as well. She drops a whole lot of fries in the process, which makes Bhaisaab very happy. He parks himself in our balcony. We take turns for photos with him. He feels very important and looks extremely pleased with all the attention. This company of four rocks the café for a long time.
We decide to leave finally, and walk to the Tibetan Museum, where we are educated about the history of Tibet, the Chinese occupation, the Tibetan exodus and the Tibetan freedom struggle through texts, photographs, videos and installations. We also watch a documentary by a Tibetan woman shot with a mobile camera about the latest situation in Tibet. We are moved by the plight of the Tibetan people.
We part from here, three souls that chanced upon each other for a brief period in time. Lauren leaves for Ladakh, Anju for Dalhousie. I will stay on for some more time, and some more meals at Illiterati, before I too leave. We will probably never see each other again. But those moments spent there with friends made along the way will remain a fond memory forever.