The forgotten caste history of an everyday practice: Drinking Filter Coffee
In last week’s class, we discussed Ambedkar’s observations on how caste draws its power by regulating everyday practices: what one wears, what one eats, etc. In this post, I want to point out one such common cultural practice that has its origin in caste prejudice. In Chennai (where I’m from), a section of society (typically upper-caste, middle-class) drinks what is called filter coffee. In fact, it’s one of the distinctive things about Chennai, and Tamil Nadu as a whole, to Indians from other states. Filter coffee is typically drunk from a cup-saucer combination called the davara tumbler, which looks like this:
This is where I disclose that I love filter coffee, and grew up in one such upper-caste, middle-class household, albeit one that was rationalist and anti-caste. I’ve drunk coffee from the davara tumbler all my life, and till a few years ago, never wondered why the tumbler (cup) has the weird design that it does.
A few years back, I read an essay on coffee drinking in the late 19th and early 20th c. in Tamil Nadu. At this time, coffee slowly started to become fashionable with the middle classes. So, when Brahmin families had guests over, they were expected to serve coffee. This was a problem for orthodox Brahmin families that have strict restrictions to avoid caste “pollution,” which includes sharing utensils used for eating and drinking. In an urban setting, ritual caste practices are hard to maintain–oftentimes the family would not immediately know the caste of the guest, and would not risk the impoliteness of offering coffee in a cup different from what was used by the household. As it turns out, the tumbler has its unique design (with the curving rim) so Brahmins could pour the coffee down their throats without their lips touching the cup. I’ve never drunk it like this, though I’ve seen older people in my family do so, although I’m pretty sure they have no idea that the practice was originally casteist. What a devious way to avoid pollution while still keeping up the pretense of hospitality!
For some reason, nobody I know has any idea what the origin of the davara tumbler is. At some point it appears that anxieties over pollution became less intense, though families held on to the davara tumbler as a cultural tradition. Now, it’s a cultural marker of South India, and the use of the davara tumbler is widespread among all castes.
Source: AR Venkatachalapathy, “Coffee Drinking and Middle-Class Culture”