“In Those days there was no coffee” by A.R.Venkatachalapathy is a collection of nine essays that attempt to capture some of the more recent trends in the writing of cultural and social history of modern India
The essays in the first section deal with cultural practices of consumption, the acculturation of coffee by the Brahmin middle class elite in Tamilnadu, and the reception of tobacco being instances in point. The adoption, popularity and circulation of cartoons in journalism was another conspicuous practice that was picked up by the reading public and which was expressive of the new sensibilities that informed the middle class. The second section deals more specifically issues of identity built around language.
The essays on consumption practices make excellent reading. The modalities of how the adoption of this beverage by the middle class in Madras became enmeshed in their larger engagement with modernity, experienced in new urban spaces of college and cafes are captured very eloquently.
On a different but comparable register, we have the instance of the political cartoon that Bharati the Tamil poet adopted and popularized. The circulation of cartoons in Tamil as part of a new literary and reading habit is vividly reconstructed; although, here, it would have been instructive to draw parallels with the experience and trajectory of cartoons and caricatures in Bengal, how these fed into the demand of a booming market for picture prints and book illustrations.
In the second section, the emphasis is on the making of a modern literary canon. This was distinguished by an emphasis on new notions of secularity and historic, linear time. The secularizing of Tamil classics was played out in literary and aesthetic terms and located within the Tamil-Sanskrit divide and the signs that these traditions carried in them.