I have long been on a quest for good coffee corners in the city where one can imbibe caffeine in peace and have a good experience that is usually not to be found in the run-of-the-mill chain cafés. This is where Varta’s attempts to identify cafes and eateries that are a little different, that have something other than just commerce driving them, that provide an experience different from just another chain café, dovetails nicely into my search.
On a recommendation from a friend, my ‘co-searcher’ Lipikor and I ended up at Zoom Tea-O- Graphy in Hindustan Park, near Gariahat, one summer afternoon. The first impressions were along the lines of ‘quaint’, ‘intimate’ and ‘arty’, which are all the things that call out to me in a hang-out. The service was prompt and friendly, my iced black coffee and Lipikor’s cold coffee were well made and robust; and being the only two people there that early gave us the chance to look around in peace.
What I liked about the space was the fact that something that could’ve been restrictively small had been turned into an intimate space, conducive to cross-group conversations by the way it was arranged. As the owner Shankhadeep Mitra explained to me on my second visit, “The seating design is deliberately open and communal-feeling instead of being table-centric, as is the case in most places of this sort.”
Not having your own little contained corner encourages people to talk to each other, across tables, helped along by Shankhadeep and chef Rupam. I witnessed a bit of this during my first visit, when a group of youngsters walked in, in two groups, but soon spread out across the space and a conversation got going, peppered by smiles and nods from Lipikor and me at appropriate moments. Had I not been in a hurry to get home, I’m sure I would’ve made a bunch of new friends. But the day over, and the fries long gone, we left soon after.
I was quite eager, therefore, to go back and talk to Shankhadeep about his venture, the ideas behind it, the food, the journey, and future plans. It’s seldom, after all, that a café in Kolkata isn’t just queer-friendly but is actually queer-owned, with a stated mandate of doing something for the queer communities.
Banker turned entrepreneur Shankhadeep was inspired by a little tea shop in Bangalore to try something similar in Kolkata – because Kolkata, as he says so aptly, is the abode of the ‘cha people’. Renting space on the ground floor of a friend’s lovely old house (over 100 years old) in Hindustan Park and planning an old-Bengal bairer ghar kind of adda space that would encourage conversation, art and culture was but the logical next step. With handholding support from friends in the food and restaurant industries, financed with the help of another long-term friend from the banking industry, he opened the café in January 2020.
Things were going well. Friends, friends of friends, neighbours and relatives kept the evenings busy, and word spread about the new venture. That is when the first round of COVID-19 lockdowns started. “Our planned timeline for breaking even was completely derailed,” recounts Shankhadeep.
Zoom Tea-O-Graphy reopened with home deliveries-only in late May 2020, followed by a proper reopening in June. The café restarted its journey of encouraging culture and conversation, and its drive to help the queer communities in Kolkata in various ways. This is also when Rupam, the not-yet-30 artiste of fusion food, joined the team, having been prevented by travel restrictions from returning to his job in the US. Shankhadeep and Rupam combined forces and set out to recapture the charms of old-Kolkata ‘cabin hotel’ kind of snacks, the simplicity of an adda ghar, and a comfortable place to work and network.
Surviving through the next lockdown was a challenge, but they did weather it and now people have started to become more aware of the place. In addition, with the owner being a part of the ever-growing queer circles in Kolkata, friends and friends of friends from the community have started visiting and adding to the word-of-mouth publicity.
Setting themselves apart from the competition through an innovative menu of fusion foods, combining Bengali delicacies with European flavours, special food weekends, interesting and exclusive teas, queer themed events and more, Zoom Tea-O-Graphy is holding on to the dream.
Rupam chips in, “There’re plans for more specials in the near future, for the upcoming festival season, and an Irani chai kiosk on the pavement just outside the café is set to come up by the end of this month.” Plans are also in the pipeline to start a breakfast service, something that’s still not common in the city, as soon as some personnel issues are sorted out.
In the meantime, I definitely recommend their Malai Curry Penne accompanied by the Mango ManHattan and followed by the MihiDana Tart!
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Something that immediately catches the eye as one enters Zoom Tea-O-Graphy is an entire wall of paintings and photographs. Shankhadeep informs that one of the things he always wanted for the café was a theme that would set it apart. As the son of an amateur photography enthusiast, and someone who himself started his photography journey with a Kodak Kroma gifted to him as a child, it seemed perfect to combine his love for fine tea and photography in the café.
The photo wall started as a way to showcase Shankhadeep’s own photo-portrait collection, soon grew into something of a conversation point, and then morphed into its current avatar. The wall features artwork – photographs, paintings, mixed media – by friends and patrons of the café, and the artist’s details are available on enquiry if any of the customers are interested in buying a piece.
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Combining a gallery space with the constant visibility of a café with a good footfall, Zoom Tea-O-Graphy also hosts exhibitions of artwork, clothing (ethnic, designer wear, and otherwise), and more. These often include performances and installations to reach out to a wider audience and to put the artists in touch with potential buyers and investors.
Shankhadeep and Rupam also host pop-ups with entrepreneurs from within and outside the queer communities who are interested in hiring from community groups or investing in community ventures. Evening addas across tables in the café have also led to musical evenings, starting with jam sessions by regulars and growing into full-blown performances.
Another happy feature of the café are the play tables. A couple of tables are board games like Ludo, snakes and ladders, and chess. The café also offers Uno. This is fun not just for the kids when they visit with parents but is also a great way to promote friendly competitions and banter among adult patrons. The games encourage people to put away their mobile phones and be more present and engaged when they play.
The café offers a friendly place to work from. Now that work-from-home is not going away, the café offers a change of scenery for anyone who needs a break from the confines of their home. The conversations and exchange of thoughts that take place at the café may just spark off ideas for a short film, a music group or performances, or simply help to connect with interesting people. A supportive and empathetic space is what Shankhadeep and Rupam are trying to foster, with drop-ins not just from the queer and artist communities or tea and coffee lovers, but also from people visiting the mental health clinic across the street.
On whether such a venture as Zoom Tea-O-Graphy would have been possible a decade ago, Shankhadeep says, “The huge jump in access to international content via OTT platforms, and the increasing trend of Indian content with queer storylines and sub-plots has surely helped in changing mindsets. This wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”
He adds that there’s been a surprising amount of acceptance from the neighbours and also the larger community around. Many of the fashion shows hosted by the café take place on the pavement outside the café, and people have even offered space for the performers to change costumes between items. “There’s been no backlash against the visibility of trans and queer performers,” adds Shankhadeep.
This has enabled the café to grow into an inclusive go-to space for everyone – foodies, artists, patrons, community members and their allies alike. Can anything less be expected of a Kolkata food enterprise with a heart?
About the main photograph: Zoom Tea-O-Graphy owner Shankhadeep Mitra (left) and chef Rupam outside their café. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall