‘A historian without linguistic skill and literary abilities and sensibilities would be no historian at all,’ writes A.R. Venkatachalapathy in the Introduction to In Those Days There Was No Coffee. Indeed, this delightful new volume represents that rare thing in Indian history-writing — a thoroughly engaging read. Venkatachalapathy’s writing on the cultural history of colonial Tamilnadu would be enjoyed equally by both the scholar looking for a nuanced and lucid narrative based on thorough research, as well as the lay, informed reader in search of a classic good read.
The essays fall into two distinct sections. The essays in the first section contribute to an as yet unwritten history of consumption in colonial India. Taking up both material (coffee, tea and tobacco) and cultural (the cartoon, the city and modern literature) artefacts, the first five chapters explore how these were consumed in colonial Tamil society. The chapters in the second part, broadly concerned with the politics of language, literature and identity in colonial Tamilnadu, make an important contribution to the cultural history of the Dravidian movement. A historical exploration of how the Tamil literary canon was constructed leads to chapters on the ways in which this canon was used to construct identity. The author draws from sources as varied as poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, comments, advertisements, and notices to bring to life a rich and vibrant cultural history. As authoritative as they are captivating, the nine essays in the volume represent another valuable addition to the small corpus of history titles which also qualify as accomplished writing.