Shalim M Hussain
If you are across the road from Gauhati Commerce College and walking down the lane to Rajgarh, take a look at your right and you will see the bright white billboard of Back Benchers Cafe. The logo, in blue and black is a silhouette of four girls on a bench. One of the girls is narrating a joke, one giggling, one with a hand raised in suspended animation is preparing a paper aeroplane for launch and the fourth is falling over the bench, probably out of laughter or just horsing around. The logo says a lot about the cafe, a bright little space with white walls, white marble floors, and furniture painted in blue and white, and run and staffed entirely by women. The stairway leading from the ground floor to the first floor of the building where the cafe is located is decorated with framed collages and sketches giving the place a welcoming kindergartenesque feel.
Slow and Steady Growth
Banamallika Choudhury, one of the proprietors and my hostess for the evening says that before Back Benchers Cafe, there was just a toilet door and betel stains on the stairway. ‘We had the stairs scrubbed and put up the collages both to beautify this place and deter people from spitting’. The toilet door, adjacent to the open kitchen is painted in beautiful white-and-blue floral designs. It was this door that inspired the blue and white theme of the cafe. On the wall adjacent to the toilet are two large army maps from the 1970s (now declassified) and there are three small bookracks stacked with graphic novels, travelogues, fiction and thrillers. You can read the books in the cafe and if you’d like to borrow one just pay a hundred rupees as security and take it home for a week. I am here for dinner and the specials are Thai green curry, Goan vindaloo and North East bamboo shoot curry. Each dish comes with a side of sticky rice and a salad.
Back Benchers Cafe was inaugurated on 10th November 2016, a day after the demonetization drive. ‘We had a very slow growth’, says Manisha Khaund, co-proprietor of Back Bencher’s Cafe. She is an advocate by training (she doesn’t practice anymore) and also runs My Magic Oven, the bakery section of the cafe. ‘At the initial stage, our customers were friends and family. But since no one had much money at hand, we invited them to dine on credit.
Not many were willing to do that’. On 9th December 2016, one month after demonetization and close to the month anniversary of the cafe, they hosted a reading of poems on demonetization. Events are a regular feature here though the venue has now been shifted to NeThing, Banamallika’s store in a different room in the same building. Back Benchers Cafe has hosted among others musicians Akhu Chingangbam and Moushumi Bhowmick, and writers Mitra Phukan, Teresa Rahman and Akashitora.
A Space to ‘Stand and Stare’
I decide to try their Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian stir-fry rice dish. Shanti and Nilakshi, the two women who share the responsibility of cooking and serving fire up a plat bottomed pan. They heat a little oil and fry onions, ginger and garlic paste, soy sauce, shrimp paste and pre-boiled meat and fry it for a while. Back Bencher’s allows you to customize your dish according to preference, so I ask for some fish sauce in my Nasi Goreng. Shanti then adds in pre-cooked rice. It has to be stir fried for a few more minutes and the Nasi Goreng is done. So what was the motive behind opening this cafe, I ask Banamallika. She gives me two reasons. First that there is a lack of mid-range restaurants in Guwahati. And that she and Manisha wanted to create a space which would be run by women. It is sad that the restaurant scene in Guwahati, much like any other city, is largely male-dominated. ‘Because all of us associated with running the cafe are mothers, we wanted this place to be a comfortable space for mothers and children’, says Banamallika. In one corner of the cafe is a set of shelves with story books, colouring books and colouring pencils and toys for children.
The Nasi Goreng comes topped with a fried egg. It’s wonderful! The shrimp paste and fish sauce have blended with the rice and there is a little sweetness from the soy sauce. ‘Is it usually this good?’ I ask Banamallika. She takes a bite and nods. Back Benchers uses mostly locally sourced condiments and in case something is not locally available, the cooks modify the dish a little. Behind the cafe is a small terrace garden where they grow basil and lemongrass. The dried shrimp for the Nasi Goreng comes from Manipur. The underlying principle is to use as little canned or processed stuff as possible.
So, that’s what Back Benchers Cafe is- a cozy little room beside the busy Chandmari flyover, sunlit and warm in the day and airy in the evenings, run by mothers, filled with playing children. This is as homely as it can get!