A corporate suicide. Not the first. The last? Who knows. There’s been a strange gloom hanging over the past 36 odd hours, but I hadn’t quite been able to put a finger on it. We journalists are very used to bad news, in fact, far more than we are to good news. Give us bombings, terror attacks, floods, a slowing economy, corporate bankruptcies, crashing markets and the lot – we’ll get through them with a straight face just fine. Just another day at the office.
But there was something about the headline that said: 'India’s Coffee King goes missing'. The eerie feeling started right there. And our worst fears were confirmed on Wednesday morning with VG Siddhartha’s
body being found in the Nethravathi River. India’s Coffee Czar is no more. But why did this news haunt more than others? Why is the impact deeper than the rest of the bad news we are so used to?
My colleague Kevin Lee flashed a light expressing
how a millennial saw CCD. And that helped me put a finger on the overarching sense of gloom I was feeling myself. The CCD story may have been written by VG Siddhartha, but we all have had our parts to play in it. Thus the loss, in some ways, feels personal even though we may have never met the man.
By creating Café Coffee Day,
Siddhartha didn’t just build a company, he created an idea. An idea that went on to become an integral part of the Indian aspirational middle-class story. A middle class that began to dream as the Indian economy started opening up in the late 90s. A middle class that dared to aspire as the technology outsourcing wealth began to sweep through the country. A middle class that began to desire a good life — clothing, cell phones, holidays, food, drink, and yes, coffee.
I was in college when this change was in progress. Those were the years of
Dil Chahta Hai — pop culture and middle-class aspirations reflected in cinema. It was the time when the ‘mall culture’ was hitting India and the era when billboards featuring a young Kareena Kapoor inspired youngsters to go buy Airtel’s new pre-paid mobile plan. And it was during this time — the turn of the millennium — when urban India was also getting to know and experience the concept of spending its free hours at coffee shops & cafes.
For some, like my friend Lee, CCD outlets were perhaps a “chill zone” where the heart could flutter at will during a romantic rendezvous. For others, they were, perhaps a sanctuary where you could cut off from the dust, noise, and general melee of the outside world and spend some quality time with a friend or with just yourself.
Siddhartha was right. It was never really about the coffee.
It was always about all that could happen over coffee. The brew was a mere excuse and at times even a catalyst. The place and ambience which CCD provided to its thousands of patrons was the real draw, the actual value generator. Artists, entrepreneurs, business vendors, students, professionals, friends and family members. CCD gave rise to a culture of communication. exchange of ideas, dreams & possibilities. It became an office for some, a conference room for others and even a fleeting temporary home away from home for a few, including this writer.
Watching raindrops drench Mumbai through large glass windows at a suburban CCD outlet, exhaling looking up at a piece of the sky through a CCD lounge in Delhi, or even watching the Bengaluru sunset sipping a hot brew near Wipro’s Sarjapur campus, my CCD moments are so clearly etched in the mind. CCD and the cafés it inspired always provided space for thoughts. The charm of taking a break, getting away from life and work’s madness, for just that tiny fraction of an hour, to sip on a coffee and chat at ease. And while I talk about the lighter moments, I must also note the difference these cafes made to me & many others at more sombre places. Ask a relative trying to find some solace in a hot chocolate in the wee hours of the night, waiting for a loved one outside an ICU. Yes, it is these cafés that provided (and continue to provide) a much-needed distraction to somewhat lift sagging spirits at many hospitals.
VGS, you’ve touched lives in more ways than you perhaps knew. I wonder if you’d known, would the outcome of your story have been different?
As I sip a coffee at a CCD in Andheri, on the day you left this world, a member of your staff chats with me remembering you. “He was a good soul. He did so much for his people. So many young boys from poor economic backgrounds were inducted for the free 2-year training programme at CCD. He was a nice human being,” says the boy at the billing counter.
Life has strange ways. How could a man who touched so many lives and inspired so many dreams, meet this end? You gave up too soon VGS. There was so much more to be done. Surely there could have been another way.
The legacy will live on no doubt. Whether your business survives within the family or gets sold to another consumer brand, I hope it will thrive. You are, and always will be, one of the poster boys of middle-class India’s aspirations. An entrepreneur who saw an idea and built a mega-brand around it. One can only hope that your departure will be a lesson. A lesson that we need to live life with a larger perspective in mind and course-correct before it’s too late. Coffee & conversations go hand in hand. And a good open conversation has the power to resolve or at least diffuse most stressful situations. It is this learning that we will keep in our hearts forever.I’d like to end by thanking you for the memories, for the moments and all the growing up years. I don’t know about other customers, but one thing is for sure - henceforth, every time I visit a Café Coffee Day and sip on a coffee, a thought will always go out to you.