For a coffee addict (he does not like to be called an addict, the word has a disparaging sense, he feels that we might as well call each other milk addicts or food addicts or air addicts), the most painful experience is to hear a tea-drinker or a cocoa-drinker or a purist who drinks only water hold forth on the evils of drinking coffee. He views it as an attack on his liberty of thought and action. Even a misquoted Parliament report (as it recently happened) on the coffee policy of the government can produce in him the gravest disturbance, temporarily though.

It is not right to call it a habit. The word ‘habit’ like the word ‘addict’ has a disparaging sense. One might call smoking a habit, one might call almost everything else a habit, but not coffee. It is not a habit; it is a stabilizing force in human existence achieved through a long evolutionary process. The good coffee, brown and fragrant, is not a product achieved in a day. It is something attained after laborious trials and errors.

Wise words from the renowned Indian storyteller RK Narayan in his seminal piece on South Indian coffee lovers - Cofee worries.

After reading Nico Slate’s excellent book Gandhi’s search for the perfect diet, I finally understood my own struggles. But first I need to introduce you to Gandhi’s thoughts on chocolate and sex.

It wasn’t about saturated fat, lactose intolerance, or atherosclerosis. When Gandhi told a friend that he saw “death in chocolates,” he was referring to the danger of passion. Few foods, he warned, were as “heating” as chocolate — heating, that is, of the fires of passion. Gandhi was a passionate man. He cared deeply about India’s freedom, about nonviolence, about food. He distinguished, however, between passions. The desires of the body could distract from the yearnings of the spirit, and nothing aroused bodily desire more than the cravings of the tongue. Gluttony was not just a form of lust — it was the doorway to lust. For Gandhi, a sweet tooth was the ulimate gateway drug, weakening self-control and paving the way to a life of reckless hedonism.

Consider the relationship between chocolate and sex. In the winter of 1935, Gandhi sat down with the renowned advocate of birth control Margaret Sanger. It would have been difficult to find two people who disagreed more about sex. Gandhi explained to Sanger that a couple should have sex only to produce children. “Love becomes lust,” he declared, “the moment you make it a means for the satisfaction of animal needs.” “It is just the same with food,” he added. “If food is taken only for pleasure it is lust.” As an example, he offered chocolate. “You do not take chocolate for the sake of satisfying your hunger,” he told Sanger. Chocolate is eaten “for pleasure.” It is only for a few fleeting seconds that taste buds meet chocolate and we are given the sweet sensation of flavor. To prolong such momentary pleasures, we eat chocolate after chocolate.

Is eating chocolate inherently lustful? Is sex selfish? Faced with Gandhi’s juxtaposition of chocolate and sex, Sanger responded, “I do not accept the analogy.”

I too don’t accept this analogy but Gandhi’s assessment of chocolate provides a framework to understand my relationship with coffee.

Since I appear to be clubbing the “sins of chocolate” with the “sins of coffee”, I need to clearly delineate my views on the similarity, differences, and (more importantly) my biases:

  • Chocolate has never had a hold on me the way coffee has. Granted, in recent years I finally ‘get’ the fuss about chocolate but it’s still not my first choice dessert.
  • A daily coffee ‘habit’ (at say two cups a day) is a completely sustainable habit with no major health consequences. A daily chocolate habit, on the other hand, can easily lead to a lifestyle disease.
  • As a coffee lover, I can speak to the spiritual benefits of a cup of coffee. Within the din and roar of the daily workplace, it provides a momentary relief (a pause if you may) — a pause that comes with a freshly emboldened #alliswell, #can-take-on any-challenge (well, nearly any challenge for the rest of the day - the next fractious meeting, the imminent deadline). Over a weekend, coffee promises even more bountiful rewards - a leisurely cup with the morning news, sippping that perfect blend while spending time with a friend.

A year ago, I ended my last experiment in coffee abstinence with the following conclusions:

  • Yes – quitting coffee completely is hard
  • Apparently I don’t tolerate bad coffee anymore
  • I don’t need coffee for my weekday mornings
  • But.. a really great cup of coffee with friends or family does hit the spot. So that’s my main conclusion – treat coffee like liquor, have only the best coffee, never alone, preferably with friends and family.

A year later, the struggle is still on but the contours are well-defined. The weekend cup of delicious coffee continues to yield guilt-free pleasure and shall not be messed with. For the most part, those experiences are happening in a handful of coffee shops. The weekday coffee craving, while still a worthy adversary, is beatable. I win some and I lose some. Most importantly, I’m enjoying this struggle.

Closing note on the featured image I used for this post - vegan bulletproof coffee recently discovered at a Jayanagar organic store.