A Cup of Coffee

South Indian Filter Coffee

It is 8:00 am at the Indian Coffee House. Breakfast time. Yoo-Mi and I have taken a table in the “Ladies and Families” room, and are sipping fresh lime juice while we wait for our food. Shortly after we sit down, a woman takes the table next to us and orders a coffee. Though the clientele of the ICH is as class-diverse as just about any eating establishment I can think of in India, the woman is more shabbily dressed and unkempt than anyone I have ever seen there. She is barefoot, her saree is not clean, and her hair is just beginning to regrow after a recent shaving. Whether she has been widowed or had a ritual shave at a temple like Thirupathi, we cannot know. Her demeanor is deeply introspective and transparently sad. The waiter brings her an extra-full cup, setting it before her with a gentleness possibly never-before witnessed at ICH. It is as if to say he wishes he could do more for her.

In fact, he does plenty. The coffee brings a contentment to her face. She visibly relaxes with each slow sip. When the cup is emptied, and the saucer too, she breathes the deep sigh of happiness, composes herself, takes her check, and readies to leave. I watch Yoo-Mi watch the woman; and I know exactly what Yoo-Mi is thinking.

“Akka…” I say to the woman as she passes our table on the way to the cashier, and I do a brief, fluent pantomime which says something like, “We would like to buy you that coffee. May I have your check please?” After a moment’s pause, she relinquishes the check to Yoo-Mi, folding her hands in the prayer-like greeting of India, which is also a pantomime-of-sorts in the circumstances.

“I wanted to do that,” says Yoo-Mi, “but I wasn’t sure how.” I tell her that I know, that I could see her thinking it. The telepathy between us during moments like this makes them all the more significant.

We walk past many poor people on the street that morning – and every morning we are in India. Some of them ask us for money so that they might eat. If we happen to be carrying food, sometimes we offer it. Usually, we pass them without a word or a gift. That’s just how it must be in India, where the need is so vast and so omnipresent that one’s entire being would be consumed with feeding beggars, if one were to give into to each solicitation. (Incidentally, I do not at all mean to suggest that this would not be a perfectly excellent way to have one’s being consumed, if one had the wealth and the singularity of mind required.) So we pick-and-choose, usually without the benefit of any sort of hard understanding or information – the kind of thing that might pass between us had we even a hint of common language. Instead, we go by instinct.

This morning’s gift of coffee was something more than deciding that this woman’s need was one that we should meet. Her cup of coffee – her life that morning – was something beautiful that both Yoo-Mi and I wanted to be a part of. She honored both of us by allowing us to pay the meager five rupee check, allowing the three of us to share in the contentment of the moment and the simple joy of a cup of steamy, milky-sweet South Indian coffee.

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4 Responses to “A Cup of Coffee”


  1. 1 anonymous 12 January 2007 at 3:20 pm

    I really liked this blog entry.
    In fact it inspired me to do something like this on my own!
    http://www.helpothers.org/my/story.php?op=view&sid=675
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. 2 Jawahara 10 January 2008 at 4:02 pm

    This is lovely. Simply lovely.

  3. 3 Lakshmi Mareddy 22 January 2008 at 9:22 am

    Very touching Mark. I also like your matter of factness. The random choice of whom to help, is something we learn while in India. We can’t help everyone is also something we figure out for ourselves. :)

  4. 4 David Mills 15 December 2008 at 3:05 pm

    So perfect. I was in India earlier this year with my partner, who now lives in London but hails from Gujarat. He warned me to leave my world in the UK and embrace India as an Indian would. I was anxious, but found my time there out of this world – a real life changing gorgeous happy time, sometimes touched with sadness, but mostly I felt humbled at how I was taken in, given tea and treated with such genuine kindness. One lovely sunny day we sat by the roadside on our scooter eating ice-cream, when some tiny poor children walked by – like you we made an instant decision and bought the biggest ices we could and little faces lit-up. So happy. Such lovely, kind people.

    I just can’t wait to return.

    Your blogg is perfectly written and captures India and its energy.

    Thank you.


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