By Dhruva Bhat
I had never been to a Starbucks before. Their green-and-white signs punctuating every street were an exciting reminder that I was in the U.S. for the first time; they hadn’t quite launched in Chennai before I left. (Five years later, they haven’t quite landed in Chennai either, still struggling to break into the market. Coffee is a Tamil ritual—dark decoction made in a tall filter, mixed with boiling milk and a mound of sugar, served steaming in a steel tumbler in a larger saucer, consumed at home, in restaurants, on the side of the street, under a banyan tree. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, a grande latte is a pale imitation that costs about ten times as much). I had heard of Starbucks, of course— seen the insides of their stores in TV shows and scrolled past selfies on social media of friends traveling abroad with their Starbucks cups. I had just never been to one.
I didn’t want to do anything so crass, so nouveau middle-class as to take a photo with a Starbucks cup; I didn’t even want to make time for a trip to a Starbucks, to put it on my list of things to see and do in Atlanta. That behaviour reminded me too much of the families in India who would dress up in garishly sequinned saris and crisp khakis to spend the day at a mall, who would totter at the bottom of an escalator gripping the handrails being too nervous to get on, who would talk too loudly and eat too messily and visit all the shops but buy nothing. I didn’t want my American cousins to give me the look my friends and I gave those people when we went to the mall; I had traveled internationally before, I knew that America was just one of a hundred and ninety other countries in the world, I was going to Harvard for God’s sake—I just also really wanted to go to a Starbucks.
When I saw one in the middle of the CNN Center plaza, I decided I would get coffee there. I could justify it; I was jet-lagged and tired. We had been walking around Atlanta, it was a hot day, and I needed something to cool me down. More specifically, I wanted a cold coffee: the kind I had had so many times in Chennai, milky, creamy and saccharine sweet, more a caffeinated milkshake than actual coffee. And so I headed over to the Starbucks, asking my father if he wanted anything. He said no. I had guessed he’d say no— he had probably converted the price of coffee from dollars to rupees and immediately decided against it. I knew you weren’t meant to convert currencies in your head when buying things because that would paralyse you; moreover, that was something middle-aged Indian men who were in the U.S. to visit their sons did before exclaiming: “Can you believe coffee costs so much in this country!”