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Is Starbucks Needed in India?

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"It is perhaps the most elegant, beautiful, dynamic store we've opened in our history," chief executive Howard Schultz said in an interview on the occasion of the opening of Starbucks' first flagship Indian store, in the exclusive Horniman Circle neighbourhood of south Mumbai (also known as SoBO for those of us in the know.) The news was greeted with excitement as punters travelled over two hours from the suburbs of North Bombay to be present at the historic moment of the opening and to get their share of the free coffee samples. There goes the neighbourhood thought I, the cynical Non Resident Indian on reading this. Just a few hours earlier I had queued up at the second restaurant from Dishoom - a Bombay Café in London, in Shoreditch (London's Horniman Circle equivalent.)

Affectionately nicknamed D2, this café-restaurant is uniquely modelled to capture the charm of old-worldly Irani Cafés--complete with slow rotating ceiling fans, stained mirrors and sepia family portraits--once common in Bombay, but now fast giving away to malls, designer stores and of course the likes of Starbucks. I knew my young cousins in Bombay would welcome Starbucks with open arms. Heaving a sigh of relief they would make a bee-line for its air-conditioned sanctuary which offered an escape from the prying eyes of neighbours, parents and well-meaning-aunties as they dated the boy from chemistry class in college, gossiped with girlfriends on the latest Bollywood heartthrob and tweeted tips to each other on how to fill in MBA or Engineering application forms. All this over frothy caramel frappuccinos and tamarind peanut chicken calzones.

I had done the same many moons ago, when with a bunch of friends I had plotted to break away from myday jobs and start a youth magazine, at an Irani Cafe in Prabhadevi accompanied by many cups of cutting-chai & bun-maskas. You've come a long way baby, or perhaps not. Sat in that old fashioned Bombay Café I had dreamt of countries around the world, wondering what lay out there in the big beyond, and how to break away from being another brick in the wall. Would I have the courage to follow my heart? I had wondered then.

Fifteen years later here I was in a Bombay Café albeit of another kind, with somewhat similar décor--in a completely different part of the world, one which I had never thought I would ever call home--still wondering how to step off the carousel, not become another corporate cog and find the courage to follow my voice. The more things change the same, the more they remain the same. As for Starbucks, well a comment by Puneet Tandon, on the Hindustan Times website sums it up: "A minute of silence for all the CCD (Café Coffee Day) outlets in Mumbai. SoBos can rejoice. Are you ready to go and have overly priced coffee to look cool? Yayy !"

Laxmi Hariharan is an author & technophile. Reach her at http://www.laxmihariharan.com

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