What does a Wi-Fi-less world look like?

Think coffee, boardgames, reading books and more


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Thu 9 Mar 2023, 5:26 PM

India took a while to board the coffee-chain gravy train, and I remember that it was sometime in 2000 that the first ‘organised’ coffee chain — modelled along Starbucks’ lines — made an appearance. It was called Barista, and a few months after the inaugural hoopla, a new branch cropped up near the main gate of the colony I lived in, in Delhi. There was no Wi-Fi back then, which meant there couldn’t have been endless phone gazing and WhatsApp-ing and scrolling through social media feeds.

All customers who visited the cafe had a purpose — other than being wanting to be part of a new culinary movement dawning in the country. They would meet to have conversations and romantic dates; solo ones would read a book… or write — using their imagination (there was no Google available on hand to do ‘referencing’ from). In fact, there used to be one regular customer who would hog one particular table — and several cups of coffee — every afternoon on weekdays from 2pm to 5pm; later, I found out he was studying for his civil service examinations.

The vibe inside a coffee shop used to be organic and unique, and every trip would be laden with stories because everyone was aware about the dynamics of the place: “Did you see how that guy was looking at the woman — while she appeared totally indifferent?” “I overheard the most interesting exchange from the table next to where I was seated!” “I loved how that lady thought instant coffee and espresso are the same thing.” And so on.

Later, once the “free Wi-Fi” made its foray, and then data plans became so cheap that nobody even minded being on their own dime, everyone would be perpetually on the phone in a coffee shop.

Last weekend, I was taking a walk with a friend when we noticed a new café in my friendly neighbourhood. There were bunches of people sitting around doing pre-smartphone-era-type activities: talking, reading, playing games… I realised this was a place that discourages Wi-Fi usage and encourages more biotic behaviour.

The serving lady had this wonderful smile, which went straight to her eyes, and that won over our hearts, and we agreed to take a coffee break.

When I asked if we “could grab a bite” along with the coffee, she said there were freshly baked croissants. “But you know what, I can make you a new batch, straight from the oven, it’ll take 15 minutes, do you mind waiting?”

Of course not, my friend and I responded in unison. “This is such a pretty place, yet it’s so unpretentious, all these books on your walls, we’ll check them out.”

“I’ll tell you what: why don’t you play a board game while you are waiting for your almond croissant and coffee?” she suggested.

Why ever not?

So, we went and looked up all the games stacked in one corner. My friend wanted to play Monopoly but I decided to not let him monopolise the games arena and settled for Upwords, which is a lot like Scrabble. “You know more about words than I do,” he complained, but followed me tamely to our table, where we proceeded to stuff our phones into my handbag (after turning our respective ringers off), before sitting across each other, deadly serious, and playing.

As we played, the engaging chatter behind us — where two guys were super invested in playing chess — went up a few decibels: they were involved enough to be competitive and call each other names… endearingly, of course.

At another table, a woman was discussing a breakup with a friend. The friend was asking her to look at the bright side, and move on, and the first woman seemed to agree as she cupped her coffee cup in both hands and took a sip while deeply inhaling the aroma emanating from the cappuccino.

“So much normal stuff happening here,” I beamed at my friend and let him take a lead on me.


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