The scent of coffee

Harish Bhat is the author of the bestselling book Tatalog  and chairman of Tata Coffee Ltd. He is also the Brand Custodian of Tata Sons Private Limited. In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about the inspiration behind his book, creating magical moments and how coffee benefits the world.

What inspired ‘An extreme love of coffee? How did the idea initially come up? 
This novel has been inspired by my love of coffee, and my passion for writing.  I obsess over my coffee – I carefully select and buy my coffee beans, get them ground to my specifications, and then I brew my own filter coffee each morning.  Coffee is such a wonderful part of my life, that I look forward to each day.  I have enjoyed my visits to coffee plantations in Coorg, where I have had the privilege of seeing how coffee is carefully nurtured and grown.  So, when I thought of writing my first book of fiction, the natural thing that came to my mind was – why not a story about coffee?  Actually, the idea came to me when I was sipping a nice, hot cup of black coffee on a weekend.  And then I quickly thought to myself, I have never seen a novel about Indian coffee, so let me write a story that celebrates the coffee of our own land.  That’s how this idea struck me, and the story took a few weeks to germinate in my mind.    
After penning down two books in the non-fiction genre, how was the experience of writing fiction interspersed with adventure?  
Writing fiction was so different from business writing.  When I wrote the novel “An extreme love of coffee”, I could dictate every twist and turn of the plot.  The story came entirely from my imagination, and I could decide which way it would go, what Rahul and Neha (the lead characters) would do, whom they would meet, what coffee they would drink next.  Even the delightful ghost in this story was born in my imagination, and soon I learnt to my great pleasure, that I could even control a ghost’s actions through my writing!  So, I felt like an absolute dictator while writing this novel.  And I relished the experience of moving forward the story, bit by bit, weaving in so many beautiful strands into this tale.  That’s so very different from my earlier business books, where I had to stay totally true to facts, to what I had seen and heard, and to insights drawn from these data points and observations.  But then, there is also something common to fiction and non-fiction, and that is my love for the written word.  I love the right turn of phrase, the play of words that creates a vivid picture in your mind, the sculpting of a beautiful sentence that echoes in your mind.  That love is common across all genres of writing, I think.
Your book consists a lot of interesting trivia about the different coffee varieties and about places. This must have involved some research. How did you go about it and how long did it take you? 
Yes, indeed, my novel contains a lot of delightfully interesting trivia and information about different coffee blends, and special varieties of Indian coffee.  Readers will enjoy discovering these facts about their favourite beverage, in the pages of this book.  Some of this research had happened over the years, as I experimented with brewing and drinking different varieties of coffee.  I also referred to some thick books on coffee.  Also, during my visits to the Coorg, I met coffee planters and spoken to them about specific types of coffee.  Those conversations triggered some of the trivia that you will find in this book. 
Now, let me tell you about the different places that my characters visit, in the course of this story.  I have visited most of these places myself over the years, including the coffee plantations, as well as the Japanese graveyard Yanaka-Reien, where an important part of this adventure begins.  That was a fascinating graveyard in Japan – so green and serene and peaceful. I ambled through it one afternoon, and it made quite an impact on me.  So I told myself that this graveyard had to feature in my story.  And I was pleasantly surprised when it quite naturally fell in place.
The process of researching different coffees and places for this book took around nine months, I think.  But some of the research happened in parallel with the writing.  Now, I want to point out that there is also an interesting link between coffee and all these places, as you will discover when you read this book.  But let me not say anything more here, because that would amount to spilling the beans !
In your book, your protagonist Rahul shifts from being a tea drinker to a coffee lover. Do you see a change in consumer preferences from tea to coffee in real life as well?  
There are coffee-lovers and there are tea-lovers.  Fortunately, India has both of these in ample measure, and I would only like to say — more strength to both these natural beverages!  You should drink coffee when you are in the kaapi mood, and tea when you are in the chai mood.  In fact, the consumption of both tea and coffee are on the rise in our country.  But this novel is all about coffee, and so Rahul is an extreme lover of coffee.  The ghost in the story is also a lover of coffee.  And the beautiful, talented Neha — she also falls in love with coffee.  I think that when you finish reading this book, you will also be in love with coffee, and you will head out quickly for your next cuppa.  Many readers have actually told me that as soon as they put down this book, they headed straight to their nearest café. 
An interesting aspect in your book is the mention of magic coffee beans. It showcases how miracles happens overnight. Have you had any such miraculous or magical moment that you can recollect? 
We love magic, don’t we?  I think that every human being, deep within, longs for moments of magic in his or her life.  And this story has lots of magic in it, that you will love.  Yes, I have experienced many such magical moments in my own life.  The very first time I held my infant daughter in my hands, that was an absolute moment of magic, it transformed me totally.  Sometimes, when I managed to solve a challenging mathematics problem in college, that was a moment of magic too.  And at other times, when I am at my dining table, sipping a cup of coffee and looking out at the sea, there’s magic in the air, and I begin day-dreaming of very special things.  Pause for a moment and think, when does magic happen to you?  I think we can create our own moments of magic, that’s the beauty of our lives.
The aroma of coffee is said to relieve stress and many people depend on coffee to get a kick start of the day in the morning. What is your take on this caffeine addiction in the long run? Do you see it harmful? And how does one maintain a balance?
I think moderation is a good habit, in everything we do.  I love coffee, and I am very selective about the coffee I drink — but I also limit myself to two cups of black coffee in the morning.  On a weekend, I may perhaps indulge in one additional cup.  I think each of us should achieve our own balance, through experience. Coffee is a natural drink, and I would say the world has greatly benefited from coffee.  In fact, our world would not be the same, without coffee.  We date over coffee, we meet friends over coffee, we space out over coffee, we get refreshed and recharged by coffee – oh, what would we do without coffee ?You have interspersed coffee with adventure, supernatural element, mythology and travel. Did you ever face the fear of steering away from the main plot? 
I have always wanted to build one story into another, so that the entire plot becomes a fascinating, endless journey.  I think I have succeeded in doing that, in “An extreme love of coffee”.  Yes, this book has adventure, mythology, magic, travel and also a streak of romance.  They are all interwoven into each other, and the connecting thread is always coffee.  That’s what makes this story so unique and enjoyable – while the plot races from coffee plantations to graveyards in Japan, from ghosts to Japanese gangsters, you know that at the centre of the book is a nice, hot cup of coffee.  The cup that we all enjoy.  So, in essence, I have used coffee to stay true to the main plot.  That’s why I also have a nice suggestion to offer all my readers – one of the best ways to enjoy this coffee-themed story is to read it while sipping your favorite coffee !
Lastly what are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline? 
I have three books in the pipeline, but just now, they are all concepts which are tucked away in my mind!  I will of course keep writing, because I enjoy writing so much.  I write regular columns for two national newspapers – The Hindu Business Line, and Mint.  I write very often on LinkedIn, so you can read my posts there too.  I am hoping to begin writing my next book very soon.  But in the meanwhile, here’s hoping that thousands of readers enjoy reading “An extreme love of coffee”!