Now most office workers live in a world of uniformed security personnel who come and go by shifts and scrutinise those who walk in and out, accompanied by the ubiquitous I-card that has to be waved at a sensor before the portal swings wide to admit you. There is of course the fingerprint option which is averse to sweat — having encountered several wrong finger messages I am well aware of this.

And, above all, there is the coffee machine — the answer to the four cups of steaming tea or coffee brought round morning and evening on a tray and the smell of burnt milk permeating from the canteen. But there was a world before this Bourne Identity environment. The world of the old houses that masquerade as corporate offices. Slightly rundown brick bungalows that behave like homes. Places where, on a Saturday, you’ll find the tea man in a lungi happily reading the newspaper under the tree in the garden or discussing the weather with the durwan on desk duty.

Each office had its characters known for their twist with a coffee cup or telepathy where coming up with that midnight cigarette was concerned. Advertising stretches out the hours for people well into the wee small hours and anyone living on the premises with gate and coffee duties has to be on the hop — though presumably call centre service staff have the same problem. But call centres are young organisations with coffee machines and ready fingers willing to walk up and down to press them. And they have uniformed staff that come and go — without talking of Michelangelo’s ‘David’.

The canteen staff in one office I worked in showed blue films to the rickshaw-pullers of Bondel Road (in Kolkata) after midnight and allowed them to wash up in the toilets before beginning their dawn rounds. Not that that affected anything the next morning. The TV shifted seamlessly to showing the latest ads and the tea and coffee tasted the same.

When I came to my last office I was told that the canteen boy was rumoured to have murdered his first wife — pushed her down a well somewhere in the depths of Orissa before taking wife no. 2. He was also deft at christening people in the office — for instance, a secretary called Swagata was christened ‘Namaste Didi’, or a tall servicing guy named Abhishek became Amitabh Bachchan sahab in a lateral shift. Presumably in another world he could have become a language copywriter though he had apparently written a slogan for a detergent commercial in Odia.

Choffee was very often what arrived from the depths of the canteen because the cups had failed in the washing up. So when the coffee machine arrived and the air was permeated with the rich smell of roasting beans, we all thought we’d died and gone to heaven. The machine came with paper cups which were promptly discontinued since they held barely two sips of coffee. It also came equipped with teabags as an afterthought.

Of course, button pushing is an issue in all offices — push the right buttons along the management ranks and you may get promoted. But the mechanics here were different. Each cup needed two pushes and the machine began to confuse cappuccino and latte until the milk was down to a trickle and only espresso was on tap. The issue was whether the high-end machine would go or whether the operators would. Of course the machine only whirred and did not sputter phrases like ‘jing jong’ ‘ khara khara coffee, Didi!’ which was much to its disadvantage, but it was high maintenance and the coffee expensive.

So the cups were cut down to hold one button push worth of coffee — except in the case of the boss’s secretary who maintained her deep three-measure cup, which had to be carried down to her before anyone else’s was. Saturday was milk-less because the milk was gone long before expected and one had to switch to Italian caffeine habits — even though theoretically Saturday was a holiday and you were in office only because you had to be.

After a while, the machine and the boys got used to each other and the smell of roast beans faded from the air. Some days the coffee was pheeka and some days strong while the cups lost their character though not their cracks.

We should have seen the coming of the machine as the writing on the wall. Today the machine queens it over the stairs proclaiming self-service. The cracked cups are there because paper can never keep up and the canteen boys — now men — have packed their bags and returned to their villages. There presumably to swap tales over bhanrs of tea about the world they had efficiently ruled.

Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based writer