Talking Heads

A lot can happen over an adda in Kolkata.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi | Published: October 6, 2013 5:50 am

A lot can happen over an adda in Kolkata.

Many would agree that Kolkatans have a faulty sense of chronology. No sooner than they smell a conversation that they see the aftermath of it — the broaching of topic,the gracious pauses for the other person to acknowledge his or her point,a breathy puff of Charminar and the final flourish with which the conversation will be nailed. Yes,most Kolkatans carry a carefully-constructed adda in their minds — an invisible cloud of words and philosophies.

“Adda is one of those Bengali words that are so difficult to translate into English. A gossip session,an intellectual discussion,a never-ending conversation — all rolled into one. Adda is the quintessential Bengali pastime,” says Surjo Deb,co-director of the 2011 documentary film,Adda:Kolkata/Calcutta. Following a number of ongoing addas at street corners,cafes,markets and living rooms,the documentary captures the city’s joie-de-vivre,it’s almost feudal need to gather in huddles and discuss life and its quirks. The way the plebian and the profound are mixed in street corners,tea shacks,coffee shops,bus stops,ghats and other implausible places,is akin to the mixing of chemicals in a cauldron. “An adda rejuvenates you,it renews you. It’s the most primitive of all therapies actually,you feel better when you share,” adds Deb.

While the rest of India can only be amazed at an average Kolkatan’s sense of self-contentment in these testing times,the satisfaction of having vented one’s frustration through arguments on politics,theology and the eccentricities of the current Bigg Boss contestants manifests itself as a mysterious,zen-like smile on most Kolkata faces. It’s not for nothing that most storms brew in teacups in Kolkata. “It’s a brilliant case of self-preservation. Battles are fought across restaurant tables. Aggressions are vented out through discussions. That probably explains why Kolkata is less aggressive than a city like Delhi,” says Sushmit Roy Chowdhury,an employee of KPMG,India.

Sepia is the colour of the Coffee House,even though its walls are splashed with the neon pinks and greens of the posters that adorn it. Ask any Kolkata resident and he will tell you the place is best conjured in memories. But as you walk into the place in an early autumn afternoon,the overwhelming buzz about it tells you a different story. There are middle-aged men,who would snap at you in a crowded bus for no apparent reason,sharing tables with lanky college students,laughing and sipping coffee out of chipped china. And there are women. Women who have probably just finished their puja shopping,laden with bags,engrossed in conversation. For Arijit Das,a third-year student of Gurudas College in north Kolkata,Coffee House is a part of his present,as is the idea associated with it. “It takes very little to just walk in here and be a part of this celebration. I can go and sit at any table and join a conversation here,that’s so liberating,” he says. It’s true that one can engage in addas in every corner of the city,but it’s in Coffee House that the concept of adda is embodied as a robust,mirthful and challenging presence.

The habit of adda cements some personality types. It gives them a semblance of sanctuary. Take D Majumdar. This 65-year-old nattily dressed lawyer occupies a corner table at the cavernous seat of Bengali intelligentsia. While it’s difficult to associate Majumdar with the robust adda that makes Coffee House,around 5.30 pm,he is surrounded by a group of “like-minded peers” who have shared the same table for around 50 years. All of them had visited Coffee House with their own sets of friends and then,over time,bonded over similar thoughts. Between the black coffee that cost 1 anna to one that demands Rs 14 now,there have been discussions on cases,legal nitty-gritty,the Constitution and democracy. The atmosphere was cerebral. “This place has become semi-cultural these days. Apart from a few old-timers,the expressions and body language of the new people don’t befit the legacy of the place. At times,we overhear conversations of the younger lot,and are shocked by their use of language,” says Majumdar.

But the question is whether,like everything else in the world,does the art of adda also come with a shelf life? Not till Kolkatans carry their invisible clouds with them. Students from Presidency College have made cosy corners in their college canteen the next home,while the restless minds of the young and the creative have found corners at Barista to strum the guitar,late evenings at Someplace Else over mugs of beer to think music,and well-lit corners of tastefully done bookstores for thoughts and the like.

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