Only in Kolkata : Why adda discussions over tea & smokes are central to Bengal’s ethos

Only in Kolkata

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Only in Kolkata : In dissing the ‘adda intellectual’, Sanjeev Sanyal has missed some key points. Once defined as a ‘place… (for) careless talk with boon companions’, the adda is an integral part of the Bengali identity. So, give us this day our daily adda.

A writers’ adda in Kolkata; and Sanjeev Sanyal. The adda has echoes in other countries too: from the tertulia bars of Spain to the Izakaya diners of Japan to Hong Kong’s teahouses, Cha chaan teng, that are popular venues for informal conversations with friends and strangers. (Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons 3.0, and YouTube/Wikimedia Commons 3.0) Only in Kolkata

Whatever be Sanjeev Sanyal’s reasons for dissing the “adda intellectual”, there is no disputing the uniqueness of that time-honoured Bengali tradition. Sure, it comprises mostly what Sanyal describes as “sitting around smoking and sipping your old monk and passing judgement on the rest of the world, rather than doing anything”. But isn’t that a mite better than desperately questioning random strangers about your parentage, as is common in Delhi? Only in Kolkata

Indeed, the adda could only happen in kolkata among the major metros of India. Mumbai is too mercantile, its denizens in too much of a hurry for anyone to sit around discussing the problems of the world. In any case, given the price of every inch of real estate in the maximum city, there is simply no place for a bunch of people to settle down for a conversation. Only in Kolkata

Location, you see, is one of the key elements of the Bengali adda. A well-appointed drawing room of the kind that SoBo residents pride themselves on, just won’t do. Neither will a high-priced coffee shop; it has to mostly be a semi-public space, a stairway or a rooftop or even the parapet of an under-construction building. Outdoors is usually preferred since the consumption of tobacco is de rigueur for a good adda. And if the lady of the house that’s being commandeered for the purpose is so kind as to offer some cha, the adda is almost complete. Only in Kolkata

Almost because the real finishing touch comes only after a few of the protagonists have got into an almighty row over an issue that will leave the initiated, perplexed. In my time I have seen two IITians break off a long friendship and swear never to talk to each other over whether Franz Beckenbaur or Johan Cruyff was the more complete footballer. Such extreme reactions though are rare and generally the argument ends by close of the session or is suspended till the next meeting. Only in Kolkata

Sanyal, of course, is an illustrious Bengali. Besides being an economist and a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, he’s also a popular historian. But in this case he may have erred in linking the state’s recent industrial decadence to the adda, simply because the phenomenon predates present-day Bengal. Its origins are engulfed in mystery but certainly date back hundreds of years which is why it is such an integral part of the Bengali identity. Only in Kolkata

While there isn’t any clinching evidence available, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that Jagadish Chandra Bose quite liked his bikeler adda (evening adda) before going back to work on wireless telecommunication. Of more recent vintage are the coffee house sessions of Satyajit Ray and his friends at the Coffee House on College Street. Sanyal, in fact, concedes that till the 1970s, Kolkata was the most important economic hub in India, indeed one of the most important industrial hubs in Asia. That it lost its way because of the socialism and communism of the Jyoti Basu era is undoubted. But why blame the harmless adda for it? Only in Kolkata

To the extent that the adda is basically a casual social space for conversation and connection, it transcends geographical boundaries. Spain, for instance, has its equivalent in tertulias which are similarly informal gatherings often held in cafes or bars, where people come together to chat about events around them. Only in Kolkata

Other countries have their versions. The one big difference is that often these centre around food and drink. Thus, the Cha chaan teng of Hong Kong are teahouses that serve as popular venues for casual meetings where people catch up with friends, over a cup of tea and some snacks. Similarly, in Japan there are the Izakayas which are informal pubs, popular as after-work spots where colleagues and friends unwind, chat, and enjoy drinks and small plates of food. Only in Kolkata

By contrast, food isn’t an essential part of the Bengali adda. It is actually closest in spirit to its French version of groups of intellectuals and artists, at open air cafes chatting over their espressos.

The great Indian linguist, educationist and litterateur Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay translated adda as “a place” for “careless talk with boon companions” or “the chats of intimate friends”. That perfect definition leaves no room for blame.

The snippet describes the unique social culture of Kolkata, India, centered around informal gatherings and discussions over tea and cigarettes. Here’s a possible elaboration: Only in Kolkata

Adda Culture:

  • Adda refers to informal gatherings in Kolkata, often at tea stalls or coffee shops.
  • People from all walks of life come together to chat, socialize, and exchange ideas.
  • Discussions range from daily life and politics to literature and cinema. Only in Kolkata

Importance of Addas:

  • These gatherings foster a sense of community and belonging.
  • They provide a platform for intellectual exchange and debate.
  • The relaxed atmosphere allows for open and honest conversations.
  • Smoking (cigarettes) might have been a more prevalent feature in the past, but tea (chai) likely remains a central element. Only in Kolkata

Uniqueness to Bengal:

  • This adda culture is considered a unique aspect of Bengali society.
  • It reflects the Bengali people’s love for intellectual discourse and leisure.
  • It might be seen as a contrast to fast-paced modern life. Only in Kolkata

Evolving Culture:

  • While the essence of adda might remain, the format could evolve.
  • Coffee shops might replace traditional tea stalls in some areas.
  • Online platforms could provide new spaces for adda-style discussions. Only in Kolkata

Overall, adda culture is a cherished tradition in Kolkata that contributes to the city’s unique character. It reflects a way of life that prioritizes social connection, intellectual stimulation, and leisure. Only in Kolkata

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