The proverbial Bengali is known by certain unmistakable racial characteristics such as living on a diet of fish-curry, rice and sweets, travelling incessantly, passionately following football matches and cricket tournaments, loving the arts, being lazy, making a lot of plans and never acting on them …the list goes on. One of these is the indefatigable love for ‘Bangali Adda’ a term roughly translating to community chat sessions and including discussion and debate and brain-storming, all rolled into one. The quintessential Bengali can even forego his favorite meal and virtually survive for hours, on cups of tea or coffee punctuating that what he loves most of all - talking on anything and everything under the sun.
Whether or not a Bengali has wealth to boast of, he always has something to say. Whether or not he has solutions to problems, he always has an opinion. Topics for the adda are wide-ranging: from religion to politics, from football to space missions. The range could include philosophical issues, India’s fiscal deficit or even Japan’s nuclear program. At times, though not very often, some local adda can be idle gossip about whether a certain celebrity is really romantically involved with another. Satyajit Ray's "Agantuk" has a discussion on this with the character played by Robi Ghosh asking "Rabindranath ki adda diten?"(did Tagore ever engage in adda?)
The discussions are generally held in a spirit of openness with ideas flowing freely between diametrically opposite poles, with involved parties giving due consideration to what others have to say before responding. However, this does not mean that the sessions do not get heated. More often than not they do. Decibels rise as people get more and more emotionally involved in the issue at hand and it is not unusual for them raise their voices and even pull up their sleeves in an agitated gesture that is potentially threatening although it almost never comes down to blows.
The venue of the adda could vary depending on the context and milieu: the community tea shop or the “rock” of a house (a term used to refer to an elevated unroofed portico), the office or college canteen (a Spartan version of the modern cafeteria). In Kolkata, ‘Coffee House’ located strategically on the famous College Street, has a far-reaching reputation of being an exalted venue of Bangali adda where great minds (writers, journalists, scientists, philosophers, theatre artists…the list is endless) congregate day after day, week after week, to have relaxing or stimulating conversations and with fellow Bengalis over cofee and little savouries from the frugal menu that has not changed since the days of its British origins.
But the picture I am painting here is that of a bygone era. It is fast fading as a pleasant memory. What I am here to lament is the slow but inevitable death of the Bangali adda. It is not that Bengalis do not get together and talk today or will cease to in the future but the defining characteristics of what the Bangali adda was are gradually dying out under the ceaseless attack of modern life and work. Much as we Bengalis want to cling onto our glorious pasts, the fact is those 4 hour workdays do not exist anymore-they have been replaced by 10-11 hour workdays. The breakneck culture of the day makes it impossible for the Bengali ‘babu’ (a term loosely used to refer to a government employee, the beneficiary of a coveted job which allowed him to come home from work at 3 pm) take a relaxing siesta, have a cleansing bath, wear a kurta and a “pyjama” (not to be confused with night clothes), slip on a ‘hawai chappal’ and walk over to join the adda group to which he belongs. I say ‘belongs’ in order to emphasize on the sense of identification and pride associated with this membership that could even build up a resistance in individuals to take a transfer if his job so required.
As with any memory, there is much romanticization of the adda of old as if what has been eroded has left a vacuum that was not filled. In reality, the concept of adda and gossip is as alive as ever and will always be with technology like the internet allowing it to expand its scope beyond geographical boundaries. However what is steadily dying out is the languid late-afternoon community gatherings and the face-to-face meetings as Twitter, chat rooms and text messaging take their place.
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