Archive for June, 1996

Much Adda About Nothing

Wednesday, June 19th, 1996

Jun 19, 1996

Is the Bengali art of free-flowing conversation at the Coffee House and elsewhere on the decline?

THE claims about the Bengali being intellectually ahead of the rest of India are now withdrawn with retrospective effect, by common consent. Bengalis are not moving as fast as the rest of India creatively, culturally, intellectually, politically, not to mention industrially and economically. The new Bengali is a subdued Bengali, though more practical.” The roar of heavy noontime traffic is only a mild buzz in the oak-panelled office of bestselling Bengali author Manishankar Mukherjee. Smack in the middle of Calcutta’s chaotic central business district, yet galaxies away, it’s a good place to contemplate the culture and cussedness of the Bengali race. Mukherjee pauses to sip his coffee. Then, “But the Bengali has not been able to give up two things: the rossogolla and the adda.”

The adda, that peculiar Bengali institution: agendaless discussions which are not idle gossip, not debate, not crib sessions, but all these and more. Depending on the way you look at it, the adda is the bane of Bengali economic initiative—how can a race become rich if it spends so much time just talking ?—or the fountainhead of Bengali creativity—there has not been a single Bengali of stature who has not been an avid addabaj , and the adda has served as both the research and development and the test marketing stage for matchless creativity—from Satyen Bose’s amendments to the Theory of Relativity to Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, from Satyajit Ray’s films to Ramkinkar Baij’s art. So how goes the adda in the 1990s?

The night before, as soon as I hit town, I dumped my bags and rushed to join the adda of some childhood pals who meet every Sunday evening. I was coming in after nearly two years, but it was as if I had never been away. The cigarettes, the Old Monk, the enthusiasm with which we attacked major and minor issues—secularism and Sachin, house rents and Whitewater. But some things had changed: there were just three of us; over the years, some had left Calcutta to seek their fortunes (like me), others had disappeared into the quiet desperation of everyday familial monotony. Were the sheer complexities and contingent liabilities of life in the ’90s overpowering the adda habit?

Of course, the adda still seems to flourish wherever you look. Early in the morning, old men meet at the Dhakuria Lakes in south Calcutta to discuss how the country has gone to the dogs since they retired from their jobs. As the day progresses, addas self-generate at parks around bridge and chess games, on pavements around carrom boards, on electric trains carrying commuters to the big city to earn their daily machher jhol, at the College Street Coffee House—the centre of the adda universe—and at college and office canteens all over town. As the sun tilts southwards, young men cluster at busy street corners or sit, feet dangling, on roks—raised porches peculiar to traditional Calcutta architecture—chatting and eyeing girls as they stroll up and down on their daily mobile addas. Twilight sees young men and women gather on the verdant lawns of the cinema complex Nandan. As night falls, the bars on Park Street fill up, and the more ethnic or indigent troop to the country liquor haunts in north Calcutta.

But. Go up close to them, listen to their conversation. These addas do not share their genealogy with the early 19th century adda at Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s house which gave birth to the Bengal Renaissance. Or the one at 1, Dumdum Road, where Michael Madhusudan Dutta got into an argument and wrote the first blank verse in the history of modern Indian language. Or the addas at Tagore’s house; or Monday Club whose luminaries included Sukumar Ray, B.C. Roy and P.C. Mahalanobis; or the Central Avenue Coffee House lunchtime adda where Pather Panchali germinated and flowered. Or the addas at the offices of literary periodicals like Prabashi, Parichay, Shanibarer Chithi, Kallol and Desh. The vast majority of ’90s Calcutta addas are different. Instead of building future citadels, conversations mostly descend into impotent nostalgia or the drudgeries of the present and lurid escape hatches from them.

“Of course the number of addas has gone up,” says Mukherjee. “The number of unemployed people in West Bengal today must be equal to the population of Bengal at the time of Independence. But today, 90 per cent of all adda conversation is limited to three topics: Bombay films, TV serials and cricket. This is unproductive, unattractive and a symptom of decay. This happens when a nation of sportsmen becomes a nation of vicarious sports watchers.” In the adda at the Desh office, many years ago, he took up the challenge that a novel could be written with science as the backdrop, and studied entomology for months to produce the bestselling novel, Nivedita Research Laboratory.

Late at night on a Kalighat pavement, 25-year-old Kalu Mishra sports sunglasses, concentrating on the carrom board in front of him. Over the board hangs a naked light bulb, powered by electricity drawn illegally from the tramlines. “Yeah, we have this daily adda,” he says, “while we wait.” The carrom board-cen-tred pavement addas which dot the city are actually the meeting point for lumpens who while away their time playing carrom as they wait for the call to action—evict some tenant, harass some landlord, beat up someone . And as the pimps and touts from nearby Free School Street have increasingly encroached on nighttime Park Street to solicit customers, the academics and intellectuals arguing over their rum in Park Street bars have been largely replaced by salesmen and petty bourgeoisie. In the College Street Coffee House, the breeding ground of generations of poets and incubator of the Naxalite movement, the agonies of love are still discussed threadbare, but hardly any quality poetry comes out of the heartchurn. Revolutions are plotted, but with less passion and conviction.

“Sitting in Coffee House one afternoon in the ’60s,” reminisces poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, “a group of us decided that we had to get out of Calcutta, immediately. So we went straight to Howrah station and got onto the first train we saw. We finally ended up at the Palamau forest in Bihar, and spent a few days there.” Out of that impulsive tour came the novel Aranyer Dinratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), later made into an acclaimed film by Ray. Coffee House denizens can possibly still boast of such heady recklessness but not of the consequent creative outputs. Gone too are great poets like Binoy Majumdar, who wrote his songs of pain and longing, sitting here, or editors like Nirmalya Acharya, who did all his work connected with his respected journal, Ekshan , seated at a table in the corner. A huge tarpaulin hangs over the tables like a pall. Its function: to save customers from pieces of falling roof.

HALF of the Central Avenue Coffee House has already closed down. In the early ’50s, this is where a bunch of luminaries—Satyajit Ray, advertising legend Subhas Ghosal, painterParitosh Sen, writer Kamal Kumar Majumdar and others would meet every day at lunchtime. Malcolm Muggeridge, then assistant editor at The Statesman , would drop in sometimes, and visitorshave included British Labour Party leader Aneurin Bevan and film maestro Jean Renoir. “People don’t laugh so much anymore,” says Radhaprasad Gupta, art historian and member of Ray’s adda. “The decline in laughter is an important symptom of our lives and times.” At a country liquor bar in north Calcutta, reportedly a favourite haunt of the late poet Shakti Chattopadhyay, I find all conversation to be on cricket, current prices and sex. A man called Panchu Basak assures me—at least a dozen times—that in red-light area Sonagachhi, I need only to mention his name to get a discount. No one looks like they’re going to walk out of the bar and pen a poem one-tenth as good as Chattopadhyay’s Pa Theke Matha Parjantya Talmal Kore, which would surely rank with Dylan Thomas’ best as a stream-of-consciousness celebration of the alfluence of incohol.

“In the last six years I’ve gone to the College Street Coffee House only once, with some neo-Naxalite friends,” recalls 31-year-old entrepreneur Prasenjit Sinha. “My friends discussed the impending liberation of the proletariat over infusion (as black coffee is called in Coffee House), but when we came down to the street, a passing rickshaw caught and tore the kurta of one of my friends. And all of them started beating up the rickshaw puller. I don’t have time for this shit.” “After long economic stagnation in Bengal and the lumpenisation of the Left, a major part of my generation is far more interested in doing well materially than in pursuits of the mind,” says 34-year-old public sector manager Sushanta Das. “This has its good points, and its bad.” A large part of Das’ generation—arguably from the more talented end—has also left Calcutta to work in Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Bangalore, not necessarily by choice.

And, inevitably, television. “Mass media has destroyed the adda,” says Mukherjee. “There are around 300 hours of live cricket in an average year nowadays. That’s enough to kill creative effort to a significant extent.” Poet Nirendranath Chakrabarty recalls that around six years ago, he started noticing attendance at his Sunday morning addas dwindling. “Then I discovered that our adda timings clashed with Mahabharata on TV,” he says, “and my friends were preferring to watch that. This is sad, because the adda, which is essentially an exchange of ideas, exposes you to new thoughts, theories and ways of looking at things. It is a constantly rejuvenating activity.”

A few weeks before his death in March, actor and CPI(M) MLA Anil Chatterjee reminisced to Outlook about the days when he came to Calcutta from Delhi as a young man, and became part of the adda at the Basusree cinema hall in south Calcutta. “It was this regular adda that broadened my horizons immensely. I was meeting air force pilots, Marxists, all sorts of people from different ideological backgrounds, and we argued vociferously with one another, but came back the next day with no acrimony. The adda taught us to disagree but at the same time see the other person’s point of view, and maybe get enriched in the process.” But the adda’s function may go beyond simple intellectual enrichment. It is also the vital channel of information and political consciousness that the establishment-wary and highly individualistic Bengali developed. The adda is a highly decentralised social institution, a medium—the only, perhaps—which cannot be manipulated or misused by vested interests. Looked at this way, this agendaless chatfest is crucial to a vibrant democratic world-view. The decline of the adda would mean barriers to free communication, the right to information and the right to opinionate on that information. Something somewhere would die.

Not all agree. “I don’t belong to that class of people who feel that everything was better in the past, that the sandesh was sweeter, the mirchi was hotter,” says Sunil Gangopadhyay. “Times change, and things change with time. In our youth, we used to sit at Coffee House, today we have an informal club called Budhsandhya, which meets every Wednesday evening, where we chat, read our new work, the singers among us sing, sometimes we put up plays. So it’s there, as strongly as ever.” Says poet Joy Goswami: “When I look at the addas of young people today, I find the same fire, the zeal, the curiosity, the introspection. Maybe one has to look a bit harder today, but I think there’s no reason at all to despair.”

But despair comes easily to the Bengali today.