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by Madhuri Chatterji

The secret to Bengali conviviality.


Adda is a beloved pastime that's unique to Kolkata. Markedly different from small talk or chatting, it is best described as an informal group conversation that's long, fluid and relaxed in nature. While "adda" can loosely be translated as "hangout", the word oversimplifies the action and the nuances are completely lost in this transition.


"We are not expected to produce something out of an adda," says Aditi Ghosh, head of the linguistics department at University of Calcutta. Elaborating further, she says, "It is a kind of unplanned mental exercise where we do not just talk about ourselves and our families, but we go beyond that. It is about ideas and events happening all around us."


For Bengalis, who are known for their gregariousness and love of talking, engaging in adda is an essential part of the day. Traditionally, a perfect adda should include a little bit of everything – politics, art, literature, science, debate, gossip, jokes, rumours, food, cigarettes and tea – and can take place anywhere: in a private home, a local tea shop, the park or a veranda.


Sometimes it is impromptu and happens right on the street (and can continue for hours right there) or it may be a regular, pre-planned meet up. An adda session can be identified by the freestyle conversation that's often intellectual, sometimes banter, and by the wild gesticulations of participants as they make their contributions heard. If things get quiet for too long, someone will broach a new subject to keep the session going. There is no restriction on the topics of these conversations, though the more controversial the subject matter and more outlandish a claim, the better.


Although the origins of adda are murky, this beloved ritual is thought to go back to colonial times. In 1757, English East India Company won the Battle of Plassey and gained control over most of Bengal. Back then, Kolkata was a cluster of humble settlements on the left bank of river Hooghly, but it quickly expanded into a city under British rule, serving as the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911. The British colonialists left indelible marks on Kolkata's cultural heritage, influencing food, language, literature, philosophy and even the art of conversation.


The city soon attracted rich merchants and traders from all over Bengal. A new affluent Bengali class emerged who worked as clerks, administrators and merchants under the English East India Company. These educated and wealthy Bengali males tutored their children in contemporary Western subjects to get jobs with the East India Company and do business with them smoothy; and gathered daily in their private premises to partake in casual but long discussions on endless topics – thus popularising  adda.


Yet my non-Bong friends are a bit mystified by the term 'adda', as in Hindi and as immortalised by Bollywood, it means the den of vices. Well the Bong adda is the den of vices for sure, but they are more of the harmless variety. "The essence of the word is essentially Bengali and synonymous with Bengali culture and tradition. It usually takes place among friends, relatives or colleagues. Adda manifests itself everywhere in embryonic form. From the Egyptians or Turks chilling out with a cup of coffee or the Americans guzzling bear in a pub – everybody is found relaxed, relieved and deeply engrossed in a typical 'adda' mood, sometime or the other. Addas are best seen during the festivals."


So what is adda? Adda is a discussion/chat/verbal conflagration with a few ground rules.


Adda isn't about winning, it is about being passionate

Adda isn't about confinement but about exploration

Adda is not so much about judging as it is about accepting

Adda isn't about exclusion, it is about inclusion

Adda isn't about being repressive, it is about being expressive

Adda is most definitely not about business talks, but it is a lot about ideas

Adda is not about deal making, but IS a lot about making a great deal about passion inducing things


Adda is unpaid therapy as also multiplicity of perspectives

Adda is about renewing connections

Adda is a melting pot of living and experiencing

Adda is about being true to one's heart, and one knows as to how true one is, by the way time flies.

Adda is a lot about bitching, gossiping, cat calling and everything mundane and inane...but that is at a superficial level. At a deeper level it is about connecting, resonating and bonding. For all the 'intellectualism' of the mind, the heart does return satiated and the soul succoured from an adda. 


For among those who 'adda' on a regular basis, one has not heard of eve teasing taking place when the 'youths' of the lane sat around 'adda-maroing', news and media had competition as each topic gets dissected by a variety of viewpoints, the stress of living was a reduced and there was no participation cost other than the cost of endless cups of tea. The idiot box held no sway. One could be an idiot in one's own unique way. But nothing beats a good evening of face-to-face chat.


For those who don't know what adda is , it ranges from discussing Marxism to the price of hilsa, from reciting Yeats to lines broken in three parts to form poetry, from talks about Beethoven to modern day Tumpa Shona. All this happened in crumbling canteens , the walls of which lamented their decay, over the flavoured water called coffee at Coffee House or tea stalls with rain water dripping into cha 'er bhand.  Cold winter mornings saw men in monkey caps and loose pyjamas engrossed in heated animated discussions over communism as the way forward or separating  art from the artist. Humidity, rain, cold nothing dampened it's spirit.


Many people in the India of smart cities, bustling tier two and three towns, Silicon hubs, historically famous  towns etc. would place Calcutta in a forgotten, faded haze of past glory. But if I were to be born again and had a choice of places, I would choose Calcutta. Again and again. I may have lived in many other cities,  but the training and breeding ground of my mind was, thankfully, Calcutta. I am imbued with the original values of liberalism, progressiveness, inclusivity, secularism and rationalism way before they distorted into the unrecognisable wok of sentiments of today.


The friends from the city of joy have remained the same all these years, spreading joie de vivre in four corners of the world. I am rejuvenated with a fresh shot of Calcutta every time I visit and reconnect with those who chose to remain here. It is quite simply a reconnaissance with the age-old essence of a town that fuels spontaneous enjoyment of everyday things. A joyous bursting into song, the re-reading of the lines of a poem, the analysing of a winning strategy of a football match, discussing thread bare post-truth in a colonial club, deciphering the secret ingredient of a delicate dish - the list goes on! Adda!!


Yes, I carry and practise its ethos every single day wherever I may be.

Image by Evie S.
Image by Kenny Eliason

Madhuri Chatterji is a closet writer and art enthusiast. She is interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, translations, travelling .She regularly distributes her time to write for them in magazines and journals .After a thirty year long career, travelogues and children stories occupy her the most. Armed Forces background makes her enthusiastic about adventure travels and spending time in the wild.

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