Mojlishi adda (informal chat sessions) with mouth-watering food and cha is a quintessential part of the Bangali experience, and is wonderfully captured in novels and stories from West Bengal. This is not to say writers from Bangladesh don’t portray this in their literary works, but what they are unable to portray effectively is the relaxed, convivial but cerebrally active nature of Bangali communities that this represents.

Adda in books or magazine articles from Bangladesh is mostly portrayed as a session where politics is inevitably the main topic. Food or lighter subjects might crop up as footnotes, but these are rarely the primary agenda of discussion. In the works of the writers from West Bengal, however, the portrayal of food is so prominent that it makes a reader drool and approach the refrigerator.

The classic Kolkata adda

As an avid reader of Bangla literature, it’s hard to miss the prominent role that para addas (neighbourhood chats) play in a number of books from West Bengal. Ghana Da, Pindi Da and Teni Da (Da is a suffix acknowledging superiority) – three beloved characters created by writers Premendra Mitra, Ashutosh Mukherjee, and Narayan Gangopadhyay, respectively – epitomise adda as discussions with no agenda. These are conversations that are not just gossip, debate or rants, but a blend of all three. Telebhaja (fried snacks) and tea complement the sessions in these stories.

All the stories featuring Ghana Da by Premendra Mitra start with a similar scene: Ghana Da comes down to the living room of the boarding house from his own room, where his fellow lodgers have arranged a repast of, among other things, peyaji, alur chawp, and cutlets. And it is over these delicacies – which, strangely, never seem to give anyone acidity – and steaming cups of tea that Ghana Da regales his audience with his tall tales.

Ashutosh Mukherjee’s stories, starring Pindi Da, follow a similar pattern. Every afternoon Pindi Da and his five friends sit down together in the corner of a field in Patna, Bihar. Pindi Da’s friends – or rather, acolytes – know that Pindi Da will not come up with one of his extraordinary anecdotes from his earlier life as a football player in Brazil unless there is food. So, at the beginning of each story, there is an elaborate discussion on the menu.

As for Teni Da’s gatherings with his four followers, these give the reader a flavour of the outdoor adda in urban Kolkata. With expressions like “chatujjoder rowak e boshe paanch murtir gultani” (“the chatter among the five perched on the stoop outside the Chatterjees’ house”) and “parar telebhajar dokane dariye omelette shatano” (bolting omelettes at the neighbourhood snack sho ) the author paints vivid settings for the adda.

Bengali books where the adda is a prominent presence | Image credit: Faisal Mahmud

The Kolkata neighbourhood culture that comes up again and again in these stories signifies the spirit of community that prevailed up until the third quarter of the 20th century. Typically, every locality had its own community club, with a “club ghar” (clubroom) and, often, a park where locals played some sports and had prolonged addas afterwards.

In these – and other – stories we also see how people – almost strictly, males – of a neighbourhood would habitually congregate for adda after work. These addas usually took place over bhaars (earthen cups) of tea, and ranged over subjects stretching from politics to sport and film. But while the neighbourhood adda culture was also prominent in Dhaka, almost none of the prominent writers from Bangladesh have woven these gatherings into their fiction.

Dhaka adda and politics

My favourite piece published in the monthly Rohossho Potrika (Mystery Magazine) of Bangladesh was one titled “Botomuler Adda Kahini,” (“Informal chat sessions under the banyan tree”), which did justice to the relationship between cha, adda and politics in Bangladesh. It described how people used to sit under a banyan tree in the park to analyse the current political situation.

It also highlighted the “picchis” (the young boys who roam the parks selling tea) who would serve them endless cups of the beverage. Interestingly, the picchi tea sellers would also chime in with their opinions. As the piece pointed out, the remarks made by the (often rustic) tea-seller inject humour into the discussions, while representing the satirical perspective of the citizen.

In his book Bishonnotar Shohor (City of Melancholy) the writer Maskauath Ahsan writes about cha, adda and politics in Dhaka, but politics dominates, while tea and food only get perfunctory mention, such as “Boithakkhanai cha-singara die gelo” (“cha and shingara were served in the drawing room”). Moinul Ahsan Saber has also brought the adda into his stories on a few occasions. But, unlike the writers from West Bengal, none of them has actually used the setting of the adda to tell the story.

The enormously popular Bangladeshi writer Humayun Ahmed, in some of his books featuring Himu the detective, sketches conversations at road-side tea stalls in Dhaka. But those really don’t qualify as an adda, being one-on-one conversations, even if the food is described, and politics is discussed.

Interestingly, the political adda features in the works of writers from West Bengal too, with the ambience of Kolkata’s famous Coffee House – the cradle of many a political as well as literary movement – playing a significant role. Writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sanjib Chattopadhyay, and Samaresh Majumdar, among others, also wrote about political addas that took place at other restaurants, including the legendary Basanta Cabin, itself the subject of an entire book by Shantanu Ghosh.

Sadly, though, the adda seems to have vanished from the literary scene in both Bangladesh and West Bengal over the past decade. Perhaps this was inevitable, with multi-storeyed buildings replacing older buildings in front of which people congregated for adda, and with roadside stalls also being cleared. The adda has shifted to social media for an entire generation. And with it, an endearing component of Bengali fiction may also have seen its last days.

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka based journalist.