It is 7 pm on a Saturday and the main hall of the iconic Coffee House on Kolkata’s college street is buzzing with intense conversation, amidst the clinking of chipped chinaware, calls for more coffee and pronouncements on the future of Bengal’s and India’s politics.

The ‘regulars’ table in the centre of the hall where a giant portrait of Rabindranath Tagore hangs, can’t make up its mind on whether the pro-Mamata vote is increasing or the anti-vote is splitting.

If tea and coffee keep the intellectual conversation flowing around the world’s salons, in Kolkata, which considers itself to be India’s thought capital, ‘adda’ which can be loosely defined as the free-wheeling exchange of ideas, is the lifeblood of intellectual consciousness.

Adda’ is of course also a birthright which the city’s young and not so young, exercise at the metropolis’s coffee houses, tea shops and even neighbourhood ‘roaks’ (concrete benches at doorways of old houses).

Regulars claim the ouster of the British Raj was conceived here, as was the failed Naxalite revolt of the 1970s. Similarly, the downfall of the Congress government in 1977 and that of the Marxist government in the last decade, were also “plotted” at these ‘addas’.

Among those known to have been regulars at the 82-year-old Indian Coffee House, which everyone concedes is the ‘Mecca’ of discourse, including the likes of film-makers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, economists Sukhomoy Chakraborty, Barun De and Abhijit Banerjee, poets and writers Sunil Ganguly, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Samaresh Basu besides historians Tapan Roy Chowdhury and Sumit Sarkar, to name but a few.

Intellectual impact

“The Coffee House had a huge intellectual impact on political thought in the 20th century … it was the place where students, teachers and intellectuals met and these people were mostly politically active or influenced those who were,” pointed out Prof Ranabir Samaddar, political scientist, author and former Director of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Calcutta.

“However, student politics has changed since then. The Trinamool Congress represents the rise of the suburban leaders as opposed to intellectually elite leaders who were nursed by the Congress and the CPI(M). The coffee house culture remains but its thoughts now do not immediately percolate down to the masses as earlier,” said Samaddar.

A few kilometers to the south of the city, at the Jadavpur Coffee house, outside the elite Jadavpur University (JU), patrons debated hotly on the “war” between TMC and Bengal’s governor which has taken a turn for the worse with allegations by a Raj Bhavan employee of improper conduct against Governor C V Ananda Bose.

“Our ‘addas’ were a focal point where the urban middle class and radical thinkers from all genres of thought could meet and their discussions did influence politics here for many decades. However, with societal fragmentation and the rise of the internet, their pivotal position has perhaps been eroded,” said CPI(M) politburo member Nilotpal Basu, himself an alumnus of JU.

At Radhu Babu’s, a 90-year-old tea shop on Janak Street, a stone’s throw from Kalighat, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee resides, the clientele at its regular evening ‘adda’, over a strong ‘cuppa’ dissected whether a video sting on a BJP local leader who claimed the entire narrative of rape and molestation at Sandeshkhali island was “set up” would impact the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

“The thoughts do still influence the political thinking of the masses, as the ‘address’ is often reflected in the memes and wisdom that people dole out through social media. So in a way the ‘adda’ has become amplified by social media which carries the debate on even after the last dreg of coffee has been drunk,” said Samata Biswas, professor of cultural studies at the 200-year-old Sanskrit University.

However, the nature of debates has changed as has Bengal’s politics. People do longer vote against a party for supporting the US or for taking up a bourgeoisie cause. “Political debates at coffee houses and in newspapers and indeed during campaigning in Bengal now reflects the local and not the national issues and certainly not the international or esoteric causes,” said Prof Samaddar.

(The writer is an independent journalist)