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Since 1st March, 1999
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CALCUTTA CONVERSATIONS Edited by Lina Fruzzeti and Akos Östör, Chronicle, Rs 575

Bengalis may justifiably claim to hold the patent to adda. An exclusively male affair, adda was an integral part of Bengali babu culture in the mid-19th century when baithaki adda occupied the space between the private and public worlds. With the decline of aristocracy in Bengal and the emergence of a “bhadralok” middle class, the adda has moved on to the public sphere — tea shops, eateries, work-places and even public vehicles.

But Calcutta Conversations is not about the sociological evolution of adda. It is a collection of addas between 21 eminent Calcuttans, held sometime in the Eighties. Among the two editors, Lina Fruzzeti emerges as the more skilled conversationalist; she intersperses an informal approach with assertive statements and frivolous remarks. She is focussed in her discussions, even while yielding to some controlled digressions. Quite in keeping with the spirit of adda, the conversations have a sense of inconclusiveness.

What is most creditable is the way Fruzzeti draws out hard-hitting comments from her adda mates. For it is unlikely that M.J. Akbar would say, in a more serious and formalized debate, that “Any community which is so fixated on the idea of property [like the Bengalis] cannot be revolutionary”, or a Samaresh Bose would blurt out, “First they [communists] are Bengali Hindus and then they are communists”.

A few topics recur in the conversations — are Bengalis in Calcutta losing their cultural heritage, and are they apathetic to their growing marginalization, given the ever-increasing incursion of non-Bengalis into the city' These questions are evidently inter-related; some may even say there is a causative relationship between them.

The late actor, Utpal Dutt, has no problem with the large number of non-Bengalis in the city. But Badal Sarkar, though not quite approving of the phenomenon, finds it common to all the Indian metros, the result of the lack of economic development in rural areas. Sunil Ganguly and Jochan Dastidar feel that the Bengali insensitiveness to influx is the result of their inveterate internationalism, whereas Pratap Chandra Chunder strongly argues that there will always be “forces which will keep [Bengali] people together”.

These conversations incorporate many attitudes and responses. Calcutta had never been a melting pot of cultures. But it always possessed a cosmopolitan character — preserving a core culture even as it played host to many other cultures. Once the Marwaris took charge of the city, Bengalis started moving to the suburbs. Bengalis are traditionally non-parochial, quite averse to the Shiv Sena brand of “son of the soil” sentiment.

But they should also realize that not to dominate does not mean to be dominated, and that not asserting a rigid identity does not imply dissolving it altogether. The addas address these questions, and also other attendant themes like the replacement of the “horizontal” para feeling with a “vertical” one.

The volume opens with a funny song by a potua which highlights the city’s composite culture, and sets the tone for the ensuing conversations. The “photo-essay” is also an intelligent inclusion. But why have women been so conspicuously left out'

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