Adda, the Genteel Sport of Talking

Dr. Chicken and Situ (in his 2,100 taka shirt) for adda over lunch in the city, 1999
It’s not that people in other countries don’t talk to each other, of course they do. Across the world people meet together for a chat, to exchange views or share food; there’s nothing unusual in it. It’s in Bangladesh though that such activity, ‘adda’ as it’s called here, has been raised almost to the status of a national sport.

Each evening but particularly at the weekends, Dhaka’s prime ‘adda’ venues such as around the TSC, through Ramna Park or at Dhanmondi’s Number Eight, are bustling with activity. Under the stars, wooden benches are moved about and plastic stools arranged into suitably-sized discussion circles. Impromptu waiters wander with cups of tea on trays; patrons call to them by name to place their orders. People, mostly but not entirely men, because women’s adda still occurs more often at home, greet each other and share a few words as they negotiate their way amongst the regular groups to reach their regular group, ready to settle in.

‘Chanachurrrrr,’ blast the trumpets, the ritual attention-seeking tool for sellers of that snack called chanachur, known as Bombay mix in the U.K. or Punjabi mix in the U.S. and sold in folded paper cones.  Others snacks are also to be found: there are roving sellers of mori or puffed-rice mix, bottled water too, and stalls specialising in traditional Bengali cakes called pitha or savoury fried items like shingara and samosa; and yet ultimately it’s not the food that draws in the crowds, it’s the adda.

It’s hard to find a seat in those places at those times; a spare stool is a prize that’s usually well guarded. If you try to take one that’s seemingly unattended, inevitably a hand will spring out on top of it and someone will say, ‘lok ache’, ‘a person is there.’ Often it is not a person you can see who’s there; because they’re probably still on their way, caught somewhere on a rickshaw or Honda, in a jam that can be caused by nothing less than adda itself, with localised traffic snarls on the approach roads to the gathering places. It’s not that people don’t talk to each other in other countries, but there are not too many cities in the world where the quest for verbal communication can cause jams.

Adda at Hatiya tea shop, with Boss, Situ, Shiraz and Lekubhai, 1999.
Adda is not like other sports, because there are no rules and rarely points to be scored; but it has innumerable ‘players’ and can readily attract spectators, especially in the village, in the tea shops, on bridges, on mats laid out beside the road. There it is something greater still: it’s through adda that people who’ve known each other all their lives, family, neighbours and friends, constantly renew and reinvent their relations with each other. Adda is there when marriages need arranging and it is there when the grief of somebody’s passing needs expressing.

Indeed in the village, adda is perhaps the most important means of conflict resolution, most often a simple matter of talking things through, rescheduling debt repayments or compromising on property matters. Where conflicts run deeper, adda becomes more formalised in enlisting the assistance of a shalishdar or mediator; in sporting terms the shalishdar could be considered the referee. Indeed in this aspect the value of adda has been recognised in the west, where over the past several decades efforts have been made to establish their own informal mediation mechanisms for minor disputes; forms of resolution that are more cost-effective and less antagonistic than formal justice processes. While such western constructs are artificial, Bangladeshi village adda is age-old, as natural as the coconut palms lining the road.

In its shalish form, adda is reminiscent of that other South Asian game, ‘the game of kings’, chess. It is said that chess, which has been dated to the 6th century Gupta Empire, was used for training in military strategy. Military conquest is also a form of conflict resolution, albeit a far less benign one than what adda provides.

Adda too marks the end of a dispute; once settled it is etiquette to share a cup of tea and the little adda that goes with it, signalling a return to normalcy and good relations. Ultimately, adda is a quintessential tool of community-building; where adda is strong, community relations are strong. Adda binds; it’s society’s glue.

Enjoying adda while mending fishing nets
There are people who say adda is a waste of time; others associate it with vice, such as smoking, betel leaf chewing and drugs. I suppose it’s true it can include such activities, but there is not a ‘sport’ in the world that is free from occasional drug scandals and ultimately people make their own choices about such things. It’s not the fault of adda. And as for a waste of time, in much of the world the time set aside for adda is surrendered to the TV set, so things are relative.

For the most part adda is simply about having fun. Its beauty is its adaptability; adda can be lively or serious, refined or down to earth, noteworthy or frivolous. It can include acting, singing, story-telling, mime and jokes; its range of topics is infinite. The pervasiveness of adda in Bangladesh is impressive, because ultimately adda is communication, and it would take a person braver than I to suggest communication is not an important quality for a society to have; so while in Sydney a stranger talking to you on a bus or in the street could easily be greeted with an element of suspicion, ‘are they mad?’, in Bangladesh it’s normal, and a good thing.

Brazil has lost the match!’ a stranger exclaimed to me a couple of weeks ago; and why should he not have expressed his disappointment at the outcome verbally; because the disappointment is shared and adda is about sharing. It’s communication like that, the start of adda, which turns strangers into friends.

If you are still in doubt that Bangladeshi adda is unique then think of this: there is no exact translation of the word available in English. English has ‘chat’, ‘conversation’ and ‘confabulation’, terms that focus on the spoken word to the exclusion of the passing of time together associated with ‘adda’. There is ‘chitchat’ which is usually derogatory and sounds like what a stern teacher might say to his or her class, ‘there’s a bit too much chitchat going on in this classroom!’ You could use ‘chinwag’ though this sounds like two grandmother neighbours standing along the boundary fence between their houses, a break from doing the gardening; and there are terms like ‘hanging out’ which conversely emphasise the time spent together but not the verbal component.

The closest English word must be ‘gossiping’, but only in its hundreds-of-years-ago sense; what you might find in a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel. These days gossip means to talk ill or fallaciously of someone who’s not there. Neither ‘small talk’ nor ‘schmooze’ fit the bill either, the former meaning triviality and adda is not always so; the latter defined as talking for a reason, to try and gain advantage. Adda is not that.

Yusup Kaku, Boss and Situ in tea shop for adda
It is unlikely too that you would find any of these words in an English-speaker’s CV listed under ‘hobbies’, but on Bengali CVs, alongside ‘cricket’, ‘chess’ or ‘carrom’ it can occur. I have seen it listed, in English as gossiping or chatting, for wont of a more accurate translation. And unlike those English terms, the Bangla ‘adda’ fits well in such a category.

Among their cultural achievements many nations like to claim as their own a game or sport. The oldest discovered depiction of skiing comes from Norway and dates back some 5,000 years; modern soccer and cricket are both English games, several centuries old. Backgammon is claimed by Iran, with a set uncovered by archaeologists that is approximately 3,000 years old. A sport of less international renown, a sport which is underappreciated and endemic to Bangladesh is that genteel sport of talking, adda.

Bangladeshis are right to relish those hours shared with family, friends, sometimes strangers, engaged in pointed or seemingly pointless adda. It may not have a ball, rarely a referee and there may not be rules as such, but the banter, enjoyment and highs and lows adda can conceive make it something of a sport, and there can be little doubt that if there ever were to be a World Cup in adda, different from debating in that the ‘players’ would be scored on entertainment value, possibly humour, rather than persuasiveness, that following some stiff competition from the coffee houses of Kolkata, Bangladesh would take the trophy.

‘Chanachurrrrr’ blow the trumpets, announcing the start of the evening’s tournaments. And as we sit there, as things are just getting interesting, my friend’s mobile phone rings: inevitable in this day and age. Is it an inhibiter or facilitator, the mobile phone we used to meet there in the first place? Either way he has to go, his wife wants him home because they have to go and visit some relatives, where they will sit in a living room, share food, a cup of tea, and of course, more adda.

Backgammon is claimed by Iran and skiing by Norway, both great places to travel.

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Adda, the Genteel Sport of Talking

The crowd at Joshim's tea shop pose for a picture, 1999

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