Adda at Barda’s Shop

On August 6, 2012 by admin

Amitranjan Basu

[1] When I stood at the main gate of National Library and looked ahead, I got a jolt! Where did Barda[2]’s shop go? I crossed the road and came near the gate of the Zoo and discovered that really Barda’s shop is gone! A high footpath has gone toward the Zeerut Bridge and along the footpath bus stands have come up with small tea kiosks for the bus workers but Barda’s shop has simply vanished!

Just can’t remember who among us had discovered this shop first. When we were finishing our schools in 1970-71, our adda brewed up in and around this inn. Barda’s shop was rather large and longish. In two rows there were about fourteen or fifteen tables with white marble tops. These tables rocked with this heavy marble tops on decade old weak legs with four darkish chairs that bore several marks of repair. Some of the chairs  sheltered bugs. The road side wall was half-open and the shop was roofed with corrugated tin sheets. A paan-cigarette shop was evolved on the road side wall and the bridge-facing wall had the kitchen, in front of which the manager’s chair was placed. The manager– Barda– sat on this chair behind a shabby showcase with an Anandabazar Patrika in his hand.

We used to sit on a table that faced the gate of the zoo where the shop had a small door and adjacent to that was a small banyan tree. The shop did not have any fans. Yellowish bulbs hung from the ceiling. As a whole the shop had such a characteristic look that most of the zoo visitors – who were from a humble background– liked to come and take their seats.

Initially, it was Sudhansu, Nirmal and me who started the adda and Sanju joined us soon followed by Sunil, Bijay, Hiren, Kirshnaswamy and Swapan. Barring Sudhansu and Hiren, the rest of us stayed within the boundaries of National Library. The colonial name of the place is Belvedere Estate. Sudhansu was a childhood friend who stayed in the staff quarters of Birla House and Hiren stayed in the staff quarters for zoo employees, who joined us during the first year of my college. Another group from Belvedere, slightly elder to us, used to come to this shop. From this other group , few would join this adda regularly. But none other than Kanuda and Sudhansu’s elder brother Bishtu were actively engaged with the life at Belvedere. Raju-da, Nepu-da and Kamal-da – came to Belvedere after finishing their college. To me they were the first educated unemployed youth seen from close quarters. In spite of being ‘dadas’, they were liberal enough to allow us to smoke in front them and we could discuss anything under the sun with them. At times we used to join both the tables and carry on chatting over endless cups of tea. Sometimes they used to include us in their drinking party. Another group, elder than this one, had their adda in the Ureyer Dokaan (Oriya guy’s Shop) near Anderson House (now Bhabani Bhaban). For a long time, we dared not smoke in front of them.

Life at Belvedere seems a time travel to me! Sirajuddoula, after capturing Calcutta from the British, named this area Alinagar. During the time of Mirzafar it was renamed as Alipore. I have read that the grandson of Aurangzeb built the first phase of the buildings. After fourteen years, Surman, a diplomat from England bought this house with the gardens from Mughal Emperor Farrukhshayar (1713-1719) and transformed into his summer palace and named it “Belvedere House.” However, Surman’s house was also put into auction and the revenue minister of Bengal Nawab, Suza Khan bought it in one lakh twenty thousand rupees. Next buyer was Warren Hastings, who bought it in sixty thousand sikkas, and after becoming the Governor General of Bengal he made it into his pleasure palace. Browsing the map of Calcutta of 1794 one can see that, a long stretch from today’s race course to Judges’ Court there is only one house engulfed by trees and the Adiganga. The Belvedere House with a huge garden full of various kinds of trees and a crescent-shaped lake formed the Belvedere Estate. In postcolonial times this house became the National Library and quarters and government employees started arriving in ones and twos.

By the end of fifties of the last century a new community started emerging. People from different states settled in their temporary houses at Belvedere Estate. This Belvedere of our childhood was a space of immense curiosity and excitement. In those days gas-lights illuminated Alipore and Baker Road. The house itself had such lights in beautiful decorated stands over the railings of the wide and long staircases, both in front and on the rear side. There were also wonderful marble sculptures of European kinds that decorated the staircase. If you were standing on the top of the frontal staircase it would seem that you were standing in front of a huge water coloured landscape of a plush green, sprawling field with a gigantic Sundari tree at the corner with the crescent shaped lake embracing it from the back. What kind of tree was not there in the garden? While playing over the branches of the big banyan tree we felt that this must be bigger than the famous banyan tree at the Botanical Garden! When dusky evenings would come down by the gas-lights over the Belvedere House – it took us instantly to colonial times. In this ghostly mystic environment the stories of the spirits of sahibs and memsahibs told by the elderly guards and staff seemed all too real!

Playground, Children’s Library, aimlessly loitering in the garden in a holiday afternoon, visiting the zoo whenever some new animals or birds came, or scaling the boundary walls of Agri-Horticultural Society garden to see different kinds of beautiful flowers around – all these had made our community life special. It was neither a typical ‘para’[3] life of Calcutta nor a ‘colony life’[4] – such was our urbanity. Bengali’s were not the majority in that locality; probably comprised of less than fifty percent of the total population. We were not real Calcuttans being in Calcutta! After evening, buses were unavailable and we had to go to Gopalnagar or Ekbalpur. When night descended over this postcolonial Belvedere then Calcutta used to recede far, far away and we became the inhabitant of ghostly Hasting’s world. Morning came over the high walls of Presidency jail with the bright red sun and night came over the gas-lights on Alipore Road and slided on the shining tin roofs of the military camp. I have seen the painting by Joffany where the beautiful and gigantic Sundari tree at the southern corner of the ground was captured. This two hundred and fifty years old painting showed Hastings and his wife Marian standing in a majestic pose in front of this tree, their maid is standing beside them and the Belvedere House is seen on the right hand side corner.

In the early seventies of the last century, after leaving the school, we were looking for an independent identity and were somewhat anti-authoritarian. Thumping our rowdy ways in the football ground, our excitement over cricket matches, debating on contemporary Bengali literature, and stealthily glancing at women – these were our daily doses of romance and ways of enacting this anti-authoritarian bit too! The laat-sahib had a small swimming pool and a squash playing room. This house became the Central Services Club where elderly played cards and we enjoyed splashing in the swimming pool or playing table tennis. There were few squash rooms in Calcutta and we also didn’t have many squash players. But this room had a different attraction. Singing in the room was an amazing experience with its resonating sound that made our voices unrecognizable. This was magical and yet we were looking to overcome its boundaries. We were trying to mark a space of our own in our early adulthood, outside the panopticon of the Belvedere Estate.

We had already started smoking cigarettes, occasionally drinking alcohol, and learning about the charming influence of cannabis. Sometimes I used to saunter to the big reading room of National Library. But more than reading, the spectacular aura of this gigantic dance hall and the eighty-feet long dining table left me awestruck. I used to come back after taking books from the lending section for my mother and instead of reading those, used to watch the readers sitting beside that table and the beautiful paintings over racks that stacked reference books. Actually in our little deviant ways we were searching for an independent space and identity.

The zoo authority used to lease out the shop on contract. From 1970-78, during our eight years of adda, Radhanath Banerjee, a bachelor in his forties ran the shop, whom we fondly called ‘Barda’ and the shop slowly became ‘Barda’s Shop’ to us. Barda came from a middle class family from Ahiritola in north Calcutta. He always used to don a fine bordered dhoti and a white ‘shirt-kurta’ with its sleeves rolled – a la Hemanta Mukherjee, the singer! He would arrive in the early mornings with an Anandabazar in his hand and would leave around eight in the evenings after settling the daily accounts. Before quitting for the day, he used to spend some time with us. He was much older to us but always addressed us as ‘Sudhansu-babu’, ‘Nirmal-babu’ with an aapni, which denotes a genteel-respectful attitude. Moving his hand over his bald head he used to say – ‘I’m only a humble chaiwalla (tea-vendor)’. However, his presence and behaviour always commanded respect. I have heard that after the untimely demise of his father he had to take to this profession. He had also run the canteen at Medical College, Calcutta. He had the ability to freely mix with us and gave us the liberty to eat food and tea and take cigarettes on credit. He also allowed us to occupy the coveted ‘end-table’ as long as we wished. Even during the mad rush of Christmas Day or 1st of January he never asked us to leave the table. More than a shop owner he played the role of an elder brother, the ‘dada’. We continued with our adda even after Barda would call it a day and until the serving boys would fall sleep. Sometimes in the summer we pulled the chairs outside the shop at the bank of Alipore Road. Both the zoo and National Library would close-down by that time. The whole area was quiet and deserted; only sounds of speedy cars would occasionally bother us. And a few young boys would be engrossed in some deep discussion!

At times, few of Barda’s friends dropped in. Ratuda was most frequent among them who was well known in the field of music after scoring musical hits for Manna Dey. He didn’t have any air about him and used to tell us stories of north Calcutta and the music world with a paan in his mouth and a soothing smile on his face. Probably he was at that point withdrawing from the music business and trying other things. Initially, he used to come in a white ambassador and later on in a taxi.

Our long-stretched addas would be naturally peppered with music sessions, which took an ethereal contour after smoking up stuff. Just opposite to Barda’s shop across the road, beside the gate of grade-four staff quarters of zoo, there was a small tea shop. Ananta, a staff, used to run that shop for some extra little income. It was the only source of tea after Barda’s shop would close down. Ananta had taught us to smoke up in a chhilum/kolke. Earlier, we used to work with reefers. Ananta strongly disliked that and said – ‘It is healthier to smoke ganja in a chhilum and what’s more, Lord Shiva protects you!’ Later when I started researching on cannabis, I found anthropologists knowledgeably explain the process how, to begin with, after soaking in water cannabis is first made softer by rubbing it on the palm with the thumb. Then it is chopped finely, dried and little khaini has to be mixed before it is placed inside the chhilum. After that a small piece of cloth is soaked in water, wrapped around the lower part of the chhilum and then one smokes. This is considered to give a better kick and is much healthier than mixing it with tobacco and smoking in a cigarette.[5] Naturally, we called Ananta our Ustad. He prepared the stuff with extreme care and after putting it in the chhilum, would keep the contraption erect on the ground and then begin reciting rhymes eulogizing ganja. Then a coconut fibre rope would be devised like a ring, burnt and placed over the chhilum. Ustad always had the privilege to take the first drag and after shouting ‘Bom Shankar’ he used to drag with all his pulmonary power and lo and behold, a flame would flicker out of the chhilum! I used to watch him with a respectful wonder. In a euphoric mood we used to come back to Barda’s shop and took out chairs to seat by the roadside and start singing contemporary popular Bengali and Hindi songs by Kishore Kumar, Rafi, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar and of course R.D.Burman. Sometimes Sanju sang English songs played in the popular radio programme ‘Musical Bandbox.’ Bijay’s rhythm on the chair was fantastic – exactly the way it was played in the original versions.

Our college friends also started dropping in at our adda. Besides the attraction of our adda, the place too had a different charm. We got the chance to meet different people from various parts of India and abroad in this shop and at times some became good friends too. Perhaps this very heterogeneous mixing expanded our language and cultural horizons. I had not seen any other place of adda of that nature during that time, though I had heard about such robust places. A guy called Nakulda was another frequenter whose profession was to supply animals to the zoo. Once he entered the shop with a tiger cub on his lap which was not even a month old. Within minutes the shop became crowded and I will never forget the fear I saw in the eyes of that beautiful cub, which looked liked an oversized cat. Nakulda was a dark, short and stout guy with a caterpillar moustache and used to constantly pull his denim over his belly. To us he was a brave man for just choosing this kind of a profession. Today my attitude toward protection of wild animals has changed but still Nakulda would remain a brave man to me. Even today I won’t be able to reject him from my pantheon for capturing wild animals and bringing them to the zoo. Not for mere political correctness.

It was a male thing of course, this adda, and often women were mainstays of discussion. It was not that we did not mix with girls at Belvedere Estate. But that kind of mixing was structured in a sister/lover dichotomy—a strange phenomenon in our country. It was one thing to disclose one’s secret desire about a particular girl to your friend, and a different thing to finally approach a girl to express your love, which involved various kinds of risks—quite practically. Yet affairs used to happen because in the community life of Belvedere Estate the guardians would not police and segregate young women. So there was no dearth of spaces—time and occasion I mean,  to ‘approach’ a girl. When I was studying in Standard IX, a girl studying in Standard VII wrote a love letter to both me and Nirmal. After reading the letter several times and doing a threadbare analysis, both of us decided to suppress and ignore the fact. We thought how could we spend time with a little girl and that too, both of us? Our male ego elided this daring. Now of course I think the girl had done a radical thing, at least by writing to both of us in those days!

One day Nirmal came to the adda saying ‘This morning I was witness to an interesting thing!’ Nirmal used go for a morning college. He had bunked college that day and went to Victoria Memorial with his classmates. He had seen groups of boys and girls are either roaming or chatting together on the lawns. Some of the boy’s groups were trying to introduce themselves to the girls. Few got success in one chance and others kept on trying. We became excited after listening to Nirmal’s story and immediately planned to visit Victoria Memorial. I bunked my early morning coaching class for Anatomy and joined them there. I was awestruck to see such colourful gathering in the well-manicured plush green gardens of Victoria Memorial in the morning. In the crowd of morning-walkers these groups of boys and girls were carrying on their emotional negotiations. Looking at some groups it seemed they had stuck nice bouts of friendships. We were a bit confused about initiating the process. After some amount of loitering we spotted a few groups but did not gather enough courage to approach them and returned after blaming each other. This is the nature of romantic anti-authoritarianism that we would indulge in those days. But those misfiring and tentative days strangely and paradoxically prepared us for mediations and infused in us a die-hard romantic strain.

Anyway, a serious postmortem meeting on our failure was called at the Barda’s shop. In spite of my resistance I was given the responsibility to initiate communication (I had to do this later for them more than once). The idea was to start talking so that they will take over. I tried to argue that I am not very handsome or did not have other skills but the rest would argue that I was good at histrionics and anyway, was a medical student. What a strange advantage! The next morning, we all reached there with a lot of tension and hope. We had decided not to begin with the typical and clichéd chat-up line – ‘We would like to get introduced to you’ or some such and was rehearsing the opening phrase – ‘Which college are you from and why you keep yourselves segregated and aloof?’ We zeroed in on one group and soon we came face-to-face to the maidens. As soon as a tall, dark and slim girl with black specs looked at me I went straight and delivered my line as calmly as possible (the thumping sound in my heart was just for me, of course). She responded smartly and wanted to know our intentions. I was prepared and explained it with utmost humbleness.  By that time our group members were already close by and my friends had started conversations too. The girl who spoke to me could not cover her anxieties behind the thick black frame. But I took care of that and she was easy within a few minutes. It felt good. Within a few hours we all came to Barda’s shop. Barda watched with some amusement. All the girls were from Jogmaya Devi College (a women’s college) and they stayed around Harish Mukherjee road, a nearby area. By that time we had already developed a theoretical concept of friendship after reading Ramapada Choudhuri’s well-known novel Akhoni (Now). So we had decided that this sentimental filial  or loverly bunkum had to be jettisoned. We held high opinion about ourselves that we were doing a new experiment and thinking about relationships in a new way.  Exchanging books, going for a Ray, Ghatak or Mrinal Sen’s movie together and chatting for hours at Barada’s shop, zoo and National Library grounds became the order of the day. From these girls I came to know about local histories of Bhabanipur. The houses told me numerous micro-stories; each was built during the colonial times and bore marks of history. Later I came to know about narrative history and micro-history and tried to match those stories.  One of girl’s father played excellent sitar and one afternoon his fingers mesmerized us with classical music. I hardly understood such music but he rightly said – ‘You need not understand it though the grammar feel it with all your heart and enjoy.’ I used to look minutely at the houses I saw in north Calcutta and the culture that brewed there. This sociality, the very blocks of sociability, was new to us. We were not from the neighbourhood nor were we college mates. One of the girls of course broke the ground rules and wanted eroticism within the ambit. The group did not like that, including me—we were trying to do new things, right? Quite normally, all of them got married within one year of their graduation and we enjoyed the ceremonial feasts. Gradually we became distant. Strange, I never met them even on the roads. But this experiment of friendship had left sweet and interesting feelings within us. Perhaps through this we became gender sensitive in a manner. And in all these Barda’s shop played a crucial role. This was the space outside Belvedere Estate, where I could construct a world of my own and met people from various strata and nature and shared a communal life.

This adda at Barda’s shop got marked in the Belvedere Estate as a place where wrong things happened.  We were not obedient, our body language underwrote our defiance and we were open about experimenting with various substances. But we were also active in sports, cultural activities, youth club and community-pujas. To do this we worked closely with our senior critics and probably this had helped to create a balance between our ‘wrong kind of boys’ image and ‘socially active’ image. Though we knew, we were doomed to be the marginal in the Belvedere community.  Today I look at that time and have an obverse assessment: was it that our parents felt comfortable inside somehow, because in that turbulent period of early seventies we were not getting addicted to naxalism? Was this alienation? What kind of politics did we try to enact anyway?

We hardly had much discussion at our adda on naxalism. Anyway it was risky to discuss such topic anywhere in those days. There were people from the intelligence branch who would roam inside the National Library campus whom we carefully avoided in spite of the fact that many IPS officers lived in Belvedere Estate. Rajuda, before coming to Belvedere Estate used to stay at the Ichhapur Gun and Shell Factory quarters. He used to tell us heroic action stories by naxalites that he had seen there, which seemed like Hindi movie scripts. Even we could make out that some of these stories were mostly imagined and mythical, we did not tease him about its authenticity. May be this is the way Rajuda is trying to get over his guilt of leaving his friends and coming to a ‘safer’ place. They were his childhood friends not ‘comrades’; so the wounds of departure were still very deep. Now I think we were actually cautious middle class youth who preferred ‘free thinking’ rather than engaging actively in radical politics. We just could not imagine quitting such enjoyable life at Belvedere though we cherished the romanticism associated with such radical politics. Besides, somebody or the other known to each of us would be already involved in this kind of activities. Once in broad daylight few activists from Ananta Singh’s group scaled the wall of Presidency Jail and escaped. We saw that while playing table tennis and were speechless. Few of them fled through National Library campus and for few days we discussed this in hushed tones.

It was Sanju who first took me to British Council Library. After coming back from the library we sat down at Barda’s shop to browse through each other’s books. Sanju was a student of English medium school and had a different literary taste when I had just started getting habituated reading English books. So I was interested more in classics and those literature about which I have read in the newspaper or some magazine. Our common interest was Punch. Before reading  this I had no idea that cartoons and satirical discussions can be so serious and erudite. We had debated for hours over our analyses of cartoons but both of us agreed that cartoons in Punch were far better than what is published in The Statesman. We also had bought few second hand issues of Mad from a Free School Street pavement shop. Its comic format with cerebral message provided a different charm and pleasure. We used to wonder why such things are not published in Bangla.

At times while seating alone in the shop, Barda came and shared his Medical College canteen stories whose characters were well known practitioners of Calcutta. It appeared that many liked him for his humbleness and for being social.

By nineteen seventy-five and seventy-six our adda grew up in numbers. People started coming from outside to the ‘famous’ Barda’s shop regularly. An aura of sorts developed around it. We were also trying to earn some money for personal expenses. In those days there was not much of a tuition market for biology teachers. It was Sanju who managed some work for me in a market research organization called Clarion-Maccan. Sanju was the most independent guy among us. He started working as a field investigator for this market research organization from the very beginning of his college life. He only took food and shelter at his house and managed all his expenses including studies. He bought a second hand BSA bicycle and often made whole all-Calcutta tours. Slowly through Sanju I also became a regular field investigator with the same agency and started buying books that I wished to read, a pair of good jeans that I wanted to buy, pack of good cigarette that I wanted to smoke or make a short trip to a nearby place with friends. I enjoyed the survey work. Sometimes it took me to newspaper readers to take responses on advertisements or I had to find out smokers of a particular brand of cigarettes to know about the changes they want. To do this I had to visit many places in the city and elsewhere not yet known to me and met people from various strata of the society – which was exciting and made me know about life’s practicalities.

When I had become an experienced and regular interviewer, I was assigned to find out a group of regular rum drinkers within a short notice. But all my contacts were country spirit (Bangla mod) drinkers. They drank rum at times when they had some money. Even senior house-staffs from my college fell in this category. I asked them to join the group discussion better dressed. They were very happy to get a free drink and joined readily.  But it became obvious after a few minutes of discussion that my candidates were not genuine rum drinkers. They could not mention brands or characterize their special taste and started making odd comments which evoked protests from genuine rum drinkers in the group. After a few pegs my candidates got into a debate with the rum drinkers arguing in favour of country spirit and branded the rum drinkers as ‘colonial!’ After the discussion the moderator called me and said: ‘Good that you have got some country spirit drinkers – it will help us to do a comparative evaluation. But this was unexpected and as a field investigator you will be considered unsuccessful. You are not a researcher so you will not understand where our difficulty lies. We have to once again spend money to get real rum drinkers for the study.’ I felt bad that day. Later when I became a professional researcher and had to conduct similar groups (‘focus groups’) this memory came back frequently. Somehow this job of field interviewer had influenced me deeply. Otherwise why would I have become a professional researcher? Even today my interest for depth interviews has its origin in those field interview assignments though today I don’t believe that I am churning out objective truth in any manner.

My interest in drama grew like any other middle class Bengali boy through participating in school drama and those happening at Belvedere Estate on special days. Buddha was my main inspiration who supplied regularly journals like Bohurupee, Abhinaya etc. Once we staged Varna Viparjaya by Mohit Chattopadhay, which was both absurd and symbolic. Most of the people did not enjoy it and we immediately considered our Belvedere Estate audience as ‘intellectually backward!’ However, staging plays twice or thrice a year, reading journals and books attracted me deeply towards drama. Watching plays by Bohurupee, Nakshatra and Satabdi made me aware that this is a serious matter. One had to see more and more. Without studying you can’t get into such things. That made me humble.

Once I met the legendary Shombhu Mitra at Nirmal’s house. He actually came to visit Mr. Joshi at National Library. On his way back,  Nirmal’s mama (maternal uncle) brought Mitra to his sister’s house. While getting introduced to this great thespian I told him about my interest in drama and shared how I got interested. Clad in impeccable white dhoti and kurta and a spectacles having soda bottle glasses he listened to me with care and said: “Studying medicine demands a lot of time. How will you manage this interest? Also you have to decide how much sacrifice you are ready to make for drama.” Seeing that I was somewhat determined he invited me to visit the Bohurupee office one day for a detailed discussion. I had read in the Bohurupee journal that they select members only after interviews and somehow I got selected. I started visiting them in between my college classes and in the evenings and was with them from 1973-75. Anyway let me skip my experiences in drama and at the moment and get back to the adda at Barda’s shop where my friends had to survive my lectures on drama and play writing. In this adda we used to select dramas that we would stage in the community and developed the habit of frequently watching most talked about plays. Nakshtra always staged difficult plays for which I had to look for reviews in the journals. We were awestruck watching Evam Indrajit by Badal Sircar. We could hardly understand much of it but it was definitely an unusual experience for me in those days.

By that time I was already familiar with College Street Coffee House.  We used to  join two tables and shared one cup of infusion-coffee among three people over heated discussion on culture and politics. But the charm of adda at Barda’s shop was matchless. But the coffee house adda made us curious about famous addas held at different country spirit shops. I have heard that country sprit shops at Khalasitola, Baroduari and Ganja Park are frequented by upcoming and well-known poets and writers. Well, consuming country spirit by intellectuals was nothing new in Calcutta. Writers like Saratchandra and Manik Bandopadhyay have already inscribed the history of their love for country spirit. But drinking in a country spirit bar with the so called subalterns and trying to ‘create’ a radical culture was something new.

We started drinking Bangla mod because we couldn’t afford anything else. Though we carried a hidden middle class inverse pride that we smoked Charminar and drank Bangla! We frequented Khalasitola and Baroduari to meet our favourite writers and poets but never met them as most of the time we left the tavern by early evening. But drinking there was  a unique experience as I met various people and surprisingly found that not many came to drink out of frustration as it was shown in the Bengali or Hindi films! For most of the customers it was a social space. Some would spend hours with a pint or a file (quarter) and some would quickly gulp down a few shots at the counter and leave. Most of the frequenters became familiar to each other. But our own Khalasitola was Barda’s shop. It was expensive to go to country spirit bar and drink. At the most we could visit once in a month. By evening when Barda had left we used to start drinking Bangla at the shop. In the midst of ascending silence by the Alipore road and with our tipsy heads, we would start debating or singing with our shirts off in sultry summer evenings.

In those days a medicine called Mandrax became popular for giving ‘good high’. Rajuda was the first one to bring this information to our adda. Being a medical student I was entrusted to get some of that stuff. I asked few of my seniors who introduced me to an eponymous Mandrax-gulper of my college. He told me fascinating stories of famous Mandrax-lovers and showed me a specific medicine shop that supplied Mandrax, Hyptozyn, Lepatone etc. No one could make out our ecstatic state as we didn’t stink or eyes weren’t red. The only tell tale sign was a little slurring of voice. The whole thing did not click because the effect was generally depressive. I used to fall asleep in the movie hall and there were other risks associated. During the re-union or Saraswati puja of our college two-three mandrax infused emergency admissions was normal. One of my most intimate friend committed suicide during our final MBBS exams feeling extremely apprehensive that he would fail, by taking twenty-three Mandrax tablets. This event had shaken me a lot and anyway I was already getting involved in the student movement, which took me away from these drugs. But the love for ganja and alcohol did not fade.

People from Rajuda’s group started getting jobs by 1976-77. Some friends left because their fathers got superannuated. Insidiously the density of adda at Barda’s shop was getting diluted. Sunil was the first among us to get a job. He was a pass out from the recently started hotel management institute and got placed in a five star hotel. He worked hard in the new job and that made his attendance thinner in the adda.  One day Sunil fell down from the terrace. He could not smoke inside his house, so he was taking his regular last cigarette but that night he lied down on the wall of the terrace and fell down accidentally.  But the rumour naturally was that unrequited love made Sunil take a huge dose of ganja and eventually led to his attempting suicide. During three months of his hospital stay people at Belvedere looked at us with great suspicion. Sanju was the next to bag a job and after his father’s retirement they shifted to Behala. Bijay’s father got transferred to Delhi and after Nirmal got a job their family too left Belvedere. Sudhansu got a job outside Bengal and by nineteen seventy-eight the glow of our adda was already fading.

We started meeting once a month at Barda’s shop. But when everybody arrived, we used to go inside the zoo and seat at the Bijoli Grill bar. All landed up jobs and I used to get Rs. 303.25 as my stipend for internship. A princely sum indeed!  So we shifted from Bangla to Phoren Likaar. Some felt hesitant to visit Ustad’s shop to smoke ganja. We could not even continue meeting monthly as many had their working areas outside Calcutta. Telephone was still used for necessity or for official calls and not all of us had telephones at our house anyway. Letters were exchanged once in a while – and our personal communication was getting lesser and lesser. Simultaneously I was getting excited with my entry into the professional world meeting other kinds of people but my involvement in the amnesty movement for naxalites in nineteen seventy-seven continued and grew deeper. I started spending most of my time in the college hostel or the house-staff quarters.

For all of us the presence of Barda’s shop was getting hazier and by nineteen seventy-nine it became a part of our memory. Sometimes I dropped in the evening and had a chat with Barda for long time. When the evening got dense, Alipore Road and the zoo gate appeared frozen in silence. Both myself and Barda started feeling that a loneliness was engulfing us. This shop and the life surrounding that were changing very fast. Sometimes an experienced guy like Barda used to wonder that he had never seen such an adda in his life. He showed his appreciation for our adda by putting it at the same level of addas that he had seen in north Calcutta and Medical College canteen. On one hand I was experiencing the pain of dissolution of this adda and on the other, political activism and search for new meanings of friendship were germinating a new quest within me.

The day before I left Belvedere for good, I came to visit Barda’s shop. It was evening. While leaving,  Barda hugged me and said ‘Be cautious, live carefully.’ After a long time I smoked up that evening. No, I did not go to Ustad’s place for a chhilum filled smoke and smoked a big fat joint and got a solid kick. Alipore road to Zeerut Bridge – zoo gate to National Library the whole area was looking deserted. I was thinking about Belvedere Estate, which embodied quite literally my childhood and adolescence. But the intensity of memory and emotion was stronger about Barda’s shop because this was the space that provided me an appropriate condition to grow up as an adult in any real sense. Crossing the boundary walls of Belvedere Estate and coming to Barda’s shop was symbolic. It represented a connect of my self to the larger world in a radical way. It is from this space that the web of my thoughts would spread out eventually. That evening I looked at Barda’s shop for one last time and walked slowly, painstakingly toward Belvedere. That was also my last night at Belvedere.

After leaving Belvedere Estate I soon became a full-time activist with a naxalite group and went underground. I had then just finished my house-staffship. After a few years I was visiting Calcutta and went to a friend’s office for some money. After his initial chuckle he handled it well and immediately ordered some food and started enquiring how I am braving this kind of a life. More than politics he was interested to know about the life I was experiencing and how I was practicing medicine. At that time an aged man entered the office. Though a little shabby, he was still wearing a dhoti and a shirt-kurta with sleeves folded. The body looked frail, tired and gloomy. As soon as we made eye contact I immediately recognized him – Barda!

When the contract for the shop at zoo expired, Barda never got the chance to renew it. For all these years he ran the shop with hard work and supported his younger brother to become a WBCS officer. But he left the family after marriage leaving Barda and his old mother in the old north Calcutta house. Barda now managed by selling classified ads for a newspaper and friends would help him.  Yet Barda appeared straight, ramrod in his demeanor. Before leaving he held my hands and wished me long life. His palms felt like gloves. Warm and caring. That was our last meeting.

After being released from the prison I met Nirmal after a few days.  While catching up with our past he told me that Barda had passed away. Barda is no more, nor his shop. The busy bus-terminus has erased all those moments. Those intense moments, I should say, in spite of their many limitations. One can only find them now in the memories of few men in their fifties. The space is inscribed there, in all its complexity and variety. Very familiar, but gone.


[1] This essay was first published in Bengali as ‘Bardar Dokaner Adda’ in Keertinasa 4, Magh 1411 BS (Jan 2004). Translation is mine.

[2] ‘Barda’ means elder brother.

[3] Para in Calcutta signify a neighbourhood with a strong sense of community, and are usually sharply defined on the basis of loyalties (like which households contribute economically to which public or “barowari” puja). Para-culture typically segregate Calcutta  communities on the basis of origin (West Bengal origin “ghotis” versus East Bengal origin “bangals” – there are paras which have names like “prothom bangal para” (first bangal para), occupation and socio-economic status (paras have names like “kumorpara” (potter para), and sometimes even politics and religion. Typically, every para has its own community club, with a club room (“club ghar”), and often a playing field. People of a para habitually indulge in adda or leisurely chat in “rock”s or “rowacks” (porches) and teashops in the evenings after work. North Kolkata paras typically have more street life at late nights with respect to South Kolkata paras. Sports (cricket, football, badminton) and indoor games (carrom) tournaments are regularly organized on an inter-para basis. The para culture is fast waning, for good or bad, with the rise of apartment complexes, and the rise of the cosmopolitan nature of Calcutta.

See last accessed on 29 July, 2012

[4] Where refugees from East Pakistan/East Bengal settled in Calcutta, it produced a community life that bore the pains of uprootedness and struggling to eke out a livelihood in an urban modernity.  These settlements were called as ‘colonies’.

[5] Patricia Morningstar, ‘Thandai and Chilam: Traditional Hindu Beliefs about the Proper Uses of Cannabis,’ Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1995, pp. 141-165.


Amitranjan Basu is Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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