"For some it is their drawing room, for others it serves as a veritable office, and for others it is nothing less than a club. It is many things, except a restaurant," says Ohidul Haque Khan, a veteran journalist, munching a cutlet with a fork from his plate.
The restaurant he is sitting in overlooks a rail track, and beyond that a busy street runs towards the rail station. The food joint, Bose Cabin, which sits at the borderline of a busy bazar, is the oldest in and synonymous with Narayanganj, a city founded in the colonial era by merchants and business entrepreneurs.
On a Thursday afternoon, Ohidul Haque is waiting for his colleagues to join him for an adda, which will last for hours. The restaurant has started to have its flow of customers after a comparative lull at lunchtime, and the eight tables are getting filled with different types of 'addabaz' people.
By late afternoon the 1300 square feet joint begins to bustle with all kinds of people – cultural activists, politicians, journalists, writers, lawyers and businessmen.
"It's more of a place for social gathering than a restaurant," from another table says Delowar Hossen Madil, a middle-aged man associated with making films.
Popularly known as Bose Cabin, the sign declares it as New Bose Cabin.
"Most people fail to notice the word 'new' written in comparatively small fonts in the sign,' says Tarak Bose, the 46 years old heir who manages the eatery.
The one-storey restaurant has two chambers separated by a brick partition. The rear chamber is kept exclusively for chitchat while the front one is supposed to be used by regular customers. However, at peak hour in the evening the whole restaurant becomes a center for 'adda'.
"We have to lay extra chairs in the small open-air courtyard to accommodate the customers," says Tarak Bose. "We do not ask anyone to leave a table even if he occupies it for hours on end holding only a cup of tea. This place is not for business. It's a cultural landmark, a heritage."
Commerce, indeed is not the priority of the restaurant. The century-old joint still runs like a blood vessel for every kind of activism it used to host from its birth in 1921. Anti-colonial political leaders of the city made use of it as their secret meeting place. During the Pakistan days it hosted many towering figures of national politics, from Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardi, Maolana Bhasani to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Celebrities like Ritwik Ghatak and Brajen Das took sips here.
"Many cultural organisations, including Sahitya Bitan, the oldest in the city, were born here. It served as a virtual office for energetic activists," says Abdur Rahman, a 60-year-old cultural organiser who is also the general secretary of the Narayanganj Citizens' Committee.
Abdur Rahman, now an insurance company manager, has frequented the place from his school days.
Tea has always been the main delicacy of Bose Cabin from the days of its inception. With minimal milk and sugar, the strong tea is manifestly distinct in taste and colour.
"We have kept it this way, despite the fact that youngsters prefer lighter tea. They sometimes ask for extra sugar. But our regular customers like it," says Tarak Bose.
Back in 1921, when Neependra Chandra Bose started the restaurant in a very modest form of a 'tong-dokan' (shanty stall), nearly 100 yards away from its current location in Falpatti, offering a very delicate taste of tea was his main concern. He collected tea grains from as far away as Shilchar, Assam, a hub of tea growing plantations. In those long-gone days "Assam Bengal" and "Happy Valley" were two famous brands of high-end tea. Neependra, a tea aficionado, invented his own recipe, blending the two grains in 65:35 ratio, which went viral, although customers had to pay twice the market price for it.
The owners now use regular tea grains available in the market, but the preparation remains distinct.
Neependra, a headstrong youth from nearby Bikrampur (now Munshiganj) with an anti-colonial mind-set, decided not to take any job under the British raj, and started the restaurant after a false start in merchandising jute. Soon he employed an expert chef named Karim, a runaway from a British ship, where he used to cook Murg-Musallam. Karim introduced cutlets, a common English item which instantly became popular.
Since then cutlets have been the main item on the menu.
"We serve two types of cutlet – mutton and chicken, which are equally popular. The preparation of our omelette is also unique in looks and flavour. You can taste it yourself and judge" says Tarak Bose, pushing a plate of omelette towards me from across the table.
I glance at the fried egg mixed with onions and chilies. Indeed, it looks different with rarely-done albumen. It tastes delicious.
Next year, the restaurant will observe its century of inception.
"We don't want to modernise the look and feel of it. We may expand a bit, annexing the empty adjoining room, so that we can accommodate more customers who enjoy sitting and gossiping here," Tarak says.
Trains run at regular intervals on the iron tracks hardly two yards from the entrance. The loud metallic roar frequently drowns the hum of adda inside, which will continue till 9.30 in the evening when Tarak Bose closes the restaurant for the day and heads home on a rickshaw. A third generation into the business, he dreams that the restaurant will continue to thrive after he ceases to sit at the helm.