Between Cities and Tables

by Pritha Mahanti

In the heart of Kolkata, Intiaz, Sanjay and Shahabuddin share their memories of home and community as they balance the fast-paced urban life while working at the renowned Broadway Hotel Bar.

A rare image of Intiaz taking a break.

Courtesy of the author.

It is unusual for Intiaz Ali to recall and speak of his past. So, as he answered my questions, he paused for a moment to tell me it felt strange to revisit it all. It was a Friday afternoon and I was at the bar of Broadway Hotel in Kolkata. This old iconic watering hole has been a favourite destination of mine, whether it is for taking out friends who are new to the city, or catching-up with old acquaintances, or just a sudden stopover to ease heartaches. But this time I was in search of stories—stories that remain hidden in plain sight. Stories of the men who dart and glide between tables, taking and delivering orders. Intiaz has been doing it since 1994. 


Hailing from Giridih, Jharkhand, this 53-year-old waiter at Broadway was the first person I got to speak with. When I told him I was born in Jharkhand too, he gave me a warm smile. Intiaz seemed like a man of few words, but as my questions unfolded, he patiently answered them. His tale wasn’t unique, as my interaction with some of his other co-workers soon proved. As migrants—mostly from UP, Bihar and Jharkhand—work for them has consisted of constant movement, from hometowns and between tables. Therefore, nostalgia is a luxury they generally cannot afford. 


No wonder then, that it was rare for Intiaz to pause and reflect on the past given how he has gotten used to speed. Every day as the tables fill up, he has barely a moment of rest. So, when he went back to his younger self, I witnessed the surprise in his eyes. It’s a wonder, he said, that he even remembered at all. As a young boy having completed his 10th standard, Intiaz faced the inevitable—seeking a new life for the sake of an old home. Would he have preferred staying back? “Most certainly” was his emphatic reply. But with barely any job prospects back home, Intiaz could not let go of the opportunity when a close acquaintance introduced him to the hospitality sector in Kolkata. In 1985, Intiaz landed his first job at the Imperial Hotel as a waiter, and nine years later walked into Broadway—where he has been serving ever since.

Intiaz shares a room with six people near New Market, a bustling shopping hub. He owes more to the city than I can imagine, and says, “It’s a city for all, you see. Whether you are rich or poor, Kolkata takes care of you, no matter where you are from.” 


He feels lucky that Broadway had his back despite the change in ownership over the years. At sixty when he retires, he would have his provident fund and, I believe, an inexhaustible trove of memories. As for his post-retirement plan, he isn’t sure yet, but it would have to be a return home. 


Home. A word that caught Sanjay Mandal off-guard. Like Intiaz, he too had come far from his memories. In the fourteen years that he rose from being a casual worker at Broadway to the position of a kitchen supervisor, this was probably the first time he opened up about his journey. He talks about his family back in Tarapur in Bihar, his meagre income, his younger brother being the main provider back home and the kindness and camaraderie he experienced at Broadway.

Sanjay Mandal between getting orders ready.

Courtesy of the author.

As Sanjay went on, it seemed that he was taking it all in, all over again. When he told me that my questions took him back to memories he had already forgotten, I wondered what a lifetime of struggle does to those memories. Sanjay answered my thoughts by adding that a moment of acknowledgement of lives like his, reassured him. We chatted about Bihar politics, the upcoming Chhath puja, the supposed miracles that Chhath Mata is capable of and the options Sanjay could explore to start a business back home. He was happy to know that I have been to quite a few places in Bihar and asked me to visit again. In our shared memories of a place, however different, a window of familiarity had opened. As an afterthought, Sanjay admitted that he was done with all these years of hard work. He thinks of home more often these days, even if all he can imagine, or afford, is to open up a small grocery shop there. I assured him that if home is where the heart is, he’ll sail through.

Sk. Shahabuddin going through order slips.

Courtesy of the author.

I might have been internally mocking myself for having sounded so naively philosophical but Sk. Shahabuddin’s words backed me up. He is the oldest waiter at Broadway who has been here since 1981. On the verge of retirement, he can’t wait to go back to his village in Odisha’s Jaispur and call the Azaan at the local mosque. As he retraced his steps over the years, his quiet but probing eyes seemed to light up. Even as the Friday night crowd grew strong and another waiter hurriedly handed him an order slip, he patiently spoke about life and work. It was as if he was snatching away a moment and keeping it for himself. He said he was banking on his son and almighty Allah to provide for his family. After completing his studies in Jaispur, Shahabuddin’s son had come to Kolkata to prepare for his CA-ship. But unlike his father, he couldn’t get used to this city and after about five years, left for Bhubaneshwar. As Shahabuddin reflects on his journey compared to that of his son, he admits that their struggles are entirely different. For him, back in the day, caring and providing for himself was all that mattered and, like the others, the sense of hospitality and stability at Broadway was enough to hold him back. 


As I listened to Intiaz, Sanjay and Shahabuddin I realised that for all of them, the very act of sharing their life story was, in many ways, liberating. For a migrant worker, in a life lived in movement, elsewhere and far away, memories start acquiring a second-hand character. Each one belongs to the sea of countless others and the same old tale across time and time zones acquires a certain universality. But when one day they are suddenly invoked, there comes a moment of pause. For the migrant worker, encountering one’s memory becomes a brief act of recuperating.


Also read: Outliers: Dispatches from the Delta

About the author

Pritha Mahanti is an independent writer, researcher and editor currently based in Barrackpore, West Bengal. She is also the co-founder and editor of Ptenopus, a digital literary magazine centred on art. She loves writing about visual art, global politics and popular culture. Her poems and essays have been published in Café Dissensus, Madras Courier, Gulmohur Quarterly, LiveWire and Himal Southasian.


She is on Instagram: @mahantipri