In a special series, Rediff.com looks at India through the lives of her people.
Today: Mohammed Taufiq, a waiter for 36 years at Kolkata's famous Coffee House.
A fan of Manna De, he encounters at least 50 to 100 new faces every day -- including Satyajit Ray once -- but all he wants now is to return to his village after retirement.
I have been working here as a waiter for 36 years.
There are 54 of us in the College Street branch whereas there are 12 in the Jadavpur branch. We work in two shifts. At times, when quite a few waiters don't turn up at work, I work double shifts with a short 30 to 40 minute break.
Earlier, my salary wasn't much. But now, it has improved. I get about Rs 10,000 a month. With tips, I make up to Rs 12,000 approximately. As Coffee House provides me free accommodation and meals, I manage to save most of my earnings that I transfer to my wife's bank account.
This place is always buzzing with new people. I get to see at least 50 to 100 new faces. There are also quite a few regulars.
I have noticed that the younger ones (those in their late teens or early 20s) always order either a samosa or sandwich; the middle-aged ones (between 30 and 45) ask for fish fry or cutlets and those past 45 stick to only coffee (either espresso or ordinary).
I have had a chance to see many famous people at Coffee House -- filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen, Anjan Dutt; singers Manna De; actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukhopadhyay, Anup Kumar; writers and poets Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sakti Chattopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar...
The day (Satyajit) Ray was here, I heard whispers from here and there. I had not seen him earlier. To make sure, I rushed to our office that had a portrait of him.
It was HIM indeed!
I felt the same when I saw Soumitra Chatterjee for the first time. Later, he became a familiar face at Coffee House.
There has not been much change here. But time has left its imprint -- the place looks a lot older now. I like it this way. It goes well with my graying hair.
I have also seen the nature of customers change with changing times.
Earlier, people used to be kinder, more patient. But now they are always in a hurry. They are ruder.
The day I wore this waiter's headgear, I was told to be impersonal and never get close to my customers.
However, in all these years, I could never just be a waiter or an indifferent onlooker.
The other day, a couple of college students, two boys, came to Coffee House. They ordered a plate of samosa and two coffees.
When the bill arrived, they took out all the money from their wallets and started counting. I overheard one saying, 'Aaj hente bari firte hobe (I will have to go home on foot).'
The boy was my youngest son's age. He could have been my son. How could I let him walk back home after a tiring day at college?
On the pretext of cleaning the table, I sneaked a ten rupee note under the plate that afternoon.
Time has really flown! I vividly remember the day I arrived in Kolkata from my village in Bihar. Our five-member family was very poor and my father desperately needed an earning member.
My parents could not pay my fees and I was withdrawn from school in Class 9.
A friend of my father suggested I should come to Kolkata. He brought me to Coffee House and introduced me to Zahid Hussain, a senior accountant.
He was my trainer, friend and guide.
Since then, this Coffee House has become my second home and Zahidbhai my second family.
When I am off duty, I take a stroll around this part of the city, watch movies or listen to the radio.
'Coffee House-er sei addata aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei (How I miss the long chat sessions with my friends at the Coffee House),' I hum these lines (sung by the late Manna De) to myself often.
I need to be on my feet more than 8 to 10 hours at a stretch. It's tiring and my legs hurt a lot at night. In fact, the pain keeps me up at times.
I had seen a doctor who says rest is the only medicine for me. I cannot afford that at the moment.
The only time I get to stretch my legs is when I visit my native place. I get about 30 days of paid leave in a year.
Earlier, I used to go home twice a year. Now I make three to four trips. As one gets older, one is more drawn towards one's home.
When I am at my village home, my youngest son, who stays with my wife thee, massages my feet every night. He is studying at a college about two kilometres away. He cycles to and fro.
I have four sons and a daughter. Three of my sons are working, two of them in Kolkata (the eldest one is an electrician and the other one works as a zari worker). My third son works in a burqa-making factory in Bengaluru.
My daughter got married a few years back. She lives with her family in Bihar.
My family has visited me a few times and I have taken them on a tour of the famous spots of Kolkata -- the Victoria Memorial, Princep Ghat, Maidan, Birla Planetorium, Indian Museum etc.
My youngest son dreams of visiting Mumbai some day. He wants to see the bungalows of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.
I have been setting aside a part of my salary for the last few years. Once my son clears his Class 12 examination, I plan to sponsor his Mumbai trip.
My wife and I have been staying apart for so many years. Once I retire, which is only 5, 6 years away, I want to spend time with her.
Life has been a long struggle against poverty. Post-retirement, I want to relax, I want to be with my wife.
I spent my life as a waiter. But I want my children to have a better future. Can't our government ensure that?
A native of Bihar's Aurangabad district, Mohammed Taufiq likes modern Bengali songs. He spoke to Indrani Roy/Rediff.com during his break at the Coffee House on College Street.
Photographs: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar.