Thursday, 22 May 2014

Raw Hospitality

At Hotel Samrat the service is loud, very loud.

At five hours north it starts with dal bhajee – lentils. Poached eggs laze on tea cup saucer, fresh porota flat bread, piping, is ready to singe the fingers and tea from across the road will sweeten the throat. A little salty, a little savory, a little perfect: Bangladeshi breakfast arrives as an old friend tapping the shoulder saying, “Wakey, wakey. A new day is here.”

Breakfast underway... Hotel Samrat, Jamalpur.
At Hotel Samrat on Medical Road breakfast goes further, venturing beyond its usual habitat of delectable and delightful. A Samrat breakfast isn’t only a feast for the stomach but overwhelming for the ears. A Samrat breakfast is deafening.

 “What’ll you have?” he’s shouting. It’s morning. He’s shouting and it’s the morning.

Emon Hossain, 27, takes service seriously. Good service means nice behaviour, speaking politely, providing what the customer wants and bringing the dishes on time, he says. He doesn’t mention volume.

Customers are talking, filing in, mulling about – nothing in that. There’s the dish clash, the chair scrape, the bang of glasses of filter water hitting the table four at a time – all usual. Honestly, it couldn’t be Bangladesh without a bit of breakfast bustle but Samrat waiters engage voices that seem to rumble up like lava from somewhere deep underground.

“Do you need anything else?” somebody else’s waiter is saying to the table across the room. I can hear it as effectively as one of those mobile megaphone movie announcements that circle the town by CNG. The tone is serious. It’s like a courtroom scene where the victim is pointing and saying “That’s the guy who robbed me!”

Waiter Emon Hossain takes pride in providing good service.
Wait! Wait! Wait! The waiter, Emon, he’s got his hand on my dal. Think quickly! There’s nothing wrong with my dal! I don’t need a refill. “More?” No, really. No. “Slight?” Each word is a thunder clap. And the storm is never far off, not at all! Samrat is a breakfast epicentre.

Thought wandering in: is it because the Samrat is a singular long room that voices are overly voluminous? Did they grow that way, nagged upwards on the audio scale by the need to traverse the distance to the little window slot before the kitchen? But they are also shouting when standing right in front of that window. I can hear it: “Two cups tea! Dal! Khashir paya!”

Wait! Wait! Wait! The waiter, Emon, has his hand on my porota! I’ve just picked it up. It’s hot, too hot. He’s tugging at the flatbread. I’m pulling it back. He’s offering to heat it up again. Only the hottest and freshest porota, is his thinking. He must be aiming for molten! His quest for good service is grand. In my food is his hand!

A world within the world: the Samrat, Jamalpur.

Thought circling: circular tables, aren’t they supposed to be egalitarian and soothing? They don’t suit the Samrat where jarring, square ones would well fit. Or do the round tables act as a kind of counterweight? The hotel’s service is raw, industrial, metallic... It’s so authentic it’s possibly post-authentic... maybe the round tables are the only thing preventing the whole restaurant collapsing into the abyss of some strange alternate dimension, some void devoid of calmness?

Couldn’t they use legs in order to speak at a room temperature volume? Oh, but they do: there’s movement, dishes coming, orders going and all the while, “Two cups tea! Dal! Khashir Paya!”

Thought approaching: was it some quirk of the architecture that gave the Samrat acoustics like the Sydney Opera House? Is it the tiled interior? Is there reverberation to account for, things sounding louder than they actually are?

Emon takes time out for his own lunch.
“When the customer is happy, I am also happy,” says Emon, and he means it. When a customer is rude he feels it. “Then service does not come from the heart.” And he feels poorly if anyone leaves dissatisfied. Perhaps in the volume is extra effort. Perhaps he works on the theory that things delivered loudly are delivered better?

If a customer makes a mess Emon doesn’t mind, he says. “It’s up to me to clean it.”

Emon really is putting his heart into it. He’s got the filter water from a recycled coke bottle in the fridge – chilled, but he’s put some ordinary filter water in the bottom of the glass first so it’s not too chilled. He’s tucking napkins into my diary so they don’t blow away. He’s bringing tea from across the road not at a walk but at a run. He’s dodging traffic. He’s nearly ready to reach into my wallet to take out the money I need when it’s time to pay. But he thinks twice about that.

Emon’s mother died when he was four – snake bite. His father passed on when he was fourteen – lung cancer. Since then he’s been on his own without siblings to rely on. There was no chance to continue study and the Samrat gives 180 taka per day plus tips plus food. It gives a kind of family.

“Every day is good,” he says, “Everything is good. The manager, the food, the customers...” Female customers always behave nicely with him. They leave bigger tips. “And after work with the other waiters I move about the town. It’s enjoyable.”

“That woman is asking if you speak Bangla,” Emon says. I know. I heard the waiter yelling an answer at her, a few tables up.

The bustling Samrat Hotel.
“How do you live here without A/C?” Emon asks. For a short while he worked in Karwan Bazar in Dhaka, at the Star Hotel, he says. He didn’t enjoy it much – Dhaka was too cluttered and there was no good accommodation. The city was too loud. With his hand he makes a water dripping gesture. “There was a problem with the water,” he says. It’s easy to imagine it dripping onto his bed. But while in Dhaka, after work, moving about town with his friends as is his custom, he once went to the airport. Zia he calls it. It was Zia then. “I saw the foreigners,” he says, “Coming in from Hong Kong, Bangkong... and taking a flash car to a fancy hotel.” Hence, there’s the curiosity of me turning up.

I’d recommend it to anyone. Samrat service is gritty, rough, abrasive, bold, existential, uninhibited, primal... but more than that it’s sincere – somehow more real than reality itself. And you can’t beat real. You could walk the length and breadth of cities like Paris or Tokyo and never find service quite like it. Emon has earned a decent tip, of course, of course. After all, he’s taken the trouble to put his hand in my food. Welcome to Jamalpur!

The Samrat Hotel, middle, on Medical Road.

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