Thursday, 23 August 2007

A Guest House

Had to necessarily break out to first person

An Inn, I suppose, that is what it is. A place for travelers to put their feet up, chow down some food, and proceed to wherever it is they are going. Functional, you would say. Practical, you would say. Easy on the pocket, yes, you would say that. But, characterless? Who would say that? Also, somewhat bureaucratic in approach, and tendencies to retain smells. Who would say that?

Not me, for one. I smelled a smell at a Taj (my mum almost always smells things in the heppest of locations, I have inherited something of it, though I tolerate pretty well smells of cigarette smoke at times, she does not). I find all the five star hotels that I have visited (okay, they probably total to like ten in all, not that much, but still, enough) look & feel exactly the same. I can walk down a corridor, and almost always KNOW that the spa/gym is over there. I can predict the look on the reception woman’s face when her eyes meet mine, and glance down at my dress (always inappropriate). I can assure you that the boys who prowl the corridor in weird uniforms designed by famous Bollywood designers, vacuuming spiders from the walls, will like me. I know they are trained to say Good Evening Madam, hope your stay at DaDaDaa has been lovely or whatever, and that they do this to all the people who pass them, but I KNOW they like me more. And don’t even get me started on the gift shoppeeee or whatever that stocks regulation Kashmiri shawls and the odd wooden elephant. Bleah, I say.

Not that this is the other end of the spectrum or anything, but still it’s refreshing to enter a guest house. As I continue to lead my cloistered existence, by guest house I mean those things they plonk on big campuses, universities, and government organizations, mostly. I am sure there are other places calling themselves Guest Houses that feel completely different, I have no experience of them anyway.

So this week when I found myself in a Guest House in the back of the beyond regions near Hyderabad, I decided to make a good experience of it, and keep my eyes open, even as sentences whirred in my head. Admittedly, I was there for only an hour or so, but for someone with heightened senses, that hour is a good chunk of time!

I was allotted Room No. 3 after a few muffled conversations in Hindi. My name was not to be found in a weatherbeaten folder labeled Estate Office, in which many names were scrawled in pencil. In a sense I was an outlaw then. The reception guy in the Pista green shirt did not apologise profusely nor did he swear consummately, just quietly opened a drawer somewhere, produced a key on a chain with a blue rectangle, and led me to the room.

A vaguely hexagon-shaped room. Two inside doors! Jubilation! A balcony, ideal for a smoke, for those that are inclined. I let it be. The bathroom, dry; that penguin commode that we have been peddling in India for ages; two buckets, mug, a bath stool, orange flowers on white, some sort of poem displayed on it about flowers; Lux soap, used, re-wrapped in original cover. The room itself, sort of crowded. Two twin beds, scratchy brown covers over the regular white; center table, glass-topped; two end-stools, a jug & glasses on one; lounge chairs, a study desk and chair; dressing mirror & wall cupboard; tons of drawers, more storage than my home bedroom; all upholstery matched meticulously, meaning all of them brown and a dirty cream. I opened out a few drawers, looking perhaps for a book, even a Bible or the Bhagavat Gita. Nothing except a few left-over hairs. Who from? Previous guest? Cleaning boy? Strange thing for either of them to leave back in a drawer in a guest house in the far reaches of Hyderabad. Oh well!

I bravely tried the Dining Room, for the experience more than the food. I cautiously smelled it for traces of frying fish, an inability to handle which can be considered a family ailment, and eased myself into a chair. Same cream curtains with the faint hibiscus. Three people at the table, a six-seater. Air conditioner. Curtain hemmed up in middle to account for the aircon. Three pairs of eyes staring pointedly at me. Thank god for mobiles, I yanked it out and swiftly messaged and changed some of my settings and stared at child’s picture till I could tide over my embarrassment at being appraised thus. Quintessential fifteen year old Raju (Ganpat has not yet trickled down to the South perhaps?) with supreme obsequiousness served me about a kilogram of chutney. Was this meant to be breakfast? Was I a queen, Raju my royal servant? If so would he have been my boy toy? The hot steaming upma thankfully followed and with it an older Raju, and I banished boy toy & other inappropriate thoughts and ate up the food amid much cluttering of cutlery. The three pairs of eyes were conversing with each other but with a wary eye each, on me. I smiled at the lady. They left quickly.

I asked Raju for some tea, please. Raju disappeared inside a door to tell Raju to make tea for Madam. I was joined by an older couple, brown salwar kameez, blue shirt sticking out a bit from open fly. Aunty signaled to Uncle and Uncle turned away and adjusted fly and then sat down. I decided it was bad etiquette to not stare and started closely at Aunty, who had given up all pretenses and was reveling in displaying her burgeoning stomach to the public. I saw her feed it a goodish portion of upma and felt good, yeah, who needs Malaika Arora Khan when I have such good role models?

The tea was hot and fresh, I drained it, thanked the collective silence that was the Rajus, who may or may not have bowed when I left, and retired to Room No. 3 again, waited patiently in the super quiet room for the car that would fetch me back to civilization, work, dust, grime, and everything else that is so far away from this place with the yellow walls and square grills on the windows.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007


August is second person month. So you stick with the format, mostly.

You have often wondered, whatever happened to those days? When you would open out the new blade for the pink razor and ease yourself into the bathtub. Turn on both taps, always the cold one first, test temperature with your feet, move to shower mode, etc. etc. During the soaping you recall the razor, now with new blade inserted, and proceed, a little randomly, after all, you don't necessarily have all day. Once you satisfy yourself that all the hairs are gone, and you are hurting a bit from the little nick that you invariably give yourself on the knee, you stop, finish the rest of the shower, and emerge out.

Tap tap into the bedroom, Oh yeah, the creme is in the bathroom, one of the side-effects of cleaning up earlier, you pat pat back there and fetch it. There its all done, a thick, non-uniform coating all over the legs and hands and face. You are now ready.

You raise it to your eyes, hmm you appreciate its fabric, admire its length (or, sometimes, its lack of it). Then you climb into it, smoothing out around non-existent hips. There is no mirror, but you can see it looks good. You feel good. You have avoided pants for a day, and gone with something feminine for a change. Your mother would have been proud to see. You sit on the bed, suddenly apprehensive that its too short a skirt (its not). Then you say, 'OK time to get up and go out into the world, in my skirt today, see here, here are my legs, not hidden in pants.' Not that anyone particularly notices.

Seems like it was an age ago. Now, with your matronly mind-set, you have forgotten those days, very nearly. The skirts themselves are missing somewhere, no one knows where. In any case the capris are an indulgence now. And looking at young college-goers in their denim skirts makes you miss those skirt days (few as they were), so much, miss that stage of your life, when it mattered how clothes felt on you, when you planned your clothes (even if just a little bit).

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


Setting: Suburban Mumbai

Occasion: Weekend Party

It is suburban Mumbai, indeed. A gang of middle-aged friends are calling each other on the phone.

“Did you hear about it? Were you invited?” she asks.

“Oh yeah, of course, but something strange about it na?” her friend answers.

“What does it mean anyway? I really fail to understand”

“Oh that, I just asked her directly, you know, no shame in that. She claims that it means Bring Your Own Booze. What kind of party is that?”

“That’s ridiculous, what use is the host if we have to bring the booze ourselves..”

“Hey dude, did you hear about that, BYOB thing”

“Yeah sure, thought it would be fun, what do you think?”

“I don’t know, I feel OK about it, but my wife is quite upset”

“In a way it seems like a let down, you know, I don’t know what they are thinking, does it mean they really will not have anything to drink, that each of us walks in with our own thing?”

“By the way do we need to bring our own food as well?”

“That’s funny, I hope it does not come to that! In that case I might as well stay put at home”

“What about ice?”

“I think three months away in the US does not allow people to come and impose on others like this, if you want to host a party, host one the proper way, that’s what I say”


The day of the much-talked about party arrives. The hosts are seen looking relaxed and gliding around the room, well-dressed, smiling.

A lady guest is sweating profusely as she oversees her contribution – a large dish of Aviyal, a southern dish with a distinct flavour of coconuts and curd (the label reads, helpfully). She has brought the cook and a maid, just in case there are emergency repairs to be made. The dish contrasts strongly with the food provided by the hosts, but our lady seems to be oblivious to this.

A couple arrive late, they look harried. They have driven in a large car, large enough to accommodate the full course meal they have had catered. They also contribute three waiters dressed equally in white and black, with red bow-ties. The waiters hang around for a few minutes, find that no one particularly is expecting anything from them, and go around to the back, loosen their ties and sit around, smoking and talking desultorily.

A husband-wife pair that have arrived earlier, with a bottle of expensive wine (for themselves to sip at), and a bouquet of flowers (because the store was selling it), look at all the hungama, and exit furtively, coming back a half hour later laden with sweets of every description. A casual observer may be tempted to think that the sweet-shop had to close for the day after their visit.

Everyone eats too much, everyone is dissatisfied at the end of it. Even the extraordinarily large amount of alcohol that is consumed does nothing to improve the mood. Factions are quickly formed based on who eats what and comments flit back and forth, with ill-concealed jealousy. The original food of the party goes unnoticed amid the fanfare of the guest’s contributions. A huge amount of food goes to waste. The hired helpers laugh secretly at their employers, eat to their heart’s content, and go home when they feel sure no one will miss them.

Thus the concept of Bring Your Own Anything met its untimely death in Mumbai, creating in its wake an enormous amount of excitement, resentment, and malicious gossip (even more than usual). In the next party, the hosts felt obliged, sort of to get people back in the mood for parties after the BYOB disaster, to give personalized napkins, cameras, and make-up kits in addition to food, wine, drinks, snacks, and so on of every description under the sun.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Slush & Muck

You are walking around, remembering experiments and trash-bash days in graduate school and mega-clean-up in college. You see a guy, callous, as ever, rip open a Paan packet and throw the piece on the road, right in front of you. You walk up to him, and are about to say 'Hey' when he proceeds to empty contents into mouth and throw the entire packet onto road. You are livid. You are contemplating picking up the packet, per your usual style in these situations, and handing it back to him with a 'here is something of yours that you dropped, I am sure you meant to go around the corner and try that big trash can over there' - a routine that has yielded successful results in the past. But the ground is slushy, your fingers cringe at the thought of touching it inadvertently. Your skin pulls itself back and erupts in a small fold of sorts, dead skin competing with young skin.

You go for the second best shot. You walk up to guy and try to talk him into believing he has done wrong. His friends step in and support you. They tell him the trash can is over there, there it is. Your friend says, the problem is there aren't enough trash cans. You differ from him, and tell him its a matter of finding one. You show your pocket containing the little pieces of plastic from the children's erasers that you are saving till you find a trash can and simultaneously remember your pocket's contents. He laughs. The litterbug guy seems repentant, though he makes no move to lift up the eye-sore from the road.

You are aging. Your tolerance for everything is decreasing. Your angst is receding. You are thinking of ten good ways to die, although you are technically not that old. You are reluctant now to step out much, secure in your mouldy office and paper-strewn home. You give up. You give in. Next time, you tell him. I walk on this road a lot, you tell him, I will watch out for you, you tell him. He nods.

On the way back a slimy piece of something gets between your feet and your sandals. You fervently hope its a fallen leaf and not real muck or slush, or, horrors, dung. You wonder if there is a different life possible, a different city or country or planet perhaps?

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Paper Cuts

You have children visiting you. You feel the urge to engage them in something, feel the urge to connect to them. They are crouched on the ground. You step in between them. They seem to be arguing quietly, in an alien (as in American) tongue. You see the book. You light up, its origami. You are in the zone. Or, rather, they are in your zone.

Transported to childhood again. The boy could well be his uncle, your cousin. The girl, well a visiting friend perhaps, or that imaginary one even. You, you are yourself, several kilos lighter, eons and eons younger. The floor is a nice red-oxide (whatever) and not this fake Italian marble. The papers are papers though the scissors are a trifle sharper. Your need for cleanliness is markedly more now than then, but then you are also more efficient at clean-up.

Fifty-six hours later, you have completely exhaustively finished one of the two books. You have identified errors in the instructions. You have imparted knowledge about the mountain, the valley, the reverse folds. Your team has been successful in mastering the fish, the swan, the white-faced monkey, even the seagull. You are contemplating actually using the wallet. Your mother is in paroxysms again over the amount of cut paper on the floor. You have Karan Johar peering from the fish, Sanjay Dutt from the swan. The other book is inviting, it even has a section on three-dimensional models. But then adulthood kicks in, you remember your three-year old, grocery shopping, office.

You go on out on a high note with the fully mastered cube. The children have a tendency to use cello-tape to strengthen their models. You are a purist. Paper, maybe occasionally scissors. No gum or tape. The cube, with its perfect four-fold symmetry (during folding), is a hit. You have connected. They are to leave soon, a part of you will go with them. But a part will wait here, perhaps for their children, some rainy afternoon twenty years out.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Brown Wrapping Paper

It is late night. You are awake, almost widely awake. There are specific reasons, of course, why you are indulging in this thing here, giving yourself up to thoughts. But do those reasons matter? In the dull light of the time when the city is finally, exhaustedly, asleep, you turn to your childhood, with its rich store of memories.

The time is summer, as always, that time just before the start of the school year. You have spent two months in idle tomfoolery, by the stern looks on the adult’s faces, you will learn to regret this. A summer spent in playing, catching up with friends, mastering cycling without holding the handlebars, is a summer that is never going to come back, their eyes tell you. Your heart knows better, of course.

Clutching a bunch of rupees in your hand, you turn store-ward. You glance down at the money every few seconds, noticing suspicious (male) eyes looking at you and recalling anecdotes involving small children, money, and strangers, and Pinocchio. The store-front is small, the back a bit more spacious. It takes fifteen minutes to catch the guys attention. Meanwhile you practice your piece. But still, the words come out all in a blur. He is unconcerned. He pulls out a random assortment of notebooks, drawing books, pencils, and this year’s special treat, a geometry box. You are sweating by the time you check his math, pay him his due, and, proudly clutching a plastic bag full of fresh books, and a roll of brown wrapping paper, head back home.

At home, you are inclined to dig in immediately into the bag. You retire to your room. You find your sibling there, a look of scorn on her face. She is too old to bother with brown wrapping paper. She is too normal to understand your excitement over notebooks. You gulp down your enthusiasm, casually place the loot in your bookshelf, and head out, presumably to eat a snack, but actually to dig at earthworms in the garden.

A half hour later you are back. She is gone, out to a friend’s house perhaps. She is bound to come back laden with library books to read. The last week when such a thing can be done without incurring wrath of parents. You arrange a pair of scissors, last year’s left-over sticker labels, cello-tape, a ruler, and start your operation. Measuring, cutting, creasing. You have now converged on to one method of wrapping. The small cut edge to be tucked into the board of the book, and then the whole flap folded over. You are proficient, you are efficient, you are fast. Before you know it, you have a pile of neatly wrapped books ready to be labeled.

You have only pondered for a minute over the ‘rough’ note book. Does it need a nice brown wrapper? Will not newspaper do? You throw caution to the wind and use a brown one. You immediately write down the expansion of (a+b)2 in the book, excitement coursing through your veins. Next, you open out the geometry box, admire the small pencil that is part of the set, sharpen it quickly, and insert it into the hole in the compass. You poke the point in and make a circle. Your hand slips and it comes out all messy. Oh well! That’s what they are going to teach this year, you say to yourself, arranging everything neatly in the shelf.