Last week I had to attend a work-related presentation at a five-star hotel. This particular hotel has a grand name and a cramped lobby with a ceiling that might make the average basketball player sue it for damage to the top of his head. The lobby has a rather strange seating arrangement – four chairs sit at four corners of a rug that has a soleful look about it. (Soleful is not to be confused with ‘soulful’ and it means ‘something that has been trampled on by many soles’. No, ‘The stampede was a soleful sight’ is not correct usage and is in fact rather cruel and only the electronic media is allowed it.) The four lonely chairs seemed to be the hotel’s way of telling you not very subtly, ‘Sit here you freeloader and move onto the coffee shop when the person you are meeting arrives’. Well, these are difficult times and the recession might have receded here in shining India but not in the developed world where most of these starred hotels have their headquarters (defined as a place where ‘business heads count and cling onto every quarter’).
I was early for the presentation. I am a punctual kind of chap; when there’s free food and booze involved I prefer to start early. But the client was late because the grand hotel is near Mumbai’s international airport – a place where people spend two hours or more to reach, fighting their way through bad roads and crazy traffic so that they can reach three hours early for an aeroplane journey that sometimes lasts for a couple of hours.
But back to the hotel - Sitting there on my solitary chair I had nothing else to do but to observe the events happening in that microcosm of the world (defined as ‘a cramped place where people of various nationalities are forced to spend time waiting for someone to buy them a coffee at the cost of an airline ticket’). I decided to begin my observation by looking outside. No, I didn’t get up from my chair, lonely or not, at my age sitting on one beats standing on the old legs any day. For a while I admired the ramrod-straight back of the durban (Hindi word for ‘man who opens doors and wears a turban. Do not confuse with the city in South Africa with the same spelling), and also the valets, who are strange kind of spirits that appear magically when you drive into a hotel lobby and disappear magically when you want to hand them the ticket to get your car back. But I tired of the game soon enough. I could have continued staring outside - there is nothing to beat ‘Count the number of white versus black cars’ game while sitting in a five-star lobby but I only play it when the lobby has comfortable sofas and there is no danger of falling off when you begin dozing. Once I had shifted my gaze inwards, realization dawned up on me – I wasn’t alone. There were many soles trampling the rug and resting their weary feet by taking refuge in the chairs. A lady of advanced and indeterminate age hailing from that large and rich place called the Middle East (which is really the Middle West if you are in India but entire cultures have crumbled in the face of the American onslaught and in comparison, geographical accuracy is a minor casualty). The lady had a couple of large plastic bags which is understandable if you are a tourist– Indian culture is not without its influences and the lady must have succumbed to the uniquely Indian habit of carrying stuff around in plastic bags. Riddle: Q. How do you recognise an Indian tourist abroad? A. By the plastic bag he/she is carrying. The stuff we carry in them when abroad ranges from water bottles, boxes with goodies from home, napkins, ketchup and other sachets picked up from flights, hotels and restaurants and clothes washed just before checking out from the hotel.
The Middle-Eastern lady reached deep into one of the bags and extricated a pair of sneakers from it. Obviously, she had been shopping. Or to Siddhivinayak Temple. She smiled at the sneakers and proceeded to try one. Her smile turned into a grin. Unable to bear so much happiness in one sole, I shifted my gaze to a bunch of Far Eastern gentlemen who debated loudly about – how am I supposed to know, they were talking in Far Eastern. And suddenly, out of nowhere, Santa Claus emerged wearing a silk sari and with two attendants in tow. She proceeded to the large Christmas tree strategically placed to hide a tear in the wallpaper and placed the gift boxes in her arms at its base. Her attendants followed suit. Her task done she turned around to face me and the light shone off her brass name tag and my apologies her name wasn’t Santa but the more Indian, Shanta. I wondered if I were to pick up a box would I find sneakers that fit me. But after a while I tired of this game too. The activity in the microcosm had became repetitive. The valets appeared and disappeared. Bell hops hopped. The front office girls parted their lips, showed their teeth and shut them, the chairs didn’t move a butt, sorry, a bit.
I decided to explore the men’s cloakroom (called rest room in four-star, bathroom in three-star, toilet in two-star, loo in one-star and raised little finger in no-star hotels). Now these five-star cloaks (that’s the fashionable abbreviation and not SMS lingo), are wonderful places and I have spent many a happy hour in them trying to figure out how to make the faucet work or where the flush lever is. No, there is never a plastic mug or a jet spray in these places so don’t even bother looking for one. I ambled gently towards the cloak, a smile of anticipation on my parched lips (unlike humbler places they don’t offer you free water here. In fact, most take it as a personal affront if you say no to bottled water and show faith in their in-house water purifier). I had visions of doing my business, washing my hands with fine perfumed liquid soap, splashing some water on my face, wiping both with three tiny napkins held out by a man wearing a uniform made from the same material as the napkins and after wiping, indulging in the act of dropping them into a wicker basket unmindful of the laundry bill. That, and having my shoes shined by an automatic shoe-shine machine free of charge. But I was in for a surprise. The grand hotel had outdone itself. There were TV screens inside. Mini ones, embedded in the wall above every alternate urinal and tuned into CNN! And they were showing the live telecast of the Nobel Prize Ceremony where ninety per cent of the screen time was spent on showing an empty chair where Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner from China was supposed to sit. (I am tempted to make a corny comment about my being pissed off about his absence but in the larger interest of Indo-Chinese relations, I will desist.)
I cursed myself for sitting outside for so long, wasting my time watching occupied chairs and trying to convince myself that like the great Somerset Maugham I was sitting in a hotel (he sat in the bar the lucky…), I was observing the world with a cynic’s eye. Damn! Never again shall I be tempted by solitary chair or cushy couch or Shanta Claus. This is where I will head to in the future – for entertainment and to take home a napkin as a memento. Who knows, they might soon have iPads in here and I will be able to read my blog - what better place, eh?!