I got down hurriedly from the bus at the Kozhikode terminus, balancing two bags on both sides & an umbrella overhead. It was raining all evening & into the night. I lost my way amid a maze of rain drops. I wished my glasses had wipers. It was around 11pm & the incessant rain had already drenched me thoroughly. A cocktail of hunger & fatigue was slowly getting blended with the droplets. I hastened down the main street. A visibly disheveled street hawker was packing up his wares.
“Is there any hotel around?” I asked in Malayalam.
“You’ll get one on the other side of the street.”
‘Thank You’, I said, rushing onto the other side. The vehicular cacophony started pounding my eardrums as hard as it could. It was like one big carnival of honks. The heavy metal music was bouncing around inside my head. All I wanted was a pigeon hole for a night.
I was nearing the façade of a four storied building. A signboard which read - 'Crystal House Tourist Home’ lulled my disarrayed worries. A middle aged mustached Malayalee, in a maroon shirt, was napping at the desk. Handling so many customers can be quite demanding, I thought.
“Excuse me; I need a room for one night?” I asked.
He opened his eyes with a jerk & gave a “where am I?”-look.
“I need a room for tonight”, I reiterated.
Nodding his head nonchalantly, the man opened a voluminous register lying on the desk. Room No. 302, top floor. “Rs 300 per day” he said.
Rs 300 a day! I wondered how the hotel owner is managing with such a low rate during these recessionary blues. “Here’s the advance” I immediately paid the whole amount. The Kautilya in me had already started rejoicing. I scribbled down my name & contact information on the register & collected the key. The small key was not at all commensurate with the heavy brass key chain & it kept on dangling like a pendulum.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
In an almost inaudible voice came the yawning reply – “Saleem”.
Before I could ask anything else, Mr. Saleem went into ‘sleep mode’. I looked around vainly for a waiter to carry my luggage to the room. The status quo indicated that I have to help myself. I took the stairs, disgruntled by the flaccid reception.
The stairway to the top floor seemed to be an endless trek for my fagged out feet. I could clearly listen to my heart beats - “Room No 302-Room No 302-Room number 302”. Finally I reached the elusive Room No 302, gasping like a chronic asthmatic. Unlike the Key chain, the tiny, rusted door lock looked perfectly commensurate with the key. Both seemed to have passed their expiry dates years back. It took me nearly 5 annoying minutes to unlock the door & all of a sudden it almost came off the door frame. A known odour hit my olfactory system. It brought back the memories of my glorious hostel days. The odour used to be a copyright of damp blankets, smelly armpits, unwashed inner wares & dusty cobwebs. After somehow wedging the door temporarily in position I sat down on the bed to offset the dizziness caused by the nostalgic smell.
I turned on the lights after a while & found that the room was almost devoid of hard furnishings. The room inventory consisted of a small bed, a broken tea table, a mirror, two glasses, an empty jug & a superannuated chair. The bed sheet & pillow covers were as tidy as my vagabond socks. It seemed that the yucky bed sheet had been a witness to myriad one night stands. I had to dial up Room service immediately.
“Hello” A drowsy Saleem picked up the phone.
“Hello, Room No 302. I just checked in & found that the bed sheet & the pillow covers have not been changed.”
“You know...drying sheets & covers is really hard during monsoon.”
“What do you mean by that? I want you to change it immediately.” The lucid & logical reply was enough to drive me insane.
“We don’t have spares; you have to manage with that”.
“@#%$#@” I banged the receiver down in ire.
The honest confession of an impassive zombie was still registering in my head. I wanted to refund the advance I paid a while ago. The stains on the bed sheet were forcing me to do so. But the sight of the heavy downpour through the window panes made me control my urges. I began to hallucinate about the snug bed with a snowy blanket which I have in my bungalow bedroom. But the divine aroma emanating out of the dingy bed spoilt the moment. I sat up in the bed and rubbed my eyes.
As I entered the washroom for a much needed ablution, my breath was taken away by what I saw. If the bedroom was a trailer, the entire movie was waiting for me inside along with two cockroaches. Initially I felt as if I had paid a bit too much (Rs 300 precisely) for a public lavatory. The amber luminance of ammonia stains illuminated the stuffy room. The commode flange was missing. The red bucket lying on the floor was about to kick the bucket. I almost spewed at the sight & rushed out of the Nazi execution chamber.
It was ten past twelve & I was feeling sleepy. Suddenly the power went off. I opened the window & a diesel breeze wafted through it. The road was jammed with insomniac cars driven by equally insomniac people. A nocturnal mayhem had already engulfed the city. The circling fan added to it by making some unusual, gothic sounds. My senses were busy deciphering the enigmatic night at 'Crystal House Tourist Home'. I dreamed about Saleem dancing around a coconut tree clad in a vest & a maroon lungi, singing – “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave...la la la la la”. He kept on dancing as the legendary Don Felder & Joe Walsh performed the haunting guitar duet.
The jarring ring of the telephone woke me up in the morning.
“Good morning, do you want to order anything for breakfast.”
“Hmmm, well, a cup of coffee & a sandwich”. I groaned, slowly pulling myself out of bed.
“Ok”. Saleem kept the phone down.
It was just 5 o’ clock in the morning & my adorable host could not find a better time to take orders for breakfast. I lay numb on the bed for about an hour with two sleep starved eyes. Finally I thought that I needed to go. I got up, put a mint inside my mouth, packed my bags & headed off towards the desk for the checking out formalities. I discovered an elevator at the end of the corridor. It appeared to be out of order for ages. The epitaph of the elevator read - ‘Lift in use".
Mr. Saleem was found sitting at the desk, engrossed in a local Malayalam daily.
“Saleem, where’s my breakfast?” I asked inquisitively.
The golden words of the airhead echoed inside my mind -“Good morning, do you want to order anything for breakfast.”
The ringing telephone, the bed sheet, the cockroaches, the urea stains, the pesky fan, the defunct elevator – all mustered around me. I badly wanted to bang the telephone receiver on his empty head. I wanted to strangle him with the stained bed sheet. I wanted to unleash the cockroaches in his morning tea. I wanted to lock him up in that stinking bathroom. I wanted to make him listen to the Himesh Reshamiyan fan till eternity & last but not the least; I wanted that lift to uplift him to the zenith of hysteria. Once again I had to control my bestial urges.
“Saleem, make the bill fast” that's all I said.
“Rs 382” Saleem handed over the bill to me.
“What’s the extra Rs 82 for?” I asked curiously.