Soon one gets off the vehicle, facing the glass door in front, a sense of authority circulates through the legs. The feet assume ascendancy climbing the steps, as the door is held open with an acknowledging smile and a little nod. The change in ambience across this threshold is apparent. Polished floors, neatly arranged furniture, flower vases and a seemingly large counter fill up the place, but more than the physical, it is the sense of vacuum that is most perceptible. The voices faint, the footsteps unheard, the air consistent, the light brighter and the city though visible appears a distant away.
Filling the vacuum of these conditioned spaces are people – some behind the counter, few standing in a corner, and some speaking across a phone. Each wearing one thing in common – not the distinguishable uniform – but the smile. A smile that breaches, fractures and nullifies all abiding social orders and norms to render a uniformity identity to who walk across into this space. A temporary, undefined and universal identity known as the ‘guest’. One who is merely identified and defined as a holder of a ‘key’- that gives independent access to embark on an escapade, sheltered from the outside, like a cocoon.
Standing at the door, the lady keenly monitors the neatness folded in front of her. The stacked towels, the resting pillows, the drawn curtains, the brushed carpet and the laid-out comforter. As the tidiness grows on her and the spaces shrinks her rebellious side comes to the forefront. She slams the door with her feet, thuds the bag on the floor and flings her shoe to disturb the orderly that reminds her of her daily household activities.
She thumps across the room and with every step begins to shred herself. She leaves some on the floor, swings few across the bed and disposes some on the chair. Then standing in front of the mirror, with one stroke, rubs off the vermilion and now with an air of lightness walks into the washroom.
As the water fills up, the lady opens all the toiletries at display and basks in its smell. Not its individual flavour, but the unusual one of being unused. The little cubicle fills up with an aroma of freedom, liberation and independence as she moves the dry soap over her body to embed the feeling within her skin.
Plunging into the tub, she slowly caresses the foam across herself while letting some float in the air. Today, she is no hurry. No one to call for her, no pending chores to attend, no one to be answerable to.
The foam, the water and the time belongs only to her. She dips her head into water and holds herself in that position realizing that she can breathe more freely under this enclosure, than in her airy house. A few tears roll out and mixes with her own cleansing lather.
She ambles out and sits on the edge of the bed. As she works through her hair, a cheeky smile appears feeling the wetness of the floor and the bed caused by the water dripping from her body. She watches the water spread carefully, only to be cut short by the reflection of her bare body in the mirror. She peers into herself and embracing the feeling of infinity that she encounters within these walls she free falls herself on the bed. Rolling to dry herself, she slithers across to each corner, to earmark that the entire territory is only for her to occupy.
The doorbell rings. She springs up, wraps the towel – today without being worried about its appropriateness – and heads to open the door. The girl holding the coffee at the doorstep, looks at the lady and they both take a peeking look at the condition of the room. They exchange a glance of acknowledgement and a smile of appreciation. The lady slams the door again, drops the towel, undraws the curtain and sips her coffee.
The old man orients the two chairs to face the balcony and aligning the table in the centre, looks up and says, “Come and sit here. I will make coffee.” While in preparation he takes sly glance towards his wife to see if she is admiring her skills. “Let us have two spoons of sugar! Just like that day.” Seeing his wife pass a stern look he quickly defends, “Don’t look at me like that, it is our anniversary!”
He trudges back and waits for his wife to take the first sip and says, “Like the last few years, even this year, I will speak first.” This was the annual ritual. Sharing assorted collection of thoughts, happenings and moments of the year that went by.
Adjusting himself while taking a quick look to see his wife comfortable, he starts laying all that occurrences, in no prepared order, sipping his coffee. He embarks on a soliloquy with great enthusiasm, to be broken by a sudden cough that arises while laughing at an anecdote of the last time they were here. Quickly gathering, he responds, “Yes, I will drink some water”, to the rolling eyes of his wife.
Fetching water, he hesitantly proposes, “Shall we dance?” Assuming his wife’s silence as confirmation, he plays a classic Eagles song and holds his hand out towards his wife. They match feet to feet, breath to breath and sway gently to the tune as well as the breeze outside. The space reshapes from a living to a ball room filled with musical and genteel love. The man rests his head on his wife and they gracefully shift across the room as if it was immeasurable. The room now feels like the coffee – sweet, bitter and gratifying.
“Must be lunch”, the old man states as the music is hindered by the sound of a bell. He makes his wife sit on the chair and heads to open he door. “Keep the lunch on that table”, he instructs as the music continues in the background.
The uniformed man lays out the dishes and places a plate towards the side of the chair that has slight creases and an empty coffee cup beside. He notices the cup on the other side is full and now turned cold. He immediately looks up to the old man and sees that he is still performing the incomplete dance, the unfinished conversation and the half-done celebration. As the music starts to fade, the man gently shifts the unoccupied chair and places another plate.
He walks up to the old man and addresses, “Enjoy your meal, Sir!” and then raises his arm and greets him, “Happy Anniversary!”The old man in consumed in his act shakes his hand, both in joy and grief.
DO NOT DISTURB
‘Sightseeing’, the well-suited man writes under the column 'Purpose of Visit' standing at the reception. He collects the key and while heading towards his preferred room, slowly starts to free himself. He removes his identity card, unbuttons his sleeves and removes his jacket. In the room, he opens the safe box, stacks his belongings and along with it dumps his official documents. Only keeps his laptop on the table, signs in and beside it keeps his phone on a chosen mode – DND.
He heads towards the balcony, draws away the curtains and stares outside. The balcony on one end frames a tall building and on the other a city monument. The distance between the two is measured – it is his daily commute. Only today, he chooses not to cover the stretch underground, but live it from above.
Dragging a chair, he composes himself and pierces at what lies ahead. The fleet of birds, the sailing clouds, the comfort of the breeze, the sunlight on the leaves and the skyline beyond. He hinges back allowing himself and the walls behind to soak the temporal experiences that they are hidden from in their day to existence. The room comes alive and so does his living.Hinging forward he looks out again.
This time to notice what he left behind – the city itself. The movement of cars, juxtaposed noises from the roads, children playing in the field, women on terraces drying clothes and the rush of the people on the streets.
The sounds not only reach his ears but even echoes in the emptiness behind him rendering an emotion of him being present amongst all.
He is there within all that, yet he is not. None sitting in front of him, nobody hovering around him, no calls to attend neither excuses to make.
The room that is negligible compared to the expanse of the city, now acts as a telescope unfolding the expanse of his regular day to day life.
He opens his lunchbox, as per scheduled, but doesn’t return to his files afterwards. Instead reaches out to mouth organ that he carries with him every day. He settles under the sky and above the ground – like in mid – air and breathes music effortlessly synchronized to the sounds of the surroundings.He continues his tune for hours, like a silhouette within the city as the shadows tilt orientation, painting the room like a changing canvas.
As the birds returns home, the man puts aside the mouth organ, attires himself back and shuts the room. The lady seated behind the reception counter enquires “What all did you see?” The man says with a smirk, “The everyday!” and switches off the DND mode.
The young girl frets around the room impatiently. At times she peeps out of the keyhole, and at times sneaks a view towards the main entrance and almost immediately hides back. Then settles on the bed to watch television, and while doing so, neatly arranges the pillows, folds out the creases and runs her hand over the bed, as if to remove dust.
As soon as the bell rings, she jumps off the bed and heads to the door. She knows who it must be. Opening the door, she greets him with a big hug. The boy in anticipation replies, “Sorry, missed the earlier bus!”
She drags the chair and persuades to him to settle down. Then offering him a glass of water, unpacks his clothes and neatly arranges them in the wardrobe and suggests, “Go freshen yourself.” The boy, till then occupied with television nods in agreement. She picks up the towel and hands it to him and puts back the chair in the normal position. Then making a call to the dining sections she requests, “May I have a just two plates? Yes, no food just plates.”
Then unboxing a stacked steel box from her bag, she neatly arranges them on the table, as the boy drying himself takes a distant look. The doorbell rings. A lady carrying the plates places them on the table next to the arranges steel boxes. While leaving she looks at the girl and the boy and in an assured manner greets, “Have a good day, Mr. and Mrs. Srivastava”.
The young girl at the mention of the prefixes and the combined name, beams with happiness and breathes with content.
“Food is ready! she exclaims while serving simultaneously on each of the plates. The boy standing barely few steps away replies, “Coming!” Mr. and Mrs. Srivastava, eat at leisure, exchange laughs, share conversations and at the end Mrs. Srivastava, takes the plates, pours a few drops of water and leaves them outside the door.
Across the evening, the spend time over television, talks and teases, without for once daring to leave the threshold. As the words falls silence, the boy, instinctively slips his hand into her clothes. Mrs. Srivastava immediately holds the hand flings it back. She turns towards the startled and boy and remarks, “We are not in the park!” and while saying so, gently removes her clothes for the boy to touch her, the way one should be caressed.
While the bare bodies roll over each other, the girl’s locket bearing a cross entangles with the thread around the boy’s body. And with that, all the barriers, discrimination and barrages that the world has put up between them, melts in the form of love. At this very moment, this little room makes up for a house, that they know may never be possible beyond these four walls.
Walking out of the cocoon, one immediately adores the codes of the world and so never turns back to see what is left behind. And what is left behind? A mere wall, punctured by regular set of windows, some curtained, most of them closed, and few balconies, almost unoccupied, a distinct door, a glittering signboard and a seemingly large frame lurking speechless within the streetscape. It is just a façade. And rightly so, for it never reveals anything to the one who visits, neither to on who passes by and nor to the those who have lived in them.
But strip this façade, open the windows, pause for a bit, reflect and admire. For inside, it hosts a collection of living tales.Tales that are secured from the world; that do not find a place outside; that cannot be narrated in other enclosures and those that remain transient forever in recital. Tales that are continuously being curated around us, simultaneously scripted by us and that encounters with us with each passing moment, within each habitable place.
As the legend goes, “It indeed is a lovely place; brings a nice surprise; bring your alibis; we are always here for our own device!”
Thanks to the movie Shah Jahan Regency (2019) and the novel Chowringhee