The first thing i did upon waking up was marvel at the ingenuity of the decor. My head was throbbing, threatening to split itself open. But over the years i had learnt to focus on other things through terrible hangovers, resilience cultivated through good time on the road. The jackhammer pounded at my temples from inside but i gazed, unblinking at the puke-green fabrication with a kind of awe you possess only when stoned. Through a nauseas, claustrophobic feeling of lidding from the cornea out to cranium i smiled which in turn did wonders for my observation: the room was divided neatly into two halves – an open area with the bed and me on it on one side and a prefabricated enclosure containing the rest of it including the toilet, bath shower, wash basin, wardrobe and television on the other. No aesthetic pretensions but sheer Spartan functionality. I didn’t remember how many times i went to the bathroom the previous night but remembered sitting on the seat-less rim of the toilet while water from the shower – tasting like liquid rust – fell directly on my head. The shower head protruded at a fixed angle right above the toilet seat – again a marvel of space-saving. If it was not turned open, it leaked, cooling me off even as i sat with my head buried inside the bowl. The television was right above the luggage storage adjoining the bathroom; a lot of thought would have gone into the height at which it was placed – from the bed where i lay i got a clear view although its dimensions made it amply clear that it was meant more for listening than viewing. I had to find out who designed the room.
Possibly even meet this Roark of rundown hotels.
I lay on the bed wondering what time it would be; there was no way i could look at my watch – my hand was either too heavy like lead or flew past my eyes like falling bullrush. I smiled which did wonders again – i got around to squiggling my fingers, Kill Bill-style. There were sounds from the next room: a man was saying things not very nicely but the woman was squealing delightedly. He must be imitating somebody whom they both thought was gruffly-funny – like Amrish Puri in some of the last movies of his career. With the furniture and walls merging into each other in a trailing deliquescence, i sat up in bed and placed my ears close to the wall; the man had stopped speaking but i could hear squeals from the woman – deflating, air-sucking squeals like from a squeeze doll. I opened the door to a corridor with a low balustrade coloured a sun-jaded pink. Below me was a cacophonous lane, a surge of pedestrians and auto rickshaws, cyclists and camels, small cars and large trucks, everybody wanting everybody else out of their way. Not just the namkeen sellers, but every second stall be it textiles or cool drinks, puncture to watch and mobile repairs, all seemed to have appropriated the ‘Bikaner’ brand. Veering dangerously over the low balcony, i called out to the tea vendor below for ‘chai.’
As i was getting back into the room the door next to me opened and a portly, middle-aged man emerged followed by a waif of a girl in frayed jeans and a diaphanous orange nylon top with sequinned sleeves and neckline. She stilted on four-inch heels and hovered behind the curmudgeon who glowered at me: i was blocking their way. Moving further into my room i continued staring at the guy while the girl tightened the dust-coated cambric drape around her face making it look like a flurry gas mask. As they walked past he put his arm around the girl and turned around to look at me. I nodded and winked at him but was ignored.
Somebody shouted from outside my room and knocked hard on the door sending the entire room juddering with an extended twang like a tuning fork. It was a small boy who wore the air of a man of the world – the classical room boy. Even before i could discuss possibilities of a room-served breakfast he told me that someone was waiting for me downstairs. Sure, soon as i finished my tea.
“Would you by any chance know who designed this room?”
He didn’t but he said the man had been waiting since morning and asked whether he should send him up to the room. I told him he could wait till i finished my tea.
“He is the same auto rickshaw guy who brought you here yesterday night.”
Waking up in different hotel rooms for some time now i had learnt not to wrack my brain figuring where i was as soon as i woke up – always allowing myself some time to figure if i was in Chambal or Deeg, Bharatpur or Jaipur. Soon enough i figured i was in Bikaner and that i had the vilest, most potent theka, local liquor, i ever had the previous night. From experience i knew that with theka the recollection would take longer but when it came it would be remarkably clearer. I remembered the auto rickshaw driver – an elderly man, a haji, with a few tendrils of white beard that flowed like sea anemones and a permanently amused expression – called Khan.
“Is it Khan?” Maybe i was supposed to check out that morning. Maybe i had already missed my train. Or bus. So maybe i had to keep my luggage ready. But where was my luggage? I had a small black bag with my clothes and a laptop backpack.
“Where is my luggage?”
The room boy looked around, even peered outside the door, and looked back at me blankly. I sprang out of the bed to the designated wardrobe area under the television – it was empty. I stared at the room boy in horror who seemed intrigued by the ‘Jack and Jones’ on my jacket. Together we looked under the bed – nothing but a thick film of mud and a glossy white paper with an assortment of multi-coloured sticker bindis covered by a transparent plastic sheet. The pack featured a movie still of a coy and traditionally dolled up Aishwarya Rai from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam a movie which was shot in Rajasthan and featured desert forts and post prandial farts. Top marks for recall and relation. The room boy put the packet into his shirt pocket and tapped it safely into the deep recess from outside. I wondered briefly whom he would give it to.
“Why do you want to know who made the hotel?” He asked dusting his knees, standing up; i continued to sit on the floor and peer under the bed. The pounding in my head had shifted into my chest now – the boom pah pah extending all the way down the gullet. I felt like my heart was trying to leap out of the ribcage. Despite the cold – i was in my leather jacket, i had slept in them – my palms had become clammy with sweat. I didn’t mind losing the cloth bag but my backpack had not just my laptop but also my camera and photographs and my notes from a month on the road. There were photographs – i was worried not so much about potential chantage as much as inflicting hurt. There was a furious gnawing inside my stomach, i felt like throwing up, emit a loud shriek, hit my head against something hard. Instead i doubled over keening, groaning. Through my mind-rending caterwauling the room boy stood pinching out some irritation from his goolies; he continued to look at me as if expecting an answer. I looked at him, bleary eyed.
“I don’t want to know who built the hotel but who designed it.” I said, still on my knees. And then i bent over and threw up.
It was close to midnight when my train finally rolled into Bikaner junction the previous evening. From my ‘spot the honest’ methodology – picking the guy who keeps to himself, instead of swarming around you offering everything from rooms and women to best exchange rates and dope – i chose Khan who was watching amusedly as each of his fellow drivers plucked me in different directions. I was proud of this methodology as i hoped it would teach the boisterous ones some manners; one day in future i would walk out of railway platforms un-harassed by catcalls, un-bludgeoned by best offers into a vehicle of my choice – preferably petrol or CNG with rear engine – driven by a decent chap who didn’t have to be reminded to get his metre going. I told Khan that i needed a hotel for the night – just for the night – as the whole of next day i would be out sightseeing and would be gone by evening, by train, so i wanted a hotel close to the railway station. Khan drove like he knew just the place. Rather he sputtered along – his vehicle spewed smoke darker than the night and the engine sounded like a lathe work in progress. There was a level crossing some 20 metres away; the barrier had begun to lower itself slowly to the accompaniment of a shrill alarm. Instead of flooring it, Khan cut his engine and rolled silently towards the crossing, reaching just in time the barrier had levelled itself shutting off traffic. The timing was remarkable for he barely applied any brake; the rickshaw came to a standstill by itself. Impressed i offered him a cigarette which he declined and lit up one from his beedi packet.
D-d-dd… D-d-dd… D-d-dd…
The train went by taking with it all the people in the carriages – different destinations, same direction. Some carriages still had lights in them – which fell as bright patches on the tracks, moulding itself over the gravel and tracks, across the electric posts and around the trees. The general compartment was not crowded still some guys were sitting by the doorstep probably watching the shape-shifting lights like I was. One lonely figure sat by a window staring out at the dark that wafted over squatting lean-tos, garbage heaps, discarded railway quarters, buildings and walls with ‘Dr Sex’ and ‘Spoken English’ ads. Unlike other modes of overland travel where the pace is dictated by surface conditions, the train seems to hurtle oblivious of weather and visibility, seemingly out of control. A splendid lure, it yearns for the nothingness and the unknown; in its elements when bounding through the middle of vast anonymities. The rhythm remarkably soothing, the bravado unsettling; it cuts like a scythe over moon-washed landscapes, a fluttering flame under the neon lights, a sliver over the river bridges. D-d-dd… Suddenly i wanted to be on it – i was seeing it, not hearing it go by.
I wasn’t sleepy anymore and thought of asking Khan to show me the night-time Bikaner.
“My house is that way.” Khan said nodding towards his right as we passed a small chauraha, an intersection, marked by chasing dogs. I gathered that Khan meant he had to come all the way back here from wherever he would be dropping me. I peered in the direction and saw several figures on their haunches around a petromax lamp turned down to a yellow glow.
“What are they doing this time of the night?” i asked.
“Drinking,” he replied, probably wondering why he’d even start it.
“What are they drinking?” He had my full attention.
“They are too poor to drink beer like you city guys…they drink theka.” I detected more regret than sarcasm in his voice at having brought it up.
“Let’s go there,” i told him.
Khan stopped his vehicle, turned around and looked at me.
“They don’t just drink…but do many other things also,” he said fully convinced it would change my mind and he could continue to the hotel and come home to his bed soon.
“Take me there…just a few swigs of your theka and we’ll be off.”
“See, i don’t drink and i cannot vouch for the quality of this stuff.”
The only time i was reminded of Khan’s presence was when he lit a beedi. And each time in the glow i could see his eyes on me. Or probably i was just imagining. Still each time i would signal to him that we’d be off within a few minutes. But it was nice there and i didn’t really feel like leaving. The guys were all either coolies or touts from the railway station or other manual labourers who worked in the nearby bazaar hauling goods from national permit trucks to shops on their heads. Save for the perfunctory queries as to where i was coming from and where i was headed to, nothing much was spoken, at least not to me. The touts were engrossed in an animated discussion talking about some behen choot, sister-fucker, cop who was asking for a bigger cut of the dosh. The coolies were wincing and clucking at some bawdy pictures on a mobile phone while a couple of the head-load workers were nodding off. The theka was powerful, sold in pouches; you could ask for a plastic glass if you wanted to dilute it with water. But i drank it straight from the pouch like the sturdier others. After two pouches i was sitting there shirtless – jacket and tee shirt flung over the side mirror of Khan’s vehicle. One by one the guys from the group kept disappearing to a shanty nearby and came out after some time, humming, evidently relieved. Assuming it to be the loo, i got up to go too when Khan came running.
“Udhar randi hain,” he said blocking my path. That’s a whore there, literally.
“Why Khan saab, you think city guys don’t have the equipment?” the chap who went last asked and his confreres guffawed.
“Is she alone?” i asked incredulously having only read about women pulling the train in Hell’s Angels parties.
“No, her husband is here,” somebody said. “You pay him first.”
Standing i slurped out the last trickle from the pouch – my third.
Khan was sitting on a violet-coloured resin sofa which was cracked in patches like psoriatic skin. In one hand he cupped a half-smoked beedi which had gone out along with the matchbox and a blue and white beedi packet. With his other hand he tilted to one side the haji cap and scratched his sandpaper skull; i could hear the scrape from where i was standing. He then reached out to the side of the sofa and took out my missing bags, placed it in front of me. I choked on my gasp, relief flooded my eyes.
“Are these yours?” he asked hellion-eyes dancing, while his wispy whiskers flowed further downwards to reveal black-stained intermittent teeth.
“Sir wants to know who built the hotel,” the room boy asked the duty manager who glanced up from the newspaper he was hunched over. He wriggled his nose to straighten his thick reading glasses.
“Check out?” he asked me.