[Part 2 of the Trichy diary that began here]
There is something about hotels that is both self-evident and not well understood. Hotels in cities are islands of comfort for the privileged. The city can be harsh, the hotel offers a refuge. Out there it may be hot and dusty and noisy, but inside it is cool and clean and quiet. Out there you are on your own, inside we are at your service. Out there you may be a foreigner, inside you are our guest. Once inside, you are under the illusion of comfort and control, little of which you possessed or expected outside. The traveller sets out into the city, exploring its innards and surveying its underbelly and exposing himself to the elements, but he always returns to the hotel at night. Outside he mixes with sweat-ridden passengers in a crowded bus, inside he expects a clean sheet on his bed and complains about a layer of dust. Outside he visits a slum and mingles with its residents and listens to them with empathy, inside he gets irritated when a hotel worker – who probably lives in that slum – is negligent.
We discovered the source of the stale food smell next morning. Hidden in a corner of the large closet was a box with half-eaten pastries left behind by the previous guest – or the one before that, who knows? Showing no sign of embarrassment or apology, the house-keeping boy I pointed this out to shook his head sideways and said he did not know who cleaned the room last, but he will now clear it up. While he worked, I read more about the hotel from a pamphlet:
If Culture, Heritage, Business, Leisure or a pilgrimage then the Breeze Residency has it al, a special retreat from the conventional routine of the everyday life. We offer Sumptuously, Luxurious, Opulent, Interior and the seductive atmosphere in the traditional Indian hospitality creates a truly competence and unique Breeze Brand.
Where traditional style meets contemporary International standards. The Breeze Residency a 3 star hotel the only one of its kind is the preferred choice in the corporate and leisure segments for understanding and meeting the Guest needs.
We strive to be a canvas upon which our guest can color there dreams. Our outstanding service, distinguished Cuisines are carefully Crafted and those are some of the elements so perfect to a relaxing stay.
Downstairs, in the breakfast hall, Christmas carols filled the air as we picked idlis and vadas from buffet trays, and a wall-mounted television beamed pictures of a cricket match on somewhere. (There are enough matches on these days to fill a channel twenty-four hours.) On a table nearby a young father with a British accent was being driven to the edge by his Calvin-like son.
“Look there’s idli, vada, dosa, and upma – choose one of these.”
“No! I told Mom what I want and now I’m telling you what I want – I want a croissant.”
“But there are no croissants.”
“But I WANT a croissant!”
“They don’t have any – what can I do about it?”
“Can you make me one?”
And so on.
After breakfast I found no napkins next to the washbasin. The previous morning I had asked the restaurant manager to look into this, and then at dinner I repeated my request to another manager on duty. All this had affected no change. The granite slab supporting the washbasin was clean and clear: no soap, no napkins. I walked to the manager. A tall man in a dark suit, he looked competent but his tone was noncommittal. He said he had spoken to “the management”, and they were “in the process” of setting up a towel stand in the hand-wash area. What until then? I raised my hands, still wet, and he simply handed me a couple of napkins from a table nearby. When my wife approached him after washing her hands, his response was identical. Like a call-center employee he served one request at a time, and then retreated to his corner to wait for the next one. Was he disinterested, willfully negligent, or plain stupid? I never found out, and it was hard to keep my eyes away from this intriguing man who did not, without doubt, consider himself part of the “canvas upon which our guest can color there dreams”.
* * *
The statues we saw in the city wore garlands. Not one or two or three but a dozen or more marigold circles, together weighing down upon the bust so that the inert shoulders below the distinguished head seemed to sag at the edges. Why so many garlands? Perhaps it was related to the temples in town. Trichy is known for its industries, for the electrical, defence, and railway locomotive factories spread in and around its margins, but it also is home to another industry, less known for its output than its purpose: the Hindu temples. We visited three. The immense crowd in each temple and the bustling markets around them stood like signs of a flourishing industry. Generous displays of offerings for the deity – flowers, coconuts, sweets, incense sticks, kumkum – were lined on both sides of alleys leading to the temples. Flowers do not stay fresh long: did the surplus end up on those statues?
We rode to the temples in auto-rickshaws. On the first day the plumpish young man who drove us to Rockfort asked if he should wait for the return trip. When we declined – we intended to walk around the market after the temple visit – he offered to come to the hotel next day. Our plans were tentative, so I wrote down his mobile number and promised to call if we needed him.
I was struck by his business acumen. There are no meters in Trichy rickshaws: you negotiate the price before you step in, and you begin at this point to see the business instincts of these drivers. Their negotiation skill, their ability to judge who can pay how much, their willingness to fleece a naive customer: these are legendary, particularly in Chennai. The Trichy drivers we saw were not as ruthless, but they were alert to opportunities and keen to make a few more bucks. On another ride the rickshaw driver convinced us to retain him through the evening; he did not mind waiting, he said, and at temples we could also leave behind our shoes in the rickshaw.
It was an attractive offer, because footwear counters in some temples have uncomfortably long queues. We hired him, but chose to stand in the footwear line outside the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple at Sri Rangam. A board displayed that shoes could be deposited free of cost. Not far from the queue, next to the main temple entrance where another queue of devotees inched forward, lay a large heap of abandoned footwear, unclaimed shoes and sandals and slippers, some of them in good condition but only one of a pair. No one was interested in this heap, no one scavenging through the pile looking for a passable pair, no one tasked to clear it away. An unmanned Lost-and-Found collection of artifacts waiting indefinitely for its owners.
The temple visits followed a pattern. After depositing footwear we bought tickets – for the puja, for the camera – picked up a package of offerings for the deity, and walked with the masses toward the main idol in the inner sanctum. Beyond this, those visits are mostly a haze, an undifferentiated series of images and sounds: a swarm of devotees, glittering shops, chants and bells, rituals, murals, music. But some images stand out.
I remember climbing the four-hundred or so steps up the Rockfort temple through the wide dungeon-like stairway ascending along the fortress wall, with bats flitting across some corners and with small openings that revealed a stunning aerial view of the city. I remember the long walk through endless courtyards at Sri Rangam, where at one intersection a boy selling flowers got talking to my wife and asked for money, and when she suggested instead that she could buy him what he wanted he asked for a notebook and led us toward a stationery store, and not finding it he asked again for money which my wife gently refused. I remember the rush of devotees surging through a narrow corridor, a scene that made me wonder what would happen if there was now an incident of some kind, a fire or a collapsing wall. I remember the faces of devotees, men and women and children who looked not solemn or serious like those church-goers in Europe, but happy, the adults chatting and the children hopping and playing as they walked with vibhooti on their foreheads and prasad in their hands. I remember the brief glimpses of inner sanctums through small windows where bare-bellied priests doled out a spoonful of thirtham and urged devotees to move on, much like the bus conductor who steered wayward passengers into the bus. I remember thinking, as we climbed down those four hundred steps at Rockfort, that we would now eat a dosa or an utthapam at Ragunath and then take a bus back to college and say goodbye to the girls and return to our hostel, the men’s hostel, and when we instead got down from an auto-rickshaw and entered the well-lit hotel I remember thinking how unreal this was, this hotel set apart from the physical city outside and disconnected from the past I was finally beginning to revive.