When my senior colleague advised me to take a break from the everyday rut of office and home and pamper myself a bit, I balked. For me the ultimate and the most exquisite, luxuriant extravaganza was a spa retreat. Though not completely unaffordable, yet chewing on the idea made me feel immensely guilty as I was not comfortable incurring lavish expenditure on myself. My colleague suggested a Five Star lunch/dinner. I hated Five Star hotels and told him so. He was appalled. I added that I could enlist multiple reasons off hand justifying my well- nourished hatred. He was curious. I elaborated:
(1) I have to be my best self which I am mostly not in the habit of being (all smiling sweetness, yuck!)
(2) I have to be best dressed (read formal best) – a complete antitheses to my concept of comfortable wear (of shabby and oft worn casual clothes)
(3) I have to be conscious of my table manners which I consider a torture when it comes to enjoying delightful savouries. Eating should be the most uncouth affair of salivating taste buds left free, frivolous and frolicsome – food and me and nothing else in between.
(4) I have to be soft spoken, polite and indulge in exchanging pleasantries with sophisticated society – an exercise which did not amuse me much.
(5) I have to spend hours in the dimly lit, claustrophobic interiors of the restaurant preceded by equal time wasted in traffic ridden roads – the thought of it makes me shudder.
(6) Anything out of place and non conventional will raise so many “parlour-arched” eyebrows. No uncontrollable giggle, squeal of unkempt pleasure or insistence upon non-conformity to the customary and the proper. The cutlery is not supposed to clatter. I am not supposed to slurp down the beverage. The knife should follow the right direction while buttering the toast. I should know how not to clutch the spoon like a handle bar but be dainty and ladylike. And what if it still slips out of my fingers sliding past the scalloped spread under the table – the tinkle resonating like a cannon blast in the room filled with hushed conversation and suppressed laughter. My impish imagination does a hurdle race mulling over the scene.
No! No! No! Bahut problem hai baba! Five star hotel a big no-no for me!
As I shook my head in vigorous resistance to the proposal, a drape drew apart to allow me a peep down memory lane – my maiden visit to a Five Star Hotel. I was posted in Kolkata, (then Calcutta), at that time. In those days, I used to travel in over-crowded buses. On one such trip to office I was crushed and crumpled inside a jam packed rattler so badly that when I got down I found that my saree had a hideously visible tear right on the top fold. It was too late for a repair job which could now be done only after reaching the office. But as they say man proposes but God disposes. Something else was in the offing for me at the office.
As soon as I stepped in I was told to get ready for a visit to this Five Star venue to oversee certain VIP arrangements for a high profile conference. There was no scope of declining as my Executive Director was waiting for me. He was to approve the final arrangement. So refusal was out of question. Before I could blink my eyes, I found myself sitting beside him in his car.
My ED was a thorough gentleman. If he was aware of my discomfort (which I was sure he was) he did not let it show to save me further embarrassment and continued a casual conversation till we reached the hotel. I could feel the doorman’s contemptuous stare at the gaping hole on my attire. I cringed perceptibly. The manager who was showing us the arrangement was too busy impressing my ED. I could not make out whether he noticed the tear or not but I for my part could not concentrate on his enthusiastic prattle. I was more than self conscious. Even the creepy, crawly ant was far better off than me. Unfit even to occupy a millimeter of space on the shining marble floor of the spacious banquet hall! An ugly blot on the face of human civilization! An obnoxious stench rising from the polluted stream that I passed by going home every day! My under-the-breath-self-castigation knew no full stop. I exhaled deep and long when the time came for us to leave the premise.
Ironically, thirteen years managing the hospitality section of a thriving PSU, visiting Five Star Hotels soon became as commonplace as eating Daal Chawal for lunch/dinner. While discharging my duty I had to inspect all those nooks and corners of the glamorous joints which those who go gaga over the glam quotient of the premise would hardly dream of visiting – the kitchen quarters where the chef and his assistants sweated it out preparing mouth watering delicacies, the housekeeping section where promising interns from reputed institutes completed their internship doing menial jobs, the front office which steamed under the pressure of providing accommodation to corporate and non-corporate in peak season and the well worn props of the banquet hall before these got carefully wrapped in snow white satins and matching pink sashes for the benefit of the elite oligarchy of the city. All hotels of the capital looked alike (except Hotel Imperial which boasts of a heritage and also a priceless collection of original sketches and paintings of pre-independence era which was recovered by a waiter from a heap of junk about to be discarded by the Hotel Staff) and the people running them appeared to be having uniformly stilted mannerism. More than a decade later, I thanked the Lord profusely when my assignment changed for good.
Now having seen and experienced it all, I will not hesitate to walk into the plush premise in a pair of tattered jeans and torn chappals with a carefree shake of a shag and shoulder. Perhaps I may also, on the spur of an impulse, shove a wayward note in the doorman’s surprised palm which shall read something like” I wish to cross over the threshold of life bereft of all modest entrapments picked, prevailed and preserved during the course of life.”
And I swear I will not look back to enjoy the befuddled expression on his face hiccupping over the missive.