Anupam Krishnamurthy

Satkar Lodge

Jagan’s eyes roamed over the digits on his computer screen. After a few minutes, he had to stop and start looking again - he realized that his eyes merely glided over the numbers without actually making the effort of interpreting them. He glanced at the clock. It was 8:00 PM on a Friday evening, and the floor of his office building was nearly empty. He rolled his chair backwards to take a quick break. He walked up to a giant glass window that comprised his office building’s shiny façade, to notice how cars drove along the street. His squinted his eyes a little. The cars on the streets were little toys from his 13th floor window. They drove to the intersection and stopped at the signal there. It struck him as to how the chaotic traffic looked so orderly from high above. A thin stream of people walked along the footpath, making their way back home. Jagan ambled back to his seat and sat down in front of his computer. About half-an-hour of work separated him from his weekend. He was determined to get done with it soon.

Just as he took his seat, an email with the subject line “Relaxing holiday at an unbelievable price – Hotel Comfort”, popped up in his inbox. Jagan proceeded to mark the email as spam, but his hand hesitated. He briefly admired the email’s colourful template. He glanced at the email’s content, and realized the reason for his hesitation. He had spent about three nights at the Hotel Comfort Mumbai branch, when he joined his current job about two years ago. It was his first stay at a luxurious hotel, and it had been memorable.

Hailing from a small town, Jagan had mostly made pilgrimages with his family in cheap lodges, with small rooms that were poorly ventilated, with paint peeling off the walls. He remembered entering the lobby of hotel Comfort to see smart receptionists wearing neat uniforms and speaking in the manner that actors spoke in the few English movies he had seen. The floor of the lobby was sparkling clean. It was lined with luxurious furniture and an elaborate chandelier. Bell boys carted his luggage off to room and a waitress handed him a drink - something referred to as ‘fruit punch’. He had to merely give the desk his name, and he received a card in return, with instructions to get to his room - no cleaning delays, no haggling. Once inside, he just had to slide the card into a slot for the lights in the room to turn on. The experience gave him a glimpse of a new world - one that he had only heard about and witnessed in movies. He snapped back from his reverie to look at the offer that stared at him. It promised three nights for Rs. 1000 – an offer that was truly unbelievable.

Jagan finished his tasks for the week and headed out of the office building in Mumbai’s commercial district. He crossed the traffic junction that he had viewed from his 13th floor window - now observing its chaotic bustle from up close. The traffic signal turned green, but a bus, stopped by the side of the road, stood before a row of cars. The drivers took turns to honk at the bus with rising intensity as the green light counted-down. Jagan walked past the intersection and into the train station nearby. In ten minutes, the train arrived, stuffed with people like a sack of cotton bursting at its seams. As soon as the train slowed down to a walking pace, a forceful mass of humanity thrusting itself into the doors of every compartment, with Jagan nestled into its folds. After the train started, a man backed into Jagan’s foot, and Jagan gave him a little shove to let him know of it. A college student’s bag brushed against Jagan’s face twice and he shook the student’s shoulder and told him to hold it in his hand. These careless novices! Fishermen were regulars on the train back, but the smell of their empty baskets seemed stronger that day. The walk to the station, and the ride in the local train had been part of Jagan’s routine for three years and he could negotiate it even while sleepwalking. But as he rode the train that day, he thought about how he needed a break from it.

The train arrived at his station, and Jagan got down. He walked to his flat - a simple tenement that lined the compound wall of an engineering college which he shared with five other bachelors. The familiar whiff of sweat and laundry greeted Jagan at the entrance of his modest flat. Jagan waved at his flatmates, who were gathered in the hall.

“Here comes the slogger - going the extra mile as always to impress your Tamilian boss?”

“Don’t mention that buffoon! I still have some work to finish.”

“Okay, sir! We are ordering from the dhaba. Would you like something?”

“Yes. Order two aloo-parathas with extra pickle for me.”

Jagan shut the door of his room and bolted it behind him. He opened his laptop and looked at his online calendar, marked with public holidays. He observed that in the following months, there were several three-day weekends. He read through the email from Hotel Comfort once again and saw in the fine print that there was no possibility of cancellation once a booking was made. Moreover, the offer was valid for just three months. He opened the hotel website and cross-checked the offer code on the email he had received to confirm that it was genuine. He looked up the hotel’s facilities. It had a swimming pool, a gym and an indoor recreation centre. Moreover, the stay included a continental breakfast. Looking at the words ‘continental breakfast’ sent Jagan’s mind back to the spread that he had enjoyed during his previous stay. It was 50 meters long, and had six counters for different cuisines. The first time, Jagan had been confused and had followed the steps of a man dressed in a suit, picking up a plate and heaping it up with a rolls of bread, a cube of butter, some fruit and a boiled egg. He had then gone back for two more helpings. He had turned a knob to dispense breakfast cereal, and mixed his chocolate puffs with milk, nuts and raisins. He had toasted bread, spread raspberry jam, tasted several cuts of meat and ordered coffee at his table. Jagan was filled with awe at the opulence, the variety and the refinement. He had thought of how breakfast done right could be a grand celebration.

Sprawled on his bed with his laptop open, several considerations swept through Jagan’s mind. The offer was for three nights - effectively four days. He would have to apply for leave for one day and give his boss a valid reason. His boss never gave Jagan his due for his hard work. The hotel also had branches in several locations apart from Mumbai – Pune, Jaipur, Agra, Cochin and Shimla. He had to choose one among these locations. He then had to book his travel. He could also invite another person along with him for this vacation. He stared at the laptop screen for about one hour and shut it down without deciding anything specific - he was already exhausted from a difficult week at work and did not want to make important decisions.

Over the next few days, the back of Jagan’s mind was occupied with the details of his impending holiday. First, he considered all the locations and decided to choose Pune. Pune was only a short train ride away from Mumbai. This way, he could maximize his time at the hotel. He had already visited Pune as a child, during a family pilgrimage. But that was very long ago. He decided on going alone - he could have invited one of his friends or flatmates, but not many of his friends were in Mumbai and choosing one of his flatmates would cause bitterness among the other ones and result in needless tensions within the flat. He had to approach his boss, but Jagan would wait for an opportune moment. He would wait for that rare occasion when the exacting creature would exhibit an ounce of generosity. However, in the following week or two, his boss was away on travel, and Jagan did not want to send him an email. It is harder to reject someone’s earnest plea face-to-face, and Jagan wished to stack as many of the already slim odds in his favour.

Jagan was seated at his table at work on a Friday morning. His boss was available in the office, and Jagan peeped into his room. His boss was busy, meeting with a manager from the purchase department, and was gesticulating with his hands, while speaking to her. By now, Jagan had explored nearly every page of Hotel Comfort’s website. It had pictures of the available rooms, and Jagan had chosen his favourite – one with yellow interiors and a painting of a forest hung above a large double bed. Using the pictures, Jagan constructed the entire room in his head, thinking about the wooden bed stead and the huge pillows it supported. He imagined the powerful cooling that the air conditioning would have, and the thick soft blankets tightly folded into the sides of the mattress. He visualized the lamps beside the bed, and the switch next to the lamp that was connected to all lights in the room. He imagined the bathroom with its dark green tiles, and granite washbasin counter, with two glasses on each side. Now that he had carefully selected the room, he wanted to choose the earliest possible date for the vacation – a long weekend in the following month. His entire plan was ready, and he had to only obtain the requisite permission. Just then, he saw the purchase manager leave his boss’s cabin and he quickly picked up his notebook and scrambled inside the boss’s room, determined to ask him about the vacation. His boss was typing something on his laptop and Jagan stood waiting for about ten seconds before blurting out a greeting.

“Go… Good morning Swami”

“Good morning Jagan, will you give me a few seconds… there! What is it?”, said his boss, meeting his eyes now and closing the lid of his laptop.

“The deadline for the income statement is next week, and I need a break-up of the revenue figures”

“Right, send a mail to Aditya from the sales department, and mark me on it.”

“Sure. I will do that, and I have already sent you the performance numbers that you had requested for your presentation on Wednesday”, said Jagan looking down at his notebook and scribbling something in it.

“Great! I have to fly to Ahmedabad now, but I will give you some feedback on Monday morning. I have to rush to the airport.”

“Sure Swami. Have a good trip!”

His boss had packed his laptop into a small suitcase and walked past Jagan. Jagan went back to his desk, feeling frustrated with himself. He had stayed up late last night, finishing his boss’s assignment for the presentation in advance, so that he could cheer him up before requesting for his vacation. But he had squandered his chance. He opened the hotel’s website again and navigated to his chosen room for his preferred date - a routine he had rehearsed innumerable times. This time though, he noticed in bold red print a message on the webpage beside the chosen room:

“Sorry, your selection is not available for the dates you have chosen.”

Jagan rechecked to see if the date he had entered was right, and it was. This sent him into a small fit of panic – the offer did have a limited validity. He noticed that his other options were filling fast - the website screamed out with blinking text that only 1 or two rooms were available during those dates. Jagan spent two hours flitting between his options on the website. On one of his chosen weekends, availability was higher, but his favourite yellow room was gone. On another, there was low availability, but the yellow room was still free. He finally settled on the long weekend around Independence Day, and booked his stay during that time. He was surprised that it was still available – he remembered seeing that it was booked out during one of his earlier searches. He made the booking for the yellow room and heaved a sigh of relief as soon as he saw that the online payment was successful. He felt that a huge burden was off his chest, and that he could breathe easier now. He would now inform his boss that he would not be available on the 14th of August. If his boss disagreed, to hell with that grumpy oaf – he would call in sick and still take his four-day vacation.

****

Jagan jumped off the train on the Pune railway station platform, with a backpack and a small bag. He stretched out his back while standing on the platform after the four-hour journey and walked towards the exit. The train journey had been comfortable – he had booked a reserved seat in the second class compartment. Although it was a little expensive, it helped him avoid the crowded unreserved train compartment during the holiday. Besides, he was saving so much money on accommodation. He approached the exit of the railway station, where a horde of autorickshaws and taxis drivers met him. He picked out one of the autorickshaw drivers - a thin man with a short crop of hair and a thick moustache.

“To Hotel Comfort.”

“What is the address?”, replied the driver in Hindi.

Jagan frowned and clucked his tongue - the driver ought to have known this important address! He looked up the address and gave it to the driver.

“Okay. 300 Rupees.”

“Hahaha! What do you take me for? I will not pay a pie more than 100 rupees”, replied Jagan in Marathi.

The driver resigned to the demand and waved Jagan into the vehicle. It was 8 PM and the rickshaw deftly weaved through openings in the traffic, emitted a shrill noise in its wake. Jagan observed how the climate was more pleasant in the city of Pune, cooler and drier than the humid, salty air of Mumbai. His thoughts drifted back to his vacation. A couple of weeks back, Jagan had sent his boss a quick and terse email seeking permission, after deliberating and rewording it for nearly an hour. Contrary to his fears, his boss had been quick to sanction his leave, writing him a reply on how this break was well deserved, and wishing him a happy vacation. That heartless creature was not so bad after all. His rickshaw now stopped in front of a traffic signal, whose indicator read 180 seconds. Jagan heaved a sigh and looked out of the vehicle to notice a building with a board that said ‘Satkar Lodge’ by the side of the road.

The name brought back a rush of memories. The word ‘Satkar’ was written in Marathi and the edges of the board were rusty. The building was poorly lit, but Jagan could make out that it was painted in a shade of pink. Jagan knew what lay behind the narrow passageway below the board with the name of the lodge. This passage led to a reception desk with three phones and a garlanded picture of Ganapathi above it. It then led to a small courtyard with a clearing with several closely spaced clotheslines. This courtyard was surrounded by rooms on either side, three storeys high. These rooms, lit by tube lights were compact and had poorly lit bathrooms with toilets attached. The floors of these bathroom were often wet and one had to walk carefully on them. Jagan recognized that this was the lodge he had stayed in with his family during his last visit to Pune.

While its details were still vivid in Jagan’s mind, he felt as though the stay at the lodge belonged to a different lifetime. So much had changed in his own life since that visit that he was thankful for. Jagan hailed from a modest family in a small town in Maharashtra. Jagan now lived in a big city, and worked for a multinational company. He knew to speak and write in English fluently. He could stay in luxurious hotels and had to no longer think about lodging in dingy rooms with leaky bathroom faucets.

The traffic light changed to green, and the rickshaw started, only to stop about 200 meters down the road, at the entrance of Hotel Comfort. Jagan got down and paid the rickshaw driver. A bell-boy approached him in uniform with a cap, to greet him and take his luggage to the reception. There was a small, elegant garden outside the hotel’s entrance. Jagan made his way inside the well-lit lobby. The lobby’s smell triggered memories from his previous stay. Jagan waited for the receptionist to address him. The receptionist wished him and her impeccable English caught Jagan’s attention. She asked him for his full name.

“Jagan Nalawade.”

“Thank you sir. Can I have a photo ID?” Jagan handed her his PAN card.

“Thank you! One moment please.”

The receptionist punched something into the keyboard and scrolled through the screen in front of her. She did that twice, and looked again at his PAN card.

“Are you sure you have a reservation for today?”

“Yes, from August 14 to 17, for three nights.”

“But your details do not appear in the system. Could you show us your confirmation email?”

Jagan out his phone, tapped in a few details, retrieved the confirmation email and showed it to the receptionist.

“Thank you… But it says here in your email that your reservation is from August 7 to 10. That was for last week.”

Jagan snatched the phone back from her hands and realized that she was right. In bold letters, the email stated that his reservation was for three nights from Thursday, the 7th of August. Jagan felt knots forming in his stomach, and fumbled with his phone to reload the mail message, but the dates on the confirmation email would not change.

“I..uuh...uum, I made this booking. I received an email from the hotel… there was a special offer… it said that the dates were flexible.”

The receptionist looked on. A couple of furrows appeared on her forehead.

“Is there any change… any chance that the offer can be made for this weekend?”

“Sorry sir. This week is really busy due to the Independence Day weekend, and all our rooms are already booked. I am very sorry, but we cannot do anything to help you.”

Jagan stared at the receptionist for three seconds, his mouth agape. She had now assumed an impassive expression. He was looking for a glimmer of hope that could help him salvage the situation. He looked behind his shoulder to see a gentleman in full business suit, glancing at his watch. He felt powerless. The lobby that had seemed familiar and welcoming to him, was now strange and formidable. He thought of how this was terrible customer service - no reminders before his stay and no empathy for their customer. But deep down, he knew that he had booked the wrong dates in his panic, that Friday in his office. His face fell, and with slow, heavy steps, he made his way to the door of the hotel. Oblivious to his plight, the doorman flashed him a wide smile and let him out, expecting a tip in return. Jagan gave him a spiteful look.

Jagan walked aimlessly on the footpath. All the elaborate dreams he had constructed, of staying in the big yellow room, of lounging in the Jacuzzi, of having a four-course breakfast, fell apart with each step he took. No wonder there were so many rooms available on the portal when had checked - he’d looked at the wrong dates! He cursed himself for having been such an idiot, and was contemplating on taking the train back to Mumbai. He would be the butt of the joke for the next few weeks at his flat. He had wasted the rare generosity of his boss that he had worked so hard for. He walked along the side of the road, as his mind grappled with these thoughts. He looked up to realize that he was standing right outside Satkar Lodge. He paused for a moment to look at the building and decided that he would try his luck there.

He approached a boy making reservations at the reception. He could say that the boy behind the desk was a few years younger than he was. He spoke to him in Marathi.

“Do you have a single-room for tonight?”

“How many nights?”

“Three nights”. The boy examined the register and circled something.

“Rs. 2000 per night”, said the boy, looking at Jagan a split second after uttering the price. Jagan caught on, and realized that he was dealing with a novice here.

“Oh, I see. Do you deliver free breakfast to the room?”

“No.”

“Is the room air conditioned, with a flat-screen TV?”

“No.” The boy was beginning to look disconcerted.

“What about round the clock hot water supply?”

“Only from 6 AM to 10 AM daily.”

“Then what am I paying Rs. 2000 for a night? Will Miss India clean my room?”

Jagan saw the boy behind the desk shuffling a little. There was silence for about two seconds, which Jagan intentionally did not break. The boy finally asked him.

“How much are you willing to pay?”

“I will not pay a rupee more than 1000. I have stayed here before and I know that I am quoting a fair price.”

“I cannot give you that price. I will lose my job! What about Rs 1500? This is as low as it can go.”

“Look, I am staying for three nights, and I know of another place down the road, which will give me that price. I have already spoken to him before coming here. But since I like your negotiating skills, I am willing to pay 1200 Rs.”

The boy had a frown on his face, but Jagan’s flattery appealed to him, and he agreed. After all, that room had been cancelled in the last minute, and stood the risk of staying empty during that busy weekend.

Jagan climbed up to the third floor and entered a room with a single bed. Adjacent to the bed was a small table with an ash-tray, and the room smelt of stale cigarette smoke. Jagan took off his shirt and hung it on a small peg behind the door. He was tired. He took off his footwear and lay on the bed for a while, and with his breath returning to its normal rhythm. He sighed, and thought about his next few days. One of the biggest advantages of Pune was its central location. It could serve as a base for going on several day-trips. He was determined to leave as early as possible in the morning, only to return to the city late every evening. He had salvaged his vacation after winning a good bargain. Luckily, he had not brought anybody else along. The incident at Hotel Comfort would stay a closely guarded secret.

He was happy to be back on familiar ground, and felt that luxury hotels were overrated. This was his world, where one could walk into a lodge and secure a reservation. Where rooms were doled out by a boy scribbling on a register behind a desk. Where speaking Marathi could make a room much cheaper. Where life’s needs were stripped down to the bare essentials without any pretence - roof over one’s head, a tube light, and a comfortable bed. As he lay down, a smile appeared on his lips. He thought of how the room and its ambience made absolutely no difference to its sleeping inhabitant. He closed his eyes and drifted off into a slumber, with the image of a rusty name board in his mind’s eye - one with a white background that screamed out in big, blue Marathi letters, “Satkar Lodge”.

******