(Published in HT Mumbai, 24th April, with a few well-deserved cuts. Check out the last page of the current TIME magazine for the value of a good editor!)
Mornings, evenings, afternoons. The faint rushing of the AC. The gurgling of a flush in the next room. The vestigial babble from a muted TV. The hiss and “pock” of the electric kettle coming to a boil. The silence of a hotel room is all of these. And more. It comes from within, a slow flood that drowns out sound, a flood that rises from too many coffees in front of too many flickering TVs, unfamiliar newspapers under identical doors, from too many tables for one just because another room service dinner can’t be endured.
The first few months, the first few times on the road, a good hotel room is a haven, an assurance of comfort. There’s a lot to be said for a life where just about anything you want is at the other end of a phone call. Where the room is cleaned and the bed made even before you ask. There’s a certain reassuring sameness to most hotel rooms – the same design, the little foyer with the mini-bar and the door leading into the bathroom, the standard furnishing of bed, bedside tables (with a Gideon Bible and perhaps a Bhagavad Gita in the drawer), armchair, desk, wardrobe, wastebasket. Then you learn to look for the little things where class shows. The choice of pictures on the walls. A footstool for the armchair. The basket of fruit, the chocolate stand. The packaging of the toiletries. (With the exception of the Marriott in
The first few trips. Then they start to run into one another. That day I actually had the time to soak in a bath, was that Ahmedabad or
Room service. At first it’s such an indulgence. The tray, the napery, the waiter’s bow at the door. The food is rarely top-notch or even good, but it’s such luxury to have a leisurely undisturbed dinner with a book. Faintly decadent, and all the better for it. Later, the longings. For a salad just so, or sautéed vegetables and butter on the side with a nice broiled chop. Which NO room service manager can understand or cater to. (These days I’m careful to order only the most basic stuff, say, a Caesar salad or some grilled chicken, the kind of thing I can set to rights with olive oil and lemon if the kitchen has goofed.) And the battle, every time, to get the makings of a café Viennoise and NO, I do NOT want you to make it for me, I want whipped cream on the side, no, NOT fresh cream please. Agh. Exasperation. (To be fair, the Metropolitan in
Dining alone in my room is lonely. But after a while, even the best chef can’t make up for the loneliness of dining alone in a restaurant. Where laughter rises from a table for four and the couple two tables down are leaning towards each other with a shared smile. While I nibble on an asparagus stick and debate on another trip to the salad bar. It’s not you, chef. It’s just that the meal doesn’t taste so good without somebody to share it with.
Some places I want to share the view. Green wind-swayed expanses from the upper floors of the Delhi Oberoi. The sea from my room at the Vizag Taj, or from the Sea Lounge in the Grand Old Lady of Apollo Bunder. Far pavilions on the horizon from Wildflower Hall. The urban glitter from the Hong Kong Marriott. Or the
Some hotels are just so gorgeous that nothing else matters. For me, top of this list is the Taj West End in
Some things you learn. Not just “tip once, tip early, tip big”. I’ve learnt that that the so-called club floor is usually a rip-off, where you pay extra dollar just for a concierge button on the phone and free coffees in a lounge you never get around to using. There are exceptions, like the Park in
If you’re staying at the same hotel a second or third time, it helps to know a name or two. Even if the chap isn’t around, asking for him makes a point. Think about it – when you’re greeted by name, you feel a little better because you know they’re taking the trouble at least to check the room list. Don’t you think it works in the other direction too? (This works like a charm at restaurants as well. In fact, anywhere in the hospitality industry. Which, face it, is a tough and usually thankless environment. Especially when catering to a curmudgeon like me.) This does NOT work, however, in a faceless warehouse like the Ashoka. The manager in one wing may not even know the lobby manager’s name. Besides, there’s usually a high attrition rate and the staff keep changing.
I’m picky about little things. Like freshly ironed clothes. Hotel laundries are always hugely over-priced and not always reliable. Would you risk the possibility of your Italian (or faux Italian) wrinkle-free shirt coming back with the cuffs shiny or, horrors, a burn mark? That too, half an hour after you’ve showered and left the room? I get around this by asking for an iron and board in my room. In the evening, because first thing in the morning there’s a run on the irons. Free, flexi-time and if the collar’s ruined, at least there’s nobody else to blame. But you have to find an accessible power point. If there isn’t one, I’d look for another hotel. Next time, of course. Unless you use the travelling salesman’s trick of hanging up the shirt in a steaming shower stall. That works too.
Meantime, there’s the mystique of the mundane. Hang up my clothes, give my shoes a quick wipe with the shoe-mitt (I’ve stopped hoarding those), pack everything except my toilet kit and the laptop. Shake out the blanket, put a bottle of water on the bedside table, fluff out the pillows, set the air-conditioning just so, use the bedside console to switch off everything except the lamp on the far side.
Then lie awake in the dark for an hour or so while the smoke detector blinks above me and the ticking of the clock becomes clearer. Tomorrow is another day. With a pre-dawn taxi ride and a flight that is bound to leave on time only if I’m running late. Good night, world.