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Hotel Calcutta
Niyogi Books (2013)
ISBN: 978-93-81523-73-5

"There was little light but they could see each other. The man, filling ice wells behind the counter, was tense and quiet. His smoke-white moustache flashed defiantly in the dim lit bar of Hotel Calcutta. The monk, sipping apple soda, kept staring at the empty sofas – the amber glow of a Tiffany lamp brushing his table.

`So you are closing down this place, is it?’ the monk asked after a while.

The manager, doubling as bartender, let his glasses slide to the tip of his nose and turned to face the monk. `Hmm,’ he said and continued wiping the solid wood counter.

It was a lonely hotel in a rusty old neighbourhood of Calcutta where friendless people would wash up everyday. A hundred years ago, in 1911, when Hotel Calcutta had thrown its doors open it had quickly become the darling of Europeans who came to this city seeking fortunes that were to be made snappily in the East. Not one of its rooms would be free and in the evenings at the bar they would dance the foxtrot and the waltz to the music of Henry’s band, while at the restaurant Turkish clairvoyants whispered into the ears of the memsahebs in flowing taffeta dresses, followers of Mesmer put young ladies off to sleep and a magician in a rajah’s costume regaled the diners with his improvisations on the Indian rope trick.

1911 – that was an interesting year no doubt. Just as Hotel Calcutta set up business in spring, a few months later, the British decided they had had enough of this city of palaces: the capital of India would be shifted to Delhi, they said. And so it happened.

The monk, wearing a long garnet toga and canvas shoes, surveyed the bar: the wood panelled walls with cityscapes from an earlier time, the pillared roof with stone arches – a cobweb here a cobweb there, the stately green-leather sofas and rosewood chairs and the Tiffany lamps floating like magic flowers over freshly starched tablecloths. There was a twinkle in his eyes.  Perhaps he was happy because he was returning to Darjeeling after quite an adventurous month in a southern monastery which he had to leave in a hurry.

`Would you mind if I ask why?’ he asked the man at the bar after a while.

`I might tell you Sir or I might not,’ the man replied in a matter-of-fact voice as he wiped dust off the wurlitzer near the bar. 

`Lovely hotel,’ the monk said, `how old?’ He hadn’t noticed the little sign over the portico entrance which said `1911’. The sign was rusty no doubt but it was still legible.

`We will be celebrating our centenary later this year – if we are still around,’ the man said and pressed the buttons of the brass cash register which coughed, like an old man. He flicked on a light switch above his head and a bulb lit up the mahogany bar shelves with the carafes and snifters, the crystal goblets and Old Fashioned glasses and fifty bottles of spirits grinned back conspiratorially at the two men. 

`Someone buying this property?’ the monk asked. He had finished drinking the apple soda and was looking at the menu. He would have something to eat – it was past lunch time already and he had no proper breakfast that day.

`They want to pull it down,’ the manager-cum-bartender, Peter Dutta, said. His hair was alarmingly thin but because of its evenness, still managed to cover his head like a frayed grey carpet. His eyes cloudy and narrow had some laughter left in them, the signs of it to be found in the twin radiating lines at their outer edges that became furrowed and prominent when something amused him. When he smiled, the rough skin of his face would repair itself and a warm glow light up his eyes which reminded one of fresh brown bread, jars of honey and hearty breakfast spreads.

`What a shame. Such a nice old place,’ the monk said – `I want to order some food, what do you suggest?’ "    (From the beginning)

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