It's not so bad, sometimes, to forsake the big city for a small town
Money – as the Beatles and countless sagacious souls have said – can't buy you love. There is something else that money can't buy, and that's a decent hotel or a lodge in a small town. By decent I don't mean five-star luxury when you have to tear off a white ribbon to even lift the toilet seat – but a clean and comfortable bed and a clean and functional bathroom.
Cleanliness and comfort don't seem to figure very high in the priority list of people who run hotels and lodges in small towns. It's almost a rule that the bed-sheet should bear stains, the tap should leak, and the curtains, if there are any, should smell. The sentiment behind this deliberate oversight seems to be: “This is just a halt, not a home. Why invest in giving guests the feel of home when they are going to check out the next morning anyway?”
You have no choice but to check into one of these lodges, for a measly tariff that can be as low as Rs 150 a night. Even if you are willing to spend Rs 1,500 a night – which is, again, peanuts by city standards – you have no choice but to check into a smelly room for Rs 150 because that may be the only lodge the town boasts of.
Why should anyone, in his or her right mind, leave the comfort of a home in the city and travel to a small town to check into a mosquito-infested lodge? The answer is simple: necessity. You could be a young MBA graduate peddling biscuits, or a journalist collecting material for a story, or a pilgrim visiting a temple – there comes a time in life when a train or a bus deposits you in the lap of an otherwise unknown town and when the first thing that crosses your mind is, ‘Where do I stay?'
By now, I am a veteran of such occasions, though this is nothing to boast about – or maybe it is. The cheapest place I've stayed in was a lodge in Mughal Sarai, in eastern UP, where I checked in at four in the morning. I paid Rs 180 for a filthy, mosquito-infested room lit up by a candle (because of frequent powercuts), and where the leaking tap in the bathroom kept making a sinister sound all night.
The strangest lodge I've ever stayed in was one in Jolarpet, where the drainage mesh was located right in the middle of the bathroom floor. Each time you had a bath, you had to step over a frothy, circular puddle that would have formed at the centre of the floor. The dirtiest experience, however, has to be the lodge in Arakkonam where, after settling into an air-conditioned room (which itself smelt like the godown of a scrap-dealer), I made horrifying discoveries in quick succession – used toothpicks shoved under the edge of the mattress, the bathroom bearing muddy footprints, and the toilet seat lying on the floor.
Once, in Nagapattinam, a small army of taxi drivers stood in my room and watched a movie that I was playing on a borrowed DVD player. How that came to be merits a separate story. And during a recent trip to a small town in Andhra Pradesh – too small for you to have even heard of it – I discovered that the bathroom of my lodge did not have the provision for a light, even though the room was fitted with a brand-new AC.
But I quite like staying in such places. The trick is to spend a night there, either by sipping a drink and reading a good book, or by talking on the phone to a loved one (and silently marvelling at how technology keeps you connected even when you are in a godforsaken town), or by simply gazing at the ceiling and meditating upon life in a silence that only a small town can offer you. Once you cross the one-night milestone, things begin to look rosy. The bed-sheet begins to smell of you; the room begins to look familiar because your belongings are scattered all around; you begin to see the loyal side of the room boy who can do anything for you – including fetching bread-and-omelette at an unearthly hour – if you are nice to him. You discover the humility and simplicity of small-town India.
Each time I check out of a lodge, I feel the tip of a knife touching my heart. I feel like staying on. You can call it Stockholm syndrome – or whatever may be its equivalent in the hospitality industry.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, August 20, 2010.