How can coping with loss bring two people closer?
Choomkey, her name was. The name of the widow who manned the reception desk, if so luxurious a name could be used to describe the plastic table and chair at the entrance of the “Bhakta Lodge”, the Lodge for the Pilgrims. She wore a pastel colored saree, and a big black bindi in defiance of her old, weak mother-in-law. Choomkey lived a normal life – one full of regret, longing and routine. Well, the normal life of the poor and the downtrodden, that is.
“If you had to run away, couldn’t you have done it with someone more glamorous?” her sister’s letter had read all those years ago, “I mean, a lodge-owner? Belonging to a temple town? I mean, there can’t be any money in that, just liability! If you had to break the norms, you could have done it better…”
But what was the point in thinking? That sister was married off to a zamindar’s son, and soon died too. While Choomkey the widow, from a village near the Hoogly, continued to live on, childless and poor.
There weren’t many visitors now. With the new trend of people moving out of the city and state, and of rising land rates, many commoners held a lot of money. They could afford bigger hotels, like the “Gardenia Seaside”. Why would anyone come to this old, stained crumbling lodge, with wooden windows and communal toilets, when one could enjoy the luxuries of an air conditioner and a bathtub?
The last lightbulb on the second floor needs to be fixed, she made a mental note as she descended from her quarters on the third floor. She felt peace in these dark, dank corridors- they reminded her of her crumbling haveli in the village. Not that she could return, but this smell and cool was precious to her. She frowned as she reached the steps – Jhatu the servant boy had cleaned the rooms and thrown the dirty water on the steps instead of behind the building, as she had instructed.
“When will this murkha learn?” she fumed under her breath, “Forget about bou, I’ll die sooner!” she resented both the idiot as well as her infuriatingly needy mother-in-law.
She descended carefully, clutching the uneven handrail. The steps sank in the centre due to years to travelers using it, and water ponded in the centre. The plaster on the walls were bloated, and disintegrated at the touch of a finger. She made her way to the front desk, unmindful of the slow death this now-irrelevant building was dying. She was used to death. This cramped, dirty city was used to death.
Two visitors in the last one week, both staying for a day. She sighed. The builder would soon return with some more threats and goons, and she feared that one day, she would resist no longer. Although what he would do with such a cramped slice of land in a dirty, murky road escaped her imagination. Probably an apartment building – they could build apartments even on land as small as that of the cowshed her father once owned. Who would live there, she wondered. Who would spend their life’s savings on a house like that? Soulless, small and dark? The fresh air in the balcony would smell of the cow shit on the roads. The running water would be at the mercy of the municipality.
What was the point? If no one would stay at her lodge for a mere hundred rupees a night, why would anyone pay lakhs of rupees to stay there permanently?
She looked up, startled.
On the semi-broken steps leading up to the veranda of her lodge stood a foreigner, with those standard DSLR cameras they could always be found with.
“Yes?” she felt odd using his language; it had been years since she had used the language. No one here used it, most didn’t know it.
“Oh, you understand?” his face lit up as he came inside. He was no more than twenty – his eyes still held the sparkle most adults had lost.
“Yes. How may...help you?” she felt illiterate even as she spoke.
“I’m looking for the way to the temple…”
Of course, she almost laughed, and here I thought I had a customer…he probably wandered too far from the Gardenia.
“Straight down this road and make a right at the chowk…walk down two lanes and turn left…end of the road is the temple.”
“Thanks” he grinned, and turned to leave.
“You and your camera, both are not allowed inside” she murmured as she went back to perusing her account books.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“No foreigners…no camera” she sighed.
“Oh..oh” he seemed taken aback, “I..I already checked out… my train isn’t till two o’clock…”
Choomkey felt her heart flutter…could she gain a customer?
“You want room?”
He gave the corridor a single glance, and then refused.
“Could I sit here maybe?” he asked, “Nobody else even understands…”
She felt something warm for him. She remembered the time when she had been a new bride. A different state, a different language. While many people understood Bengali, most didn’t speak to her in it. She nodded once and pointed to a plastic chair nearby.
“I’m Stefan” he said as he collapsed with his backpack, “I’m from Germany.”
“I Choomkey…from…” she paused. Where was she from exactly?
“Choomkey…. That’s a new one for me” he laughed lightly, “What’s it mean?”
“Choomkey….um…” she thought hard, “Sparkle…no, no….Glitter. It mean…Glitter.”
“Glitter, wow” he smiled even more. What big teeth, she wondered, must be a meat-eater. “Nothing glitters here, though.”
She managed a smile.
“I was a banker once. I’m an amateur photographer now. I have a photography site, and an Instagram account where I post my photos. I’m very popular.”
Most of the words went over her head. She nodded politely, nevertheless, and returned to her books. The revenue this month barely crossed three-thousand rupees, and Jhatu needed to be paid fifteen hundred out of it. That left just enough to cover the food expenses for her and her mother-in-law.
“How many years have you been here?” he asked.
“How can you live here?” his voice sounded amazed.
“I like it” a hard undertone entered her voice.
Now, there was nothing left to buy medicines with. Should she ask Jhatu to take five hundred extra next month instead? No, that can’t be done. What if she made even less profit next time? Maybe she should throw Jhatu out. She could clean herself. The Maharaj was cooking anyway. A new billboard would be a good investment though…it felt so frustrating to be poor!
“Was” she murmured, her mind trying to think of ways to save money.
She half-smiled. They all stopped at the Oh. Oh, poor one! Oh, a widow! Oh, how pathetic! She was immune to them, but not to the anger they produced in her.
“Nothing…glitters in life” she bit back.
“A child…like you…not know”
“I’m not a child” he said simply, but something in his voice made her turn. He was staring at her solemnly. “I’m thirty-two. My wife died too…last year.”
“Oh, the Oh” he laughed lightly, although his eyes looked pained, “that terrible, terrible Oh.”
“The pity” she nodded, at once realizing that he would understand her predicament like no one would.
“I hate it” he looked away.
She went back to her books. He started fiddling with his camera.
“I have a son” he said at length, “I left him with my parents in Germany.”
“Left him?” she sounded appalled.
“Yeah… you have kids?”
He half-smiled, still fiddling with his camera. “Seeing him reminds me of Elena…and he remembers Elena when he sees me…”
She stared at the road, she could concentrate no longer. She didn’t understand how he could leave his son at such a time and travel. He didn’t understand how she managed to cling onto what reminded him of her dead husband.
“You…shouldn’t have left him…” she said softly.
“He lost his mother…don’t take away his father from him too.”
He stared at the back of her turned head for quite a while. Of course she was right. It’s not like he hadn’t considered it. He knew he had been wrong when he had left his country. Though this journey had made him forget his Elena for most parts of the day, there were scarcely any nights he didn’t shed a few tears at her memory.
“You accepted it, didn’t you?”
“Did running away give you your peace?” she turned back.
“No” he acknowledged, “No…it didn’t.”
She had nothing left to say. She had considered running away when Roshan had died, but where would she go? She had considered dying, but what would that achieve? All that was left was to live for what Roshan had wanted, to restore this old lodge and make money. She hadn’t yet achieved it, but that was enough to live for.
“It’s true what you said, life doesn’t glitter.”
She didn’t like the depressing note in his tone.
“You have a child” she admonished him, “Look in his eyes…you’ll find glitter.”
“Maybe…and your glitter?”
“I want to…make this what Roshan wanted. Big lodge…many customers...change this place.” She said pensively, “You need to live for your son…I need to live for this lodge.”
She thought she saw a small smile lurking on the corners of his mouth, but she daren’t look. She could feel eyes burning because of tears. She had never once admitted to anyone as to why she chose to stay, and no one had ever questioned her intentions.
She turned, and there was a blinding flash.
“See” he was showing her his camera, “See, Choomkey, your eyes are glittering too.”
She stared at the screen dumbly. The flash had caught on her light eyes till they shone with a brilliant sparkle. He pressed a ring in her hand.
“This is Elena’s…it cost me 3000 euros…you can renovate this place…”
He was gone before she could respond, or hand him back the ring. She felt at a loss; what she held in her hand meant a lot more than 3000 euros to its owner.
She thought of him again, when six months later, she stood outside the lodge, admiring the new billboard and freshly painted façade. The reception had marble flooring, and the windows were of glass. The bright lights hurt her eyes, but she looked on, a large grin on her face, at the billboard that read “Hotel Roshan”.
She knew that her eyes were glittering, not with tears of sadness and longing, but with those of gratitude and happiness.