Acclaimed author of The Dollmakers’ Island, Anu Kumar brings a treat for the readers of Unboxed Writers in the form of an unpublished novella that will be carried in nine parts. Here is a brief introduction.
Three generations of a family have maintained a hotel that suddenly finds itself close to a new boundary line when India and Pakistan are partitioned. And as guests become witness to the drama that plays out on the border, little do they realize the drama unfolding within the hotel precincts itself : a grandfather who is a war veteran, a love affair, a friendship with a British officer who himself turns strangely senile; a disinterested father who develops a maniacal obsession with the hotel and then the narrator grandson whose love for melodrama has tragic consequences. In this surreal story, real life borders mingle with borders between what is real and what could be almost so.
This is part seven of the long tale…
The New Guest
That evening, I was so caught up with work that I didn’t see the new guest until he came right up to the counter, and asked about the room he had reserved in advance. There had been some confusion in room allotment. Guests had already begun complaining. I was frantically working through the files, trying to trace every correspondence, every letter of confirmation, when I heard him. The knock of his elbow on the hard mahogany of the counter, and then his voice low and hesitant.
“Excuse me, I had a room reserved for me.”
I looked up and the farcical nature of the drama I had been part of, thus far, straightaway took a turn for the bizarre. I was staring at someone who, apart from his gold-rimmed spectacles and somewhat fuller crop of hair, could have been me.
He smiled, drummed his fingers on the wood again, and then with some reluctance, offered me his hand. “It’s a strange way to make your acquaintance. But hi, I am Hans. Martha’s grandson.”
He stepped back, his eyes blinking, smiling as he expected me to make the connection.
Martha.. Martha.. I tried swimming my way back to some point in the past but the sudden onrush of memories proved too chaotic and swirling. I remembered the manner the word had been pronounced first, by Robertson. In his usual bluff, hearty manner, I suddenly remembered. Accompanied by an elbow, prodding with some suggestiveness into my waist. Now I rubbed my waist unthinkingly, shaking my head.
“You have a reservation?”
“Yes, I called in advance. And it was confirmed, over a week ago.”
I was fumbling, running my hand over the register, seeing the figures blur and fuzzy, swim into each other, “There doesn’t seem to be…”
“Oh, but I am sure,” and with one sweeping gesture, his hand brushing past mine, he turned the register towards himself. Running quickly over the same figures, my hand had stumbled over moments ago, somehow restoring them to shape because he looked up another minute later, a smile on his hateful face, See there is it. Hans Dammer, reservation from the 24.th
Damn you Hans. But I smiled at him instead, “welcome to the Hotel. I hope you have a nice stay here.”
“I am sure I will,” he gripped my hand in his again. Looking down, feeling his warmth pulsing into mine, I had the notion that both hands could have been his, or mine. They looked so much the same. My hand, that I used to take exquisite care of, because I did use it a lot in my acting, could have been his. Smooth with thin bird like bones, the wrist delicate. I shook it off abruptly, turned to the boy who like the others in the lobby was looking on with the kind of dazed look in his eyes that comes from following a climatic theatre scene. I cuffed him behind the ear, barking my orders to him in Hindi, “Is there something the matter, idiot? Loitering and listening on. Take Mr Damm to his room.”
He must have heard the manner in which I pronounced his name. I waited for him to react, to correct me politely, I longed for the chance to repeat it again but his good humour remained intact. He lifted his valise, allowing the bigger, much heavier, suitcase, to be carried up the winding staircase, taking the boy with it.
“Be careful, boy,” I joked,” The insurance money for damages is not much.”
Hans laughed this time heartily. I noticed his gums were pinker than mine and he had strong and healthy teeth. I ran a tongue over my teeth, making a note to look at mine carefully next time I was before a mirror.
Later that evening, when I took father’s dinner tray up for him, he was in an extraordinarily cheerful mood, “I would like to go down for dinner, if you don’t mind.”
I put the tray down, drew the curtains across the open windows, looked over the room carefully before I decided to answer father, “You are still not well father. I think you should rest.”
“Nonsense!” he said it with more vigour, in the dismissive manner of old. He was already dressed, his movements quick and assured. He looked restored.
“Father you know, what the doctor said.”
“Damn the doctor. If he had his way, he would recommend, I take some holiday to some resort or simply retire to the Swiss Alps, give up everything I like doing. Doctors have a way of making life very boring.”
He turned to me, inviting me to share his laughter. I had the feeling I usually have before the opening of a play. Every actor, every theatre person, whatever his pretensions, has it. The hollow in the pit of the stomach, your heart beating fast and appearing all over the place, the feverish excitement in the air. In spite of the drawn curtains, I could feel the wind pushing its way in, desperate against the curtain folds. Father was humming to himself as he affixed his tie clips, he stretched his hand out to be helped with his cuff links but I was curt. The nearly month long hiatus when I was forced to assume charge of the hotel had emboldened me.
“You refuse to listen to good advice, father. I am afraid I must make my displeasure clear.”
It was just my new found authority. The stern note, the matter of fact manner, the displeasure I conveyed with the simple gesture of bunching my hands up into my pockets, rocking back and forth on my heels came easily to me. I had to merely conjure up my grandfather, the genteel disdain with which he made known his displeasure.
Grandfather stayed with me through dinner, when father made a perfect nuisance of himself in the way he cosied up to Mr Dammer. “My God, you do look like familiar,” he had said on entering the dining room, walking straight to the table where he was seated, wearing an expectant look, keeping a waiter hovering around him with paranoid anxiety. Almost as if he knew father would join him. And father headed towards his table, tucked away though it was in some obscure corner, near the kitchen, almost as if it were pre-arranged. And perforce, I had to join them. I had to keep an eye on father.
It was an extremely tight threesome we made. The table where Hans sat had in effect meant to ensure a cosy dinner for a couple or as I thought darkly, for a dark conspiracy between two evil minds, but I had insisted on an adjustment. Maybe we could all have dinner together. And while the smile on Hans’ face was entirely sincere and welcoming, my words came out false, tinny like the cutlery that shone in the dull pale yellow light. It occurred to me then that this was the colour associated with romance, with the pleasures of secret love, yet it had the effect of a tombstone on me.
Shake out of it, I told myself. As I would again and again over the dinner. I held myself tight, refusing to allow these runaway thoughts an easy run, holding tight to my irritation but it was difficult. I may as well not have been there. The waiters fawned over Hans, cajoling him to try everything, leaning well over me to wheedle their requests to him. He was served first, then father and then as an afterthought, they put something on the third plate, because it just happened to be there. The visiting musical troupe that we, I, had arranged to perform that entire summer, sent across its lead singer to ask Hans whether he had any special request.
And that room, mellowed in half-darkness, throbbed uneasily with the first harsh guitar twangs of ‘homeward bound’, almost like an old hag, well-corseted forced to dance disco steps. My one request for a gentle ballad of love across the border, was never aired. The lead singer must have had a particularly voluminous pocket into which my chits, sent across at least three times between every course, lost itself. For father and Hans, dinner made a smooth progression. As I totalled up in my mind all the slights I had been subjected to, during the dinner and played stern mind games trying to rein in my anger, I caught snatches of their conversation, peppered with people from my past.
He talked of Martha, his grandmother, who had known grandfather well, when he had escaped into Switzerland from north Italy with other Indian soldiers. It was then the only safe place in Europe, though it was sandwiched between Mussolini and Hitler. Grandfather at that time could not remember a thing of his past. But he had been an invaluable help to Martha and her father, who were trying their best to resuscitate the village inn that had been in their family for generations.
When people began talking, as they were wont to, Martha said he was her fiancé. One day, when he was out exploring the hills, as he liked doing, he disappeared. There had been a massive hunt for him but grandfather was given up for dead. They heard nothing from him till Robertson’s visit to the same inn, almost 40 years later. It was a photo of grandfather with Martha that led Robertson to put in place the one year in grandfather’s life that thus far lay like a blank space, across which he forever had to skirt when he thought of his past.
A nice plot for a play, I remembered saying, as I watched father sign the bill. No, no. he said, putting his hand over Hans, you are family now, and my sarcasm was lost, cleared away with the last remaining dishes.
To my disgust, Father repeated this conversation ad nauseum after dinner as well. He spoke nonsense of the two missing halves of a family meeting together again, a body amputated for too long, suddenly finding a new limb. Hans sat next to him, his face shadowed in the light of his cigarette, lapping it all up. And I found myself, embroiled deeper and deeper in the drama, that I was sure, had begun the night, father had been rounded up on the border.
He had been disappointed in me but if this was his way of cutting me off, I was not going to let it happen. Not if I were my grandfather’s grandson. It annoyed me also to think that he was using the very same ploy that all my adult life he had arraigned me for. Like he was staging an elaborate play, with several sets, with an actor who even looked the part. For Hans did indeed bear a resemblance to me. It was an unnatural coincidence, I would say with a laugh, when people remarked on this.
For my part, I was working on a new play that summer, something I thought that would reflect the peace that one could see in the air, after decades of living across a crackling fence, electric with tension. I resolved to make it as realistic as possible, telling people it was a real love story, of course with a tragic ending love stories could only be authentic, easily believable if they were that way. But around me, everything as I remembered it, of a childhood, appeared to be disintegrating to a rude farce, almost like an amateur theatrical production.
It was difficult however to get people convinced of the idea behind the play. After years of doing plays somehow detached from the everyday life that unfolds near any border area – the state of tension, being in a perpetual state of war preparedness, they were unwilling to be convinced about a play which, as I wrote at the very beginning of my script, promised to reflect the new realities of peace.
Surprisingly, it was father who took an active interest in my work. He was making a slow recovery, stumbling around by himself, and sometimes bumbling into the basement where we rehearsed. He would sit at the very end, smiling absentmindedly, clapping occasionally, and once in a while, even whistling, when the women came on to perform. This long delayed appreciation of my work made me happy until the day he chose to bring Hans along.
Anu Kumar’s latest book is The Dollmakers’ Island. (http://www.flipkart.com/dollmakers-island-anu-kumar-book-8190939130)