The hotel was new, offering things the city had never seen before. The staff was not only polite but went out of their way to be so friendly that often they decided to not charge guests for a meal, or for using the swimming pool. It was in this spirit that they approached me with the offer of being an ideal guest. As an ideal guest, I had to spend some time every week in the coffee shop and had to appear conspicuous while interacting with the hotel staff and other guests, something I enjoyed doing, anyway. They did not choose my clothes but urged me to dress not too fashionably but also not dull and dreary. They told me to keep my flirtations with the waitresses healthy, to not appear overwhelmingly forthright but also not devoid of sexual overtones, especially in reference to compliments made about their dress.
Naturally, I did not need to pay for food or other services but I was recommended not to order everything on the menu, for I had to appear sophisticated; they were far happier with an image of me slowly sipping on some Darjeeling tea than wolfing down a club sandwich. They encouraged turtle-necks, a light stubble, salt and pepper hair.
On days when the overall morale of the hotel was dwindling and when they had received far too many badly dressed, uncouth guests, the reception would call on me to make my presence felt. Not too much later, I was smiling at some of the guests in the coffee shop who appeared more sophisticated and would throw a condescending gaze at those who were unnecessarily loud, bumping into each other, speaking to their relatives on Skype while I was busy trying to read a novel. I often wore blue, for the cool tones were gentle on everyone’s eyes. An ideal guest, they say, should vanish into the environs of the hotel. He should make his appearance in the mornings for breakfast; he should first order a croissant and lapsang tea with the papers. I do not like reading the papers, so instead read a novel or even a children’s book. Often, however, I get much too easily irritated, staring at the childish art on the wall. To distract myself , I order the hotel tea blend, instead, a medley of tea leaves from Assam and Darjeeling that produce a unique, mildly sweet flavour that I never really need to add sugar to. More often than not, I have a host of waiters and waitresses surrounding me, all trying to please, in their own way, their ideal guest. Although the tea can only be had at the hotel, the hotel staff often arrange for it to be delivered to my home.
The receptionist once told me that in order to identify an ideal guest, it was not easy and, in fact, quite cumbersome. After all, being only a writer, teacher and failed publisher, my expenditures in the hotel are nothing compared to people who have real money; the criteria to decide who should be an ideal guest is also not founded on the frequency of hotel visits, but rather on how comfortable the hotel staff notices the guest feels in his own skin. The receptionist added that one striking feature that they noticed in me was the inordinate amount of attention and care I give to every single detail of my attire. He said that the hotel staff had noticed that with me there had not been even a day when my clothes were mismatched. They also had noticed, he did not fail to mention, that my perfume smacked of leather, conferring to me a masculine, yet not brusque persona. Although I am no famous writer, they shelved my books in the coffee shop where I spend my idle hours. There is nothing as comfortable as the comforts of a posh hotel and nothing quite exhilarating as being an ideal guest there. I only wonder how an ideal guest would age? Would he still be considered ideal when his looks begin to fade or will the hotel embrace signs of old age? Would an ideal guest die in the hotel on one of his visits to the coffee shop?
At times, I would bring my mother, who, had she lived in the same town, would have been more ideal than me, for although I have inherited some of her charm and sartorial sensibilities, she is gentler and more consistent as a person, whereas I am prone to be moody and can often, without warning, lose my cool. With mother and I seated at one of the tables, we can easily be confused as owners of the hotel. What, however, we do have in common is the joy and thrill we get from blowing up money as soon as it reaches our hands. We buy gifts in the form of clothes and cakes for each other, and although we may both appear in manner and speech as owners of the hotel, we are actually most often without money.
Once the hotel manager asked me if I would be willing to launch my new book on fashion at the lounge the hotel had just built. They said that it would only be appropriate for an ideal guest to be central to the opening. In all these years of visiting the hotel, I had gotten to know almost all the staff personally. I knew the names of their wives, their lovers, their children. They used to often say that they had never seen a guest like me before. The hotel became a sanctuary of a spiritual order. Apparently, it was built on what was once a Buddhist monastery, which is why the hotel has inordinately long hallways and inherent calm and peace. The swimming pool, the spa infused with the fragrance of lavender and camphor calm my nerves and, apart from a few exceptions, the hotel is aesthetically pleasing to all the senses, even that of touch.
As an ideal guest, I believe I ought to share other things about my life that may not bear any relation to my existence as a guest, but as a regular human being, living outside the confines of the hotel walls. I need not remind you that I am actually quite poor—I have spent all my savings on clothes and perfume—and unlike most all other guests I arrive at the hotel gates either on foot or in an auto-rickshaw.
I make no qualms to hide my lesser means to the hotel staff; I think I am able to somehow convince them of my sophistication with my ability to speak multiple languages and often, as an aside, I speak to them of aristocracy of the mind, a kind of form of nobility that may have lost old wealth but nonetheless has retained a particular way of looking at the world. The truth is, I am by and large a self-styled aristocrat without money or any family history of wealth or high social class. I learnt foreign languages in language schools without the money to travel and because of my experience in the theatre, my accent is impeccable while speaking in English, German, Urdu and Italian to other guests in the hotel.
An ideal guest need not be some erudite philosopher, says the hotel manager, but more importantly a witty rhetorician and even orator with a deep and beautiful voice or perhaps even a writer who likes to cover blank sheets of paper with linguistic signs much like how he likes to dress. I know a smattering of history and know how to drop names when necessary and how to mould my presence according to the occasion. I am, however, no phony and I think inside I am deeply emotional, and the reason I am drawn to the world of luxury and to the world of the hotel is because most often scarcely anything can go wrong in one; a hotel is perhaps one of those spaces that is always pleasant. Perhaps, someday the hotel would ask me to move in permanently. I would like to live within the walls of a grand hotel and only leave for a little while in order to return. The temperature in the hotel is ideal and who would want to witness the squalor of the streets outside all the time.
One of the waiters once remarked that it is highly likely that I was selected as an ideal guest on account of how I perceive myself. He said that I appear to be one of those kind of people who carefully selects even the colour of his underwear and dresses up elegantly in his own bedroom when no one is even there to look at him. The waiter adds that I must be very proud of myself and due to that I emanate confidence. I wonder, however, whether I only groom and nurture my surfaces, whether deep inside I am as well-dressed as I am on the outside. The truth is I don’t believe in such dichotomies. In that sense, an ideal guest is a kind of silhouette or apparition.
I have already been in talks with the new hotel manager who sports a splendid moustache and has just returned from Dubai a few weeks ago. One of the first things on his agenda, he tells me was to meet an ideal guest. He wants to shake things up in the hotel and calls me for lunch during which we both wear masks and gloves, on account of some new epidemic that we both consider a joke. He lets me know that as an ideal guest, I ought to get more involved in the hotel and that the new lounge could even serve as a kind of library that I would be responsible for, for which he says I would get handsomely paid. He says that one of the traits of a librarian is kindness which an ideal guest by virtue of being an ideal guest already possesses; he concludes our luncheon by requesting that I read stories to his child from time to time, and in that connection suggests that I move into the hotel permanently.
As an outsider to this city, without much money and a ramshackle home, I find myself suddenly living it up in a posh hotel. Although I don’t eat too much, all my food and living costs are paid for. I breathe life into the lounge, by having created a library filled with an eclectic collection of books, bean bags, hammocks, divans and Eames chairs. My close friends who visit me regularly I entertain either in the coffee shop, at Tinello’s, the Italian restaurant or sometimes even at the new Japanese restaurant adjacent to the lounge, whose name I keep on forgetting. The manager and I have become great friends. We have, in fact, converted the coffee shop into a luxury chaiwallah ki dukaan. From the ceiling, which is considerably high, hang tin tea pots and clay cups for dramatic effect.
Ageing in this hotel has been fairly easy and I have to say I have begun to understand and, at the same time, develop the role and character of an ideal guest as a sort of social type, which although may not be one of the most profound types society produces—I am clearly no saint or Buddha— it nevertheless engenders a lustre as deep as most surfaces can go. As a result, I have begun to liken the role of an ideal guest to that of a medieval courtier, at least in terms of etiquette and locution, as my whole person—and with it my dress and life— unfolds.
On occasion, I can be brusque with the hotel staff and have slowly learnt that though I may not have been born with a profound degree of grace, that with time, effort and proper learning, grace can be acquired. I have also begun to question that is it enough that an ideal guest acts as some sort of useless dandy whose main role in the hotel is to be served? I have begun to help around in the hotel in my own way, sometimes even mimicking the manner of the hotel manager, at least in how I welcome guests. I have very little financial understanding but occasionally can be spotted whispering a word of advice into the manager’s ears. Because my Mercury is strong, says my astrologer, I am a good messenger and often come in handy at the hotel to relay important and sensitive messages. In some future situation, I imagine myself as an emissary for a big politician or other.
When I first arrived in the hotel, I made it a point to demonstrate my manners so as they would serve as a kind of reminder to other guests, a sort of gestural precedence to set the tone of how people should comport themselves, how they should sit, and in what manner should they address others. This, however, I have realised, cannot only be some sort of temporary performance; for an ideal guest to be authentic, he must behave with grace even when not noticed, that not only should it serve as a lesson for others but it should be equally enriching for him. The status of an ideal guest, if one may, should be ideally viewed as an honour of some kind of heraldry of its own.
The hotel manager does not trouble himself with such minor trifles; he has real work to do. When he returns to his room on the fifth floor, he disrobes and spends the rest of the evening in his white tank top and underwear whereas I have my night suit specially tailored, one for the colder months in blue satin. I wear this night suit to sleep and seldom has anyone seen me in it. I have never even entertained a woman here, for an ideal guest ought to be chaste, resembling some sort of castrato.
The hotel manager once told me that I need to be a little careful with my joke-telling, though, that it has become a little dangerous, that though most people may appreciate my jokes—even when the joke is on them—there are some who take offense to my caustic sense of humour and begrudge me. They say that it is expected from an ideal guest to gauge other guests and hotel staff before breaking into expression of any kind, even if it entails telling jokes about oneself, for even in that case, an ideal guest should not appear to others as a buffoon, in spite of how intelligent he may be inside.
Perhaps the hotel singled me out, because to them I appeared neat, clean and sober. During the screenings, they had a renowned astrologer—incidentally the same one responsible for the future of our prime minister— look at my birth chart; only later did I discover that my third house is strong, they wanted someone who communicates well, but my fifth and seventh houses are weak. An ideal guest should ideally not fall in love and remain throughout his life a bachelor and childless. The astrologer said that wife and child will not come easy to me, which is why I would make for an ideal guest. As much as I may revel in being an ideal guest, it is getting a little claustrophobic in this hotel, of which I am some sort of star but at the same time, a servant. I fear if the management changes, I could be thrown back out onto the streets to return to a ramshackle rented apartment, where I would write about an ideal guest only from memory. Even the current management cannot help but stress the importance of my role. They remind me to always keep my mask on and recently have become even more vigilant with their code and protocol—they seem to be watching me all the time. I am close to the hotel manager, which makes some others jealous. They are probably asking themselves, what did he do to earn his place in the hotel? Such, however, is the feeble, fickle ground upon which an ideal guest stands, albeit fashionably. My status and privilege here—and for that matter anywhere—is less founded on either my achievements, rank or resume but rather on how well the hotel manager and the board of directors favour me. It would be natural to assume that as a result, my values are less fixed and protean, for my success here and for that matter anywhere in the world, rests largely on how well I manage my image for a diverse set of audiences.
Over time, however, and whilst developing my sartorial tastes and good manners, challenges that require physical strength and courage have begun to threaten not only my prospects but those of others in the hotel, as well. These ‘graces’ that I have been developing as an ideal guest hardly come in handy when faced with calamity, epidemic and war. The hotel manager’s child has now grown up into a college-going girl, and the hotel manager, himself jokingly threatens to resign any day. He tells me not to worry, though. Perhaps, he says, you won’t have to go back to the life you had before you became an ideal guest, perhaps one of the most essential aspects of being an ideal guest ought to be that he should inherit the crown of the hotel manager upon his death or resignation, to which the hotel manager adds that he would rather wait till he dies.
In all these years, I have been wearing Pathani Suits, all colours of the rainbow as more or less, a regular costume. They are made by a men’s tailor down the same very road on which the hotel is situated. I have become so comfortable in these clothes that I have forgotten what it feels like to wear jeans or trousers. The hotel staff, as a result, on account of my clothes, my aquiline face, pointed nose and light complexion associate me with being from Pakistan. I do not contest this. An ideal guest should strive to wear a mask that is real, a mask that cannot be removed at any cost. The hotel staff commend my Urdu, especially in respect to my pronunciation and diction. They do not realise that an ideal guest has no visible past, that he must cultivate an identity anew, much like refugees traversing borders. I tell them that my forebears hail from Peshawar and Jalalabad, and that my maternal grandmother was a Pathan who spoke Pashto. The truth is I learnt Urdu only much later in life, for I knew it was a language of letters and respect, a language that thrived in the courts of the Mughal empire, a language possessing a register suitable for a courtier or for an ideal guest. For a hotel situated in Gujarat, I must appear as some sort of delicious, exotic fruit. Some guests in recent years, however, are not so impressed and have even complained to the hotel manager, saying that a conspicuous appearance of Islam, in terms of dress and speech should not be some sort of ideal for an ideal guest.
I have slowly aged in this hotel and have at long last learnt all the necessary graces, especially in regard to how to be discreet and not offend anyone. The Pathani Suits lie lifeless in my wardrobe. I only wear them late at night when the coffee shop is deserted. I have even toned down some aspects of my speech, especially guttural sounds that people feel smack too much of Arabic. I watch the news in Hindi, and watch the prime minister speak, although I don’t really understand what he is saying.
It was in the spring of a late year of my life, when a devastating pandemic suddenly broke out. I was already sixty years old, though in some ways a more jovial man than I had been when I was younger. The hotel manager, two years my elder, had died recently due to side effects of a vaccination. I only discovered after his death that he was, in fact, not just the hotel manager but also the owner of the hotel. One does not age as much when still a bachelor and, in fact, apart from the grey hair—which is not altogether unfashionable—I had grown slimmer. My waistline had decreased and I had begun to really resemble an aged Adonis, but still a fixture, much like a piece of ornate furniture in the hotel.
With the onset of the pandemic, however, how was an ideal guest to behave and appear? Did they expect me to leave my room and even come down at all? What kind of ideal guest would I be, if I stayed cooped up in my room, completely quarantined? The hotel, however, took the decision that at least an ideal guest, if no one else, should socially distance, for him to serve some sort of ideal. The management initially decided to circulate photographs of me—via their social media pages and television monitors located at different spots in the hotel—enjoying the comforts of my room, making coffee in the new Nespresso machine they had recently installed. The refrigerator was complete with food and drink that had a shelf life of at least a year; soon, however, these photographs failed to inspire, as other guests began to notice that no matter what pleasant activity an ideal guest was engaged in, he was always alone.
To remedy that the hotel began to romanticise and endorse loneliness as an essential characteristic of an ideal guest, that a degree of solitude allowed for the guest to appear pensive, sunken in deep thought. And thus, slowly images and videos of me drinking coffee—after I entered my fifties I had switched from tea to coffee, possibly a sign of decline— or looking out of the window of my hotel room grew viral, much like the virus, itself. Whether I served as the epitome of what a guest should be is perhaps questionable; a guest, I have learnt over the course of the long years, is, in fact, no special being, but images of me over time have slowly came to be associated with a degree of sophistication, whereas for the most part, at least recently, I have spent my time alone in a hotel room.
When the virus finally began to show signs of disappearing, I slowly began to come down to the coffee shop but for some reason I was no longer talkative or even conspicuous. Most of the staff in the hotel had changed during that calamitous year and so the possibility of rekindling an older relationship was ruled out. My time in quarantine had silenced me, and because everyone in the hotel had been watching me indulge—whether it was eating Belgian chocolates or drinking Perrier water—in the solitude of my room, looking at all times lonely and pensive, they probably thought that in order to keep the image of an ideal guest intact, it would serve them better to leave me alone.
Gaurav Monga is a writer and teacher