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    About to retire for the night, noticed that the mattress was bare,
the bed sheet had not been laid, and the pillows had no covers. She
had, of course, said at the breakfast table this morning, “Your bed has
become an eyesore, shall send these things to the dhobi today... Can
anyone sleep upon such a dirty bed, Ram, Ram... tea stains, reek of
sweat, cigarette-ash upon the pillow...only someone like you can live
like this? The dhobi is to bring the cleaned laundry today... shall
change the bed sheet and pillow cases, or else you can sleep another
night on the bare mattress....’’

    Which implied that the dhobi had not brought in the cleaned
laundry. An Englishman’s bedroom is supposed to be his castle, for me
my bed was an isle of retreat from the daily grind- just like wealthy
European or American tycoons who live on insulated islands in far-off
seas- my sanctum sanctorum, my private habitat…

    As I sip my tea and say indifferently, “Oh, that’s alright” and thrust
the cup forward for a refill, I observe that the cup is different, not the
one I am accustomed to, “What kind of a cup have you brought out
now?” She pours the tea and says, “But, when I, along with Priti
Baideu, bought this new set from Mukul Stores, you’d said it was fine,
“Oh, its fine alright, lovely design, but isn’t it better not to use these
fancy cups and plates everyday, such is our house that they would end
up broken in a couple of days. Best to bring them out when guests are
here, you should give me my old cup, it holds just the right amount
and I also relish drinking from it ....” She cannot conceal her
displeasure when she says. “So tea doesn’t taste like tea, does it,
unless you drink it out of your thick, old, chipped -at-the -edges cup?
Seems you’ve lost your taste for the finer things of life....”

    I could not quite make out whether I would ever again see my old
teacup at the breakfast table -true it is slightly chipped at one place,
but that’s a trifling matter as long as the tea is fine ....

    “Right, do what you think is best, “I say diplomatically, getting up
from the table. “Oh, don’t forget to bring the bleaching powder today, I
keep telling you the bathroom has become so slippery, last night I
almost fell. Seems you’ll come to your senses only the day I break an
arm or leg. So under no circumstances forget to bring the bleaching
powder, I’II have to scrub the bathroom as best I can…..oh, and a Nil-
odour….the bathroom smells so foul, can’t you smell the stench, don’t
you have any nose or ear, Ram,Ram ....”

     Nil-odour? Right,” Cut short the bathroom-theme there and them.
Otherwise she might talk again of having a geyser fitted- “Nowadays
everyone has a geyser in the bathroom, just the other day Mrs. Borbora
told me about the new geyser they’d installed in their bathroom”- but
ours is such a decrepit bathroom, the floor having shed its concrete
cover, it has somehow been patched up with new cement, the shef
holding the oils and sops is in a mess, the cloth-rods are at the end of
their tether, no one seems to have the time to scrub the basin and keep
it shining, the mirror is already cobwebbed, everything is always
layered with dust, so what need is there to squander so many
thousands of rupees putting in a huge, glistening geyser-(nonetheless,
I have brought her the bleaching powder, as also a Nil-odour... in the
evening, passing by the bathroom, I sensed that the musty odour of
the past had been muted and replaced by a new, sweet fragrance).
Right, then, today I shell be content to sleep on the bare mattress- was
the mosquito net there or not? It was, mercifully; perhaps she had felt
too lazy to undo it, or perhaps had simply forgotten….

     “Are you asleep yet? You can manage this way tonight, can’t you?
When the cleaned laundry comes tomorrow, I’ll put up a fresh
mosquito net and give this to be washed.” “No, there’s no need for it ...
this one’s fine with me, both in height and width... let this one be.” “No,
it has developed a queer colour from the smoke of your cigarettes... if
I’ve told you once, I’ve done so a hundred times not to smoke in bed,
but haven’t succeeded in ridding you of this disgusting habit, it’s a
wonder the way you live....” Anyway, for at least this night I will get to
sleep inside my comfortable mosquito-net (of course, I have pinched a
clip from her clothesline to close a hole that has appeared in one part
of the net. I have not told her this; otherwise she will take it away to be

           Don’t get enough time during the day to read, even at night,
till around 10, the noise of the traffic outside continues to disturb, till
around nine, two music cassette shops compete their each other with
blasts from their loudspeakers-but now I have entered my private
island, my habitat, only now can I read undisturbed for an hour or so
... suddenly remembered that even yesterday I had discussed the
habitat-theme with my friend Safiqul Zaman - Safiq lives at the
opposite end of the city, at the foothills on the other side of the railway
lines, occasionally I spend some time in the evening with him (after
opening a bottle of Woodpecker whiskey)- we usually speak in a
subdued conversational tone, but in between the dhuk-dhuk and long,
shrill whistle of trains forces the conversation to a stop, and lately
another overhead noise, the clatter of monkeys on the tin rooftop.
People have commenced haphazard construction of buildings on the
hills behind the house, even huge mansions, uprooting rocks and
cutting away every trace of vegetating rocks and cutting away every
trace of vegetation, even bamboo and plantain-as a result the monkeys
which had lived undisturbed for so long in the hills have descended en
masse onto the foothills, entering houses and pilfering foodstuff,
wreaking havoc in households, unafraid of children or women, instead
sometimes assaulting them ...

     “You understand, bhai, “safiq says, “this is a reciprocal effect.
We’re destroying the habitat of the monkeys, the monkeys are
destroying our habitat, we’re chopping down jungles and destroying
the habitat of elephants, the elephants are creating havoc in our
villages and crops....”

   “Sure,” I say, “Newton’s third law... for every action there’s an
equal and opposite reaction.”

    “Precisely. But Newton’s third law should have stayed within
physics. But now that it has entered our households, it has landed me
in a dilemma... Zebin is determined not to stay another day at this
place. It had been enough that we be tormented night and day by these
infernal trains, but we’d put up with it. But now, on top of that is the
tension from the monkeys, every moment we’ve to be alert ... ready to
chase them away when they arrive. So, what would happen to our
other affairs - no, we can’t stay here any longer, have to go away from
this place, Zebin would on no account stay on here. But then where do
we go to, where are my resources to by land elsewhere and set up
house? And look, bhai, where can we go to, the same problems
everywhere in this city, the same lack of peace……

    I pour some more Woodpecker into the empty glasses, bite into a
pakoda (supplied by his wife Zebin) and say, “Exactly. There’s no spot
in this city fit for human habitation. Air pollution, water pollution,
over-crowding, crime, corruption - in fact, the whole planet has become
unfit for habitation today....”

     Safiq takes a worried sip at the whiskey and says, “Yes, bhai, and
today the fate of entire world lies in the hands of the mafia, the
terrorists- no one can tell at what moment some loony fundamentalist
might push the button on a nuclear missile, bang-boom, every thing’s
finished... when a madcap dictator might in panic let loose toxic
microbes, bas, everyone would be snuffed out in the absence of
breathable air and rot away, nothing but poisonous radioactivity in the
atmosphere... which means that it is an opportune moment to decamp
from the earth, if only one could...”

    Rendered silent by the fearful thought of the probable perils facing
our dwelling place, we sit mutely sipping whiskey and munching
pakodas, and then I say, “In fact, one day man might have to do just
that ...population explosion, dearth of space and food, scarcity of fuel
and other power sources, ozone-hole, global warming as a result of
which polar ice-caps would melt and submerge the planet’s landmass,
some meteor or the other might collide with the earth and smash it to
smithereens ... and what else .. so there’s no alternative to leaving this
endangered earth and colonising some planet or the other in outer
space ...”

     We finish the whiskey and discuss the subject a little more. An
international organisation named ‘Habitat-Today and tomorrow’ has
been set up, its head-quarters in Finland or Norway, there’s no telling
from where they get their huge finances, they publish book-lets, hold
seminars, have their own radio and TV channels, even a website on the
internet, analysis and discuss details about a futuristic, safe dwelling
place for mankind, conduct research, formulate schemes- the
possibility that one day man might colonise other planets and satellites
falls within their discussions.. but which planet? Perhaps Mars is the
sole planet in the solar system capable of supporting life .. which
satellite? Only or one two among the numerous satellites of the planets
in the solar system are habitable.. or perhaps absolutely outside the
solar system ...

    “Oh, Yes.” Safiq says. “I’ve read about it in the papers. They set up
their Indian chapter just the other day... would be holding a seminar
next September in Trivandrum or Lucknow....”

    “Yes, next September.”

    Switch off the bed-side lamp and go to sleep.

     For a few nights, snug within the habitat of my mosquito-net (the
one with the hole), do some reading on the subject (have managed with
difficulty to get hold of some books and magazines), mull over some
points, take time off from my daily activities to prepare an outline,
some information on the habitability of a few planets and satellites in
the solar system-distance from the sun, orbital spin, the amount of
sunlight received and temperatures attained, gravitational pull (along
with the possibility of creating artificial gravity if required), constitution
of their atmosphere (methane, ammonia, carbon-dioxide... alas , none
of them have oxygen, but perhaps it can be artificially made), the
possible existence of water, the kind of raw materials that might be
available etc. -not exactly a research paper, merely a comparative
blueprint based upon available data, supplemented by a few graphs-
think to myself, how would it be if I sent the paper to ‘Habitat-Today
and Tomorrow’ for the September seminar.. Finally one night am about
to put out the light and go to sleep and she says from the door, “Are
you asleep?” “Yes, why?” half -asleep I mumble.” Have you told the
auto?” “Oh yes, it will be coming at five tomorrow morning.” “Then go
to sleep. I’ve set the alarm for four. Will wake you up.” I mumble in
acknowledgement and go to sleep. The flight is very early in the
morning, it is quite far from here to the airlines office, no bus is
available so early, hope that the auto comes in time, the coach for the
airport leaves at five thirty, reporting time at six...change planes at
Calcutta... and then to Lucknow... my paper has been accepted at the

    ……Lucknow, old city renowned for its culture and old-world
courtesy, old palaces and historic havelis, but today at first sight the
usual traffic snarls and historic crowds and a skyline dominated by
skyscrapers --- got down from my tonga in front of the Hyatt Kanishka,
climbed the red-carpeted steps flanked by flowering shrubs in shining
pots of metal, the turbaned and uniformed sentry before the mammoth
glass entrance salammed as he held open the door... at the reception
counter I was greeted by Chindananda Sridharani, the representative
of Habitat, who ushered me into the life and then to room 218 on the
third floor- sorry, he could not keep me company for the time being
since participants were streaming in downstairs, will see me again at
the ambrosia bar after six in the evening - “Had your lunch on the
plane? Good. So now you can wash up and take some rest, this is the
switch for room service, if you want tea or coffee, it’ll be brought to
your room. Okay. So long.”

     After he and the bellboy had left, took out my paper from the
briefcase and placed it on the writing table beside the window, clicked
on the switch of the shaded reading lamp-must revise the paper again
at night then took a look around the room and felt a curious sense of
disbelief and unease steal over me - a spacious room paneled in oak,
air-conditioned, pale-white hue on the walls, doors and windows, an
electric chandelier hangs from the centre of the roof, below it a low
glass-topped coffee table, four white velvet-cushioned cane chairs,
lamps and tube lights at various points of the walls, umpteen switches,
a facsimile of a painting by Amrita Shergill and another print of some
foreign landscape, two wastepaper baskets, above two small drawers a
wardrobe with sliding panels and a mirror on the outside, at one
corner a colour TV and a house telephone (that too of a light white
colour). the furniture imitation Chippendale, a single bed at the
western corner and concealed bed lamp upon the oval table beside it,
everything neat and tidy, tiptop, not a spot of dust, not an inch of
cobweb.... how on earth could I move about freely within such an
immaculate environment, fling off my shirt or slippers any place I
pleased, or plonk myself down wherever I wished?

     Entered the attached bathroom for a wash, walled with tiles
coloured in pale green, water-taps, basin, shower, bathtub resplendent
with all kinds of fittings, could not make out whether the floor was
covered with tiles or glass marble mosaic, endowed with a sheen that
made it look slippery... trod with care, not the familiar Nil-odour of the
bathroom back at my house, but lightest of fragrance of lavender or
lilac, about to wash my face I was overwhelmed with a fearful notion
that if I were to use this Cleopatra’s bathroom something awful might
occur... the tray and napkins had the H-K monogram on them, tea
arrived in a tiny pot along with biscuits and pastry, lovely Darjeeling
Lopchu, but the moment I put my lip to cup once again I was steeped
in premonition of imminent disaster, the cup was of a delicate bone-
china something like Wedgwood porcelain unable to withstand the
crushing grip of my thick fingers might shatter the moment I replaced
it on the tray... why everything here needed to be handled with the
utmost care- anyway, was able to finish my cup of tea without mishap,
without breaking the cup-handle, then thought what to do now, have
to meet Sridharani only after six, yet another hour and-a-half to kill -
from the brochure on the table learnt that apart from the Ambrosia the
hotel had a number of other bars on various floors -the left wing of this
floor had the Mughal-e-Azam dining room (Mughlai, South Indian), the
fourth floor the Mah Jong Retreat(billiards, pingpong, bridge and
whist tables), a gym for those desiring physical exercise and a dance
floor, the sixth floor the Honey Bite cafeteria and the conference -hall
(where our seminar would be held from tomorrow), the second floor the
Arcadia restaurant (Continental, Chinese), and what else-climbed up
the stairs to the Mandakini bar on the fifth floor, wary of the slippery
places in the uncarpeted spaces... not too many people there, just a
few men and women scattered about here and there in that spacious
bar, the stereo emits the soft strains of a tune by the Rolling Stones,
three youthful bartenders are wiping glasses rows and rows of Indian
and foreign liquor bottles ... All right, spend some time here in peace.
Through the open windows the sight of a not too-distant minaret with
a fitted loudspeaker facing this, way, perhaps the strains of azaan
come into this room from time to time. A view of the landscaped
ecopark with shrubs and trees and chairs below, the blue of the
swimming pools, and in the fading sunlight the small golden ribbon of
the river Gomati in the distance....
      “Beer, sir?” “Huh? Oh, not beer, that can come latter. First bring
me a Woodpecker whiskey.” “Woodpecker, sir? But Woodpecker’s not
available here.....” Must be from Goa, this bartender, the name tag on
his chest had I. Fernandez written on it, he could not quite hide his
disappointment, I must have slipped a notch or two in his estimation.
“Not available? Why not? We’ve always been drinking Woodpecker, as
good as any that you might have there,” (gestured towards the bottles
of Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal and other Scotch Whiskeys behind
him). “Yes, sir,” said Fernandez with some hesitation, “but these are
preferred by our guests...” “Oh yes, lots of people too prefer it from
where I come from, particularly those with black money and the
nouveau riche, unless something has an imported label it has no
status, isn’t it? But we’re old-fashioned folk; we prefer old, reliable
stuff.” Fernandez’ face turned a shade darker. I asked, “You’re from
Goa, aren’t you? Don’t people in Goa say that there’s no better drink in
this earth than their good old feni?” Fernandez tried to smile, and then
said, “Alright, sir, I’ll try to have some Woodpecker brought to you, but
it’ll take a while. In the meantime, if I may suggest sir, you can try out
our this week’s special..”

    Thus advised by Fernandez I accepted a Dimitrov Daiquiri (a rum
and lime-juice cocktail) and a few canapes to munch - took a sip and
found it not too bad, pretty good, in fact, better than Johnny Walker or
Chivas Regal, smooth and mellow-and the boy Fernandez too was not
bad, felt guilty about the melancholic look I had caused to appear on
his face-no other reason for it, I had merely let off some of the heat
generated by the disquietude and unease I had been feeling since the
moment I set foot in this hotel......

    Took a peek at my watch ....had time in hand, but by then the
germ of hesitation had entered my mind, should I go and meet
Sridharani or not, if I did go no doubt there would be introductions to
other delegates, but I was not mentally prepared for making new
acquaintances and indulging in civilized chitchat, also felt a bit tired
after my long journey - and then there was my paper, I had to go over
it at night, Sridharani had said that two more papers on extra-
terrestrial habitat had come from Japan and Poland, on the 11th itself
they had faxed my paper to their technical director Gustav Johanssen,
after the three papers had been read at the seminar, Dr. Johanssen
had slotted a half-hour question and answer session- after breakfast
registration of delegates at nine, inaugural ceremony at half-past ten-at
eight -thirty in the evening an informal get-together of participants at
the Arcadia followed by dinner-so many new people to meet, engage in
cultured conversation, measure up to their level of wit and humour-
given the state of my mind, would I be able to see the evening through
? No doubt someone will raise a champagne toast, for courtesy’s sake I
shall have to drink the stuff, have tried champagne before but
somehow do not relish it, can not understand why this French bubbly
is rated so highly ......

     ....Anyway, somehow scraped through the evening, then climbed
onto the bed, switched on the bed light and picked up my paper. Faint
strains from a dance band from somewhere below. When I tugged at
the lamp to bring it closer I noticed in its light that the bed sheet was
not absolutely white, fine-embroidered patterns were visible, rose
flowers with large leaves and small thorns , could well be missed at
first glance --- I was not accustomed to sleeping upon bed sheet
patterned with roses, also, there was no mosquito net (no mosquitoes
here), in other words neither my familiar mosquito net nor the familiar
small that emanated from it --- no, am extremely tired, let me go to
sleep now, I can quickly skim over the paper early tomorrow morning
over a cup of bed tea... switched off the light and tired to fall asleep,
tossed about in bed for a long while then perhaps fell asleep into light
slumber... woke up abruptly, sensed as if my entire body was being
pricked by something, no, not mosquito bite ---- rather, the rose thorns
on the bed sheet were biting into my flesh --- no help for it --- thought,
how on earth could I spend another couple of nights in this place ?
Also, what purpose would be served by my reading a paper speculating
about possible extra-terrestrial habitats, after so many million years of
evolution mankind has for good or bad somehow learnt to survive on
this earth, so how many million years will it take for it learn to adapt
itself somewhere else ?...

    Even after evolving through 60 years of my life I have not learnt to
sleep away from my accustomed bed and adapt to this one in the Hyatt
Kanishka... a fat lot of good will be served by reading paper --- should I
fabricate a pretext tomorrow and return home?... I toss about some
more and then fall asleep, then awake once more, again feel the pricks
upon my body --- no, not rose thorns, actually mosquito bites, can
even hear the drone of mosquitoes close to my ears, somehow
mosquitoes have sneaked in, when I get up to squash one my hands
touch my very own mosquito net, somehow the clip used to close the
hole had come unstuck…the light of morning enters the room...thank
heavens, saved!

     At the breakfast table , take a delectable sip from my old teacup,
and now remember that I had about the hotel at Lucknow from an
article written by a person who had gone there to attend a seminar ---
she says, “you were right, it’s better to bring out the new cups and
plates only when the gusts are present, yesterday the charwoman
broke the handle of one of the new cups --- so I’ve given you back your
old cup --- if you like to drink from that thick, chipped-at-the-edges
cup, so be it, let your soul rest in peace --- but you’ve really lost your
taste for the finer things of life, Ram, Ram...”

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