The High Floors
Raj had no bank account or savings, so when he brought home two hundred rupees worth of detergent, his wife Meena scolded him for being impetuous. Every so often Raj was given work at a local store and whilst stocking shelves it was just happenstance that he noticed a flyer, with a picture of a familiar looking hotel on it.
Buy two large tubs of Shah Detergent and enter the competition to win a one-night stay at the luxurious Opal Hotel in Mumbai.
Raj explained to Meena that he had seen the Opal Hotel once before, when delivering a package to his cousin. Hunched over in a crowded bus, he managed to catch a glimpse out of the window as it sped past the hotel. The sheer size of the silver building had made an impression on him. Meena clicked her tongue impassively, ‘You’ll forget about the idea of a hotel when you have to eat turnips for the whole week.’
When the competition ended, the secretary at the Shah Detergent offices had trouble getting through to the winner on the phone number provided, so instead they sent an email. Raj didn’t own a personal laptop or computer, so the email was never read. A week later Raj’s mobile phone rang, the out of date melody singing out. Fragments of the conversation made it through bad reception. We tried calling for some time. You entered a competition. Yes, the Opal Hotel. Once the call had ended Raj’s crinkly eyes grew significantly larger, however at that moment there was no one else at home to see.
Had Meena been at home, Raj would have jumped off the mattress on the floor and taken the few steps across to where she often sat cooking. He’d have held her supple round cheeks in his hands and informed her that they would be staying at Opal Hotel on the weekend. Instead Raj opened the contact list on his mobile and scrolled to Meena’s name. Meena was in her family home in the village of Jahwar. Only days earlier, upon hearing her mother had taken ill, she had packed a small bag and boarded the train in stifling heat, her long plait slicked against her slight dark neck. As she answered the phone, Raj eyed the two vats of detergent that sat in the corner with a newfound appreciation.
In the evenings that followed, Raj and Meena spent time messaging each other, eagerly discussing their upcoming stay at Opal Hotel. Meena had decided that she would remain with her mother for the rest of the week and then join Raj at the hotel on the weekend. When Saturday arrived, Raj pulled out his only suit from a small cupboard. Slightly wilted, the light grey suit had only been worn twice before, first at his brother’s wedding, and then again at his own. Pulling the pants up, Raj felt the button press against his stomach and revelled in the thought that his perpetually thin body may have acquired some girth.
Raj raised his hands to the light streaming in from the small window in the flat. His nails had grown a little longer than he would have liked, but he was relieved to see that they were clean enough. Next, he inspected the soles of his feet. There was a low probability that anyone at the hotel would see them, but he felt comfort in knowing that if someone did, they wouldn’t be put off by blackened soles that were the result of broken sandals, only recently replaced. Placing a small comb in the pocket of his suit jacket, Raj slid on his new pair of sandals and left.
The stay at the hotel was free, however Raj decided that it would be necessary to incur some small expenses. Worried about the impression it would give if he arrived in a rikshaw, he decided to catch the bus until he was close to the hotel, and then take a taxi. The taxi driver asked Raj why he wouldn’t simply walk to the hotel given its proximity, and Raj waved a small bank note in his face, asking him if he was foolish enough to turn down easy money.
When Raj arrived at Opal Hotel, automatic doors opened revealing a gargantuan lobby. There were high ceilings, giant white vases and a circular floral arrangement placed in the centre of a marble table.
‘Can I help you there?’ a young hotel attendant appeared harassed.
Raj carefully pulled his mobile phone out from inside his pocket and found the message that had been sent from the Shah Detergent office.
The attendant read the message, raising one of his thick eyebrows, ‘I’ll just have to make a call to check. Your name sir?’
‘Raj Yeshudas.’ Raj smiled, he had wanted to say, I am sir.
At a marble counter, a lady with circular reading glasses and a tight bun explained to Raj that the one-night stay included a free dinner at the buffet on level two. Raj’s room would be on one of the high floors, more specifically, the twenty-fourth floor- where the views were said to be spectacular. Raj’s eyes widened automatically, purely from the thought of such a view.
‘My wife, Meena, she will be coming to join later.’
The lady smiled and nodded as a man standing behind her snorted, ‘Make sure it’s his wife,’ he lowered his voice ‘and not some randi he picks up.’
Handing Raj a small white card, the lady mechanically reached for a Mumbai city map. Stopping short, she returned it back to the pile, hesitating to offer a map to someone who looked as though they knew the streets well.
Once in the elevator, there was a strange dull feeling in Raj’s ears, and he was amazed at how fast he had reached the twenty-fourth floor. Outside his room, Raj patted the pockets of his dress pants, tut tutting his tongue, realising he had forgotten to get a key to open the door. On further inspection, Raj noticed that there was no hole to place a key into, only a small black square under the door handle. Attempting to turn the handle, the door still would not open, and Raj suddenly noticed a child with large headphones and skin-tight pants giving him an odd look. Tapping a white card against the door, the child walked in disappearing from view. The white card! Raj sank his shoulders in relief, he had been given one of those too.
In the large hotel room, floor to ceiling glass windows offered a remarkable view of the hotel gardens and surrounding streets. From such a height Raj was able to see a flurry of activity below. Balloon sellers, food sellers, traffic, all weaving together in innocuous patterns. He stood for some time, savouring this angle that he wasn’t accustomed to, having never been in a room within a building so tall.
In Jahwar, Meena sat by her mother, gently massaging her shrinking feet. Every so often her mother let out a soft groan, and Meena would help her change positions on the bed, beads of perspiration lining her upper lip. After hearing about the hotel stay, Meena’s cousins had arrived to see her off. They handed her a small plastic bag containing a bright blue scarf.
‘I’ll send you all photos.’ Meena promised.
At Opal Hotel, Raj stepped cautiously around the room at first, inspecting everything. There was a small fridge filled with beer and soft drinks and a note that said ‘complimentary beverages’. Unsure as to how much the hotel would charge for the drinks, he decided to wait until the free buffet dinner. There was a bed that was larger than necessary, and a wide flat television on the wall opposite. Raj thought about how excited Meena would be to have their own personal cinema.
Raj entered the bathroom. There were mirrors placed on the walls and on the ceiling above him. Raj craned his neck, observing himself from different angles. The bright light illuminated his black curly hair and made the circles under his eyes appear more pronounced. His nose, a feature he was always proud of for being broad and strong, looked skewed in the reflections. He wondered why people would want to see themselves in so many ways when they washed and decided that he would ask Meena what she thought.
Hurriedly undressing and entering the shower, Raj almost slipped in the tub as the water shot out at an alarming rate. Slowly reaching out, Raj placed his hand under the spray, the stream like bullets against his skin. He thought about his usual daily washes, that were more soap than water.
After showering Raj decided to rest. Flicking through television channels he found an old Bollywood movie and nestled in to the bed, eventually succumbing to pillows that felt like they were filled with excessive softness. Raj only woke once the movie was nearing its end. The pillow slip had become damp, a small string of viscous saliva still streaming from his lips. Wiping his mouth, he worried momentarily that he may have stained the fresh pillow before Meena arrived, and then realised that there were five others splayed across the bed. Six pillows for two people, he mused, wondering if Meena’s bag would be big enough to conceal a folded pillow that could be taken home and used for a comfortable lifetime.
Later, as Raj began to doze off once more, he was startled by the sound of his mobile phone. The call was from Meena’s home in Jahwar. He heard the wails before he could make out any words and Raj was informed that Meena was unreachable, so he was to deliver the news of her mother’s passing as soon as she arrived at the hotel.
When the doorbell finally rang it seemed shrill and violent, and it took Raj a moment to realise what the sound was. Opening the door, he was faced with Meena who burst into a fit of light giggles. Raj remembered the fluffy white robe and slippers he was wearing, which must have looked like a costume on him. A bright blue scarf was draped over her tan coloured kameez and she had painted her lips red- the same way she had done on their wedding day. Raj pictured taking her to the buffet dinner later that evening and placing every dish he could find in front of her. He imaged feeding her Gulab Jamuns by hand.
‘What have you been doing then?’ Meena smiled as she entered the room.
Raj felt an unmistakeable lump of words caught in his throat as he took Meena’s hand. He led her to the window, so she could see the people below, scattered like miniature ornaments, purely for decoration. To see just for a moment, how small everything seemed.