Paying as a Paying Guest

The phrase ‘paying guest’ always confused me. I always wondered how someone can be a guest if they pay for their stay. But sooner than expected I was catapulted into the life of a paying guest and soon found out that in some strange cases like mine, you do pay – and more than just the rent – if you’re a paying guest (PG). As you might have guessed by now, I’m paying for checking into the first PGA (Paying Guest Accommodation) that was unravelled to me by a matron who filled in the room with dreams of a home away from home bestowed with her motherly presence; and this at a time when my own relationship with my mother was going through a deep trough. So the matron swoons to fill in the trough with hopes of flowing homeliness. And I finally cut away from the umbilical cord and ceremoniously stepped into my new ‘home’.

Oh mother! It erupted that my new ‘mother’ came with a brand new family…with a member too many if graded against my biological family. The new younger ‘brother’ (who was to stand in for the real one during my stay) had still not outgrown one digit age and that made him an obvious exception to the ‘no men allowed’ zone in the girls’ PGA.

Thus began life as a paying guest. The grooves and curves of the place did churn and burp a little before settling into the grooves of my grey matter. The six-seater room filled with strangers slowly flipped around to one filled with bonhomie and banter. They say search enough and you will find your alter ego. Here it felt like six parallel universes sleeping in a dorm format – each with her own mountains to conquer and seas to sail through (not devoid of storms). Some of the universes seemed to be strongly sucked into the magnetic attraction of the black holes (alias girls) in the other rooms. The point of difference – not even light escapes the grip of a black hole but when the universes and black holes in question got together; light (and sound) seeped through the crevices the door couldn’t foster with the floor. Some of these universes seem to follow the laws of repulsion (must have something to do with the strong attraction of the black holes).

The railings off the terrace doubled up as a suicide trapeze, whose rusty rickets couldn’t bear the weight of heavy sodden hearts plunged into the long indebted depression which young love promises to bring. Oh! That terrace! Strategically placed higher up than most buildings yet finding more than matches around. Lean against the edge of the balustrade and you find your hair ruffled by wooden fingers painted green. Had it not been the sanctuary of the terrace (with help from the building my PGA shared a common wall with, which screened off any glimmer of moonlight daring to shimmer down my raven tresses), I wouldn’t have heard JT crooning into my electronic ears without an indigenous girly giggly soundtrack of PGA mates in the background. The veil of darkness prevailed night after night, veiling my probing gaze at the boys’ hostel (herding around my PGA like apostles), like a false mirror I found myself on the right side of!

At home I used to squeeze out my mother’s patience demanding a squeezed lime, its juices swimming along with a hint of salt and spoonfuls of sugar in clear water. Here, just the opening of a tap was enough to ease out mineral water. The nature of those minerals was a concern swimming around in the periphery of my mind, much like powdered sodium wading about to settle in spirally down at the bottom of the glass. So much so that my toothpaste suddenly seemed to deliver the promise of all the minerals it claimed to pack once enriched in the water.

The early morning struggle to juggle a boiling kettle of milk with a steaming iron puffing menacingly into the torso of a tussar silk blouse and the half-hopeful attempt to smuggle oneself into the washroom coveted by 9 girls could make a time manager out of anyone.

I have more than once barked down at the pitfalls of life. I wonder then, why my greatest fear, sure to make my blood freeze and then shiver in my veins, is the genuine bark of a canine. Just when I was relieved to have made it back to Delhi soil without a bitten bottom courtesy my uncle’s pet German Shepherd herding the vulnerable invisible sheep responsible for my little nephew’s sleep (needless to mention my vacation went to the dogs), vampire fang-ish teeth bared in my honour. Introducing the new addition to the family (that makes it two members too many now)! Had it not been for the restraining ropes tied to the leg of the cooler stand rusting in the verandah, the fangs would have got their fill off my legs.

One of the reasons I chose this particular PGA room over others was its location – it had close proximity with air, unlike the other dingy ones where tube lights assumed the role of sunlight. But the boon darkened into bane during summer noons. The hot sun sent streams of scorch piercing into the rooms – along with the strong de-habilitating smell of mustard oil lashing out at the rim of the ‘kadhai’ in the kitchen, just another room apart. It made my senses want to go on a vacation long before my better sense.

With the dog chained away eternally in the lobby my room that spilled out to, my option of stepping on the road narrowed down to taking the route en route three other rooms. I bet, more than once I have heard loud banged doors scream out the disapproval of the girls. Actually, even as the temperature toned down from the upper to the ground floors of the building, the tempers of the people seemed to work the other way round. Once the bathroom geyser on my floor decided to take a break from its duties. The December chill threatened to condense around the salt grains in the water like crystals. And lo…I find a roomy of mine waltzing into the room the morning after Yule as if she were a prong vibrating at its 256 limit. The reason – the snap of a sharp tongue downstairs about using the geyser-backed bathroom there forced her to plunge herself into the classical music inducing shower on our floor.

“Not fair…part of the rent goes towards hot water and I don’t remember any rules regarding bathroom use,” said I.

“Whatever. I’m not going down there again. It’s a matter of self-esteem,” came the agitated reply.
“Oh! Self-esteem! All I care about right now is a self-steamed water bath,” quipped I.

When it really hit the roof was when a dozen eggs were splashed on my ceiling marking the unholy distortion of Holi. Over time the heat sucked out the moisture from those puddle-like splashes and one look at the ceiling brought to my mind ’scrambled eggs’, which suspiciously upset my appetite for anything close to edible.

Now one thing I was thankful for was the provision of homemade food. But soon realization dawned that it was a homemade fraud. Ahh…at the end of a long workday when the taste buds are eager for a delightful spread of something homemade, here come dal, rajma, chawal and roti. After a few spoons of the dal, I found myself asking if this soupy substance was meant as an appetizer. And what’s this! Roomali roti! But oh no! This was an anorexic avatar of our very own tawa roti. Had it been any crisper, it could have served as excellent bread with the dal doubling up as soup. A few weeks of this and my palette nudged me to switch to richer dals and thus in came the electric kettle. The first several attempts at it saw me staring at the bottom of the kettle which had etched out my grade in culinary skills – a charred, blackened dal-lined ‘O’ design! But soon enough I was churning out soups, dals and light veggie delights of the instant kind everyday four times a week. That was until auntie’s (alias ‘mother’) BP shot up picturing shots of a shot up electricity bill.

Hmm…in a room yielding eighteen crisp grand a month with the sockets never plugging in a water cooler in 35°C, even a mass electronic kitchen by all six members wouldn’t suffice to burn a hole in the pocket.
So I’ve mentioned a dog. Did I mention catfights? It took me a while to get that in here, not going steady leaves you vulnerable to be perceived as having other “preferences”. And going steady…um…makes you prone to be featured in hushed “references”. But this would need an entire chapter dedication and I think…would be liable to censure to save the reader from a seizure.

This was a humorous, in no way exaggerated account of half a year of my life in a PGA. I believe I have peeled the radiant facade off the orange (the colour of the outer walls of the house led us girls to use this euphemism) and bitten into a few pips in the process. But I definitely fell enriched when back home my people put a finger at my newfound maturity to be resolved peacefully in a PG. It is no less than an initiation into adult life, with softer versions of the actual adversities. Do not let the funny parts mislead into thinking that the fun times were far and few between. But then I, like all teenagers, like to highlight the negatives than the positives.

Shruthi Venukumar

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