It was Rufus - my traveling companions - last full day an India. We were both under budget for the proceeding three weeks: averaging about $7.00 per day as opposed to a budgeted $10.00. In honor of leaving India, and in honor of our inherent cheapness, we decided to have a so-called five-star day.
For lunch, instead of my usual samosa from a street vendor or packaged granola bar purchased back in the States and transported halfway around the world, we decided to go out to eat. Not a restaurant with the kitchen in the back of a van, or in a tent off an alley way or even in a open-front kiosk. No, we were going to eat in the finest restaurant in Amritsar: the Crystal Room.
We arrived in style: we hired a diesel-propelled auto-rickshaw to take us there; no bicycle-powered carts for us. We even went through a real door to get into the restaurant. We entered a tastefully decorated lobby where we checked our bags with a uniformed security guard. A tall, graceful Indian gentleman promptly showed us to our table. The inside of the restaurant was clean and well lit. Clearly this place did not need to use ‘atmosphere’ to hide the peeling paint, mysterious - and probably unhygienic stains on the floors and ceilings, and vermin scurrying around the floor.
A waiter came up to our table and poured us each a class of clear water. Out of habit I held it up to the light for further examination. The water was not yellow, brown, green, light tan or any other old-M&M color of Indian water. I could not see things floating in it: no dirt, no algae, no mosquito larvae, nothing that would burst out of my chest in several weeks time. The water also passed the smell test - it did not smell like something from a junior high school urinal. This was water that could be safe enough to drink. Nonetheless, we ordered a bottle of factory-sealed mineral water. New habits die-hard.
We opened the menu and were momentarily shocked by the prices. 150 Rupees for an entre; another 40 Rupees for a side of rice or nan! It was our five-star day so we glumly ordered our meals. I had fish curry with a side of nan; Rufus mutton with a side of rice. We opted to split a bottle of mineral water.
While we were waiting for our food, we noticed a steady stream of unescorted women entering the restaurant. Their attire - elegant, silk saris; perfectly coifed hair; designer hand bags; tiny, state-of-the-art cell phones - screamed that these were the wives of Armistrar’s commercial and political elite. By the time our food arrived, there were about twenty to thirty women in the back of the restaurant. They chatted easily - probably about the difficulty of finding decent help; the latest fundraiser for the Punjab Ballet Company; and the best place in town to get a manicure. It was well-to-do women having lunch and being social. Or so we thought. Gradually the tone of the conversation changed - the women became quiet. They all concentrated on something in front of them. Perhaps somebody circulated the latest prospectus of a promising mutual fund or the Spring 2003 schedule for the Amritsar Shakespeare Company.
“I – 22”
“N – 39”
“B – 9”
They were playing Bingo!
We got our bill - by far our most expensive in India: 420 Rupees. That came to about $8.60. We paid by credit card. After all, who walks around India with a 1000 Rupees in cash?
We still had several hours to kill before our train to Delhi. It was a sunny and pleasant afternoon so we decided to head to one of the nicer hotels in town to have a swim and some cocktails. At the Mohan Hotel the manager profusely apologized for the condition of the pool. It was, after all, the off-season. Come December the pool would be in better shape. That was not a problem. We just wanted to sit in the sun, have a drink or two, and take a dip to cool off.
Well, we would have been better off swimming in the water served by the Crystal Room. The first thing we saw when we came to the pool area was a group of stray cats drinking from the pool. The cats scattered as soon as we drew near. I think the cats were doing more than just drinking from the pool. The water was an inky-green color. Even from fifteen feet away, we could see black stains floating on the surface of the water. The bottom of the pool was littered with shards of broken pottery.
At least the hotel still had a bar. We retired there to play some cards and wait for our train. In between hands, we watched a hotel employee engaged in a typical Indian make-work project. The perimeter of the patio was lined with plants in red planters. This person walked around the patio, picking up the planters, and painting them red. The additional coat of paint did not seem to make a difference to the planters. The paint was dull and faded before being painted, and dull and faded after being painted. The employee obviously knew his job was pointless. In the two hours we watched him work, he only painted six or seven planters.
We spent most of the time speculating about our train accommodations. We decided to travel 2-Tier AC: the second highest of India’s ten potential classes of train travel. The cost was eight times what we would otherwise have paid in Sleeper Class. Cabins. We would definitely have cabins - like on European or American sleeper trains. I had it on good information that our cabin would have a writing table and there would be a shower in the car. There must be a porter for each car or several cars: somebody who would bring you tea, coffee, turns down your bed at night. There must also be some type of club car - a place to go and have a cocktail and a snack before bed. As if we needed more cocktails and snacks at this point. We also speculated that there might be a military guard at the car to keep the ‘riff raff’ out of the cabin. Perhaps we would share a cabin with our friend the Maharaja or some member of the Indian Parliament.
Having closed our tab, we took an auto-rickshaw to the train station. We located our car, conveniently next to the sign saying “Upper Classes This Way.” We entered our much-anticipated 2-Tier AC cabin. “We paid 1000 Rupees for this?!” was Rufus’ remark when he saw our rather Spartan quarters. No private porter; no club car; no catered food. Not only that, there was no private cabin; no writing table; no shower at each end of the car. We had an open ‘nook’ in a car with four beds. As near as we could figure the only difference between 2-Tier AC and coach was that car was cleaned semi-regularly and the beds had an extra millimeter or two of padding. The second highest class of train in India was similar to second-class trains in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. It was much worse than second-class trains in Europe and Russia.
We still had not reconciled ourselves with this swindle when three men in army fatigues entered our nook and began to place a series of boxes, suitcases, and packages under the beds. This was the final insult. We could have to share the cabin with three other people - not two other people as we expected. A Sikh couple followed the soldiers into our nook. The husband looked around and nodded in approval. To our relief, the soldiers left the nook.
This gentleman would not look out of place on the golf courses of Hilton Head, Augusta, or Pebble Beach. He sported bright green ‘go to hell’ pants with a yellow knit shirt; his shoes were comfortable loafers over a pair of red socks. Only the turban and full beard revealed that he was not a full-blooded WASP. In fact, something about his mannerisms reminded me of the Thurston Howell, III - the Millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. He had the jaunty, out-thrust jaw, a pronounced swagger in his walk, and a laugh that part grunt of approval and part asthma attack.
We started to talk to the couple. He was a retired Brigadier in the Indian Army and she was a housewife. They had two children: the daughter was an investment banker with the Dutch-bank and the son was in computers and was applying to Harvard, Stanford, Stern, and Tuck for his MBA. The mother lamented that neither child was married. She discussed how children these days are too busy with careers and work to have a family. It must be an empty life, not having children. If people stop having children, then what will happen to the country? I am trying to think where I have heard those sentiments before?
The topic of conversation turned to day-to-day affairs. “Do you like playing bingo?” I asked.
“Oh yes. We play all the time,” responded the wife. They used to play it all the time at the Officer’s Club. “Bingo is very popular.”
I had trouble juxtaposing the ‘American’ image of Bingo players - senior citizens in Palm Beach Florida marking cards they way they vote for President or the obese, Elvis-T-shirt-clad denizens of the nether world of Flyover Country - with the well-dressed women in the Crystal Room and Thurston and Lovey Howell in my 2-Tier AC train cabin.