by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Alienation has an aesthetic. While it reeks of coldness, sharp edges, and an inch-thick coating preventing any form of attachment, it nevertheless also produces the joy of detachment, and irresponsible freedom. While we all know the dangers of too much alienation, a dose every now and then is a welcome elixir to help stave this world that presses down so hard.
Every now and then, in search of an easily available alienation, I find myself craving the luxuries of a hotel room. I imagine the details of the transaction — the presentation of a credit card, the perfunctory smiles, the reading of rules and regulations, the due verification of self as self — in return for the insides of a cavern with an attached bathroom. I imagine that someone else will have taken charge of providing for me the pleasures of a gigantic bed, white sheets, and a spotless bathroom. I do not, and will not ever own white sheets, or white pillowcases, or turn up the air conditioning so high, that I need the services of a white duvet. But countless movie tableaux have impressed upon me the vision I will make, wrapped up in all of the above. I imagine the softness of the bathrobe that every hotel cautions the guest against stealing. I speculate at the brands of mini shampoo, conditioner, and moisturizer that this hotel will stock. I think of the hours I will lie in bed, watching television, protected from the world, safe in the knowledge of room service. I dream of towel warmers.
In my love for hotel rooms, I find myself beholden to the seductive beauties of capitalism, even as I know so very well, how soon these attractions wane. The first hotel room that I remember inhabiting was at my first job, when I was housed, courtesy client money, at a tastefully decorated, swanky five-star enterprise, with mirrors on all walls, and a shiny bathtub. I was sure that all my life had been building up to that moment. I remember walking around testing light switches, taps, and soap dispensers, wondering if they would do what they promised to do. My remembrance of the light in that room is resplendent to this day. Everything appeared softer, richer, and more meaningful. Even my reflection.
Since then, I have lived in countless hotel rooms, of all denominations, and never recovered that one joyous moment. The law of diminishing marginal utility governs all things in my life.
Virginia Woolf writes that a woman needs an independent income, and a room of her own, in order to write. Moving through the compulsions of daily life, I can understand why. From morning to night, there are nightly fears to quell, people to encounter, coffee to be made, body to be fed, furniture to be cleaned, and work to be done. Faltering in even one of these tasks has serious consequences that accrete over time to suddenly manifest in a world gone out of control. At times like these, I crave what in modern parlance has come to be called a “staycation”, the possibility of leaving and denying home, while staying right where we are. Checking out of my life might merely require checking into a hotel. Even as it seems like unbelievable luxury, I consider allowing myself one, for daily life it seems will take away any potential for writerly genius that I may possess. I will erode as I cut, clean, cook, dust, walk, and scurry. I become teary eyed at the thought of someone providing me food, and all hyperventilation ceases in hopes of the perfect picture window in front of which I will perch my writing table, and produce the most beautiful thoughts on paper. But then, I never do. For I suspect, deep in my throbbing veins, that if not for daily life, even my hopes would flounder. When faced with a clear day as far as the eye can see, I will know that which I do not want to find out.
Sometimes, especially when in a city for a longer period of time, I form attachments to my hotel room, to the street the hotel lies on, and the neighborhood coffee shop. But more often than not, three days and some into my stay, I feel like leaving. The room loses its sheen, and the coffee its kick.
As I grow older, and note with increasing melancholia, the fate of the overworked, and underpaid people who are corralled in order to provide me that beautifully tucked in bed sheet, and that towel folded just right, my loyalties seem to have shifted from hotel rooms to Bed & Breakfast establishments, where I cook their owners meals, and temporarily share kinship. In Brussels, the lovely lady who owned the high ceiling-ed house with the beautiful kitchen where I slept so soundly, invited herself to dinner and partook of the lightly spiced mishmash that I conjured up with European root vegetables. The owner of the garage apartment in London assured me that she loved my professional discipline (anthropology), since everyone in her family was “into orangutans”. In Puerto Rico, our bed and breakfast was a hostel, where all manner of surfers, tourists, and backpackers gathered over communal meals and substances. In these places, the crockery was mismatched, the utensils chipped, the books eclectic, and the couches most comfortable. Almost as comfortable as home.
Home has however, always, been a peculiar entity. I have never been one to crave much ownership. For years, I lived in graduate student penury on borrowed furniture and second-hand goods. The worth of a good piece was measured as much by its re-sale value as by its aesthetic merits. My rooms were crowded with motley things that spoke to each other of other rooms and other lives that they may have been torn from, only to be brought together in cacophonous harmony to bring some order and adulthood to my days and nights. I nearly always rued collecting even these paltry goods, when I had to dismantle house and leave. For leave I always did. With wheels on my feet, one town to another, one house to another, between countries, people, and possibilities. And at every place, I was able to borrow a room, a home, and find friends. Temporarily, I owned things that were always already fated to never be mine. And this I loved.
Now, I have a home. Temporarily. In this home lie carefully curated vintage, teak wood and rose wood, heavy Indian furniture pieces — a desk, a bed, a chest of drawers, a planter's chair — objects of worth, and some manner of aesthetic. I go away frequently, and as I return, I can feel the delicious anticipation of re-entering this space. I find myself cocooned from the world, and perhaps, even capable of writing a page or two. And yet, I remember distinctly, as I moved into this home, the one moment when I looked around at all of these things piled in, asymmetrical and askew, and felt all at once the burden of having things in the world. For a moment, vertiginous, I lamented the loss of all that I knew to be good and true — lightness, quick feet, and small baggage. And then I looked around again, and took in this room all of my own, and breathed deep.