Hotel Surya Kaiser Palace, the board announced the name as our destination came in sight after the bus turned into a side road. From the road, the hotel looked rather disappointing for we had seen some great pictures of the hotel on the internet and Avinash, our batchmate who had been doing all the local arrangements along with Teju, had assured us it was a good destination – a heritage property. The bus bumped along the narrow sideroad leading to the hotel and entered the hotel premises through a large iron gate. The driveway was spacious and looked onto a well-manicured lawn in the middle of the property. The lawn was flanked by buildings on three sides with the driveway and the entry-exit gates making up the fourth side. As we got down the bus and stretched our legs, a couple of liveried porters rushed to our help and started unloading the luggage from the Traveler.
‘Rajaji was not wrong’, I thought, using Avinash’s nickname out of habit, ‘The place is good.’
Appu and me both stood in the open quadrangle and looked around, while the children ran around the bus more out of boredom than for fun. Vaishali and Swati also walked up to us and stood looking at the hotel. Two sides of the quadrangle we taken up by a multistoried building which, we guessed, must be where the guest rooms must be. On one side of the open space was an old bungalow style building which had the signs of ‘Restaurant’ and ‘Banquet’ written outside it. In between these buildings was an open space with a beautiful lawn and a bar/lounge on one side of the lawn.
As soon as we saw the bar, Appu and I looked at each other, our eyes shining.
‘Let’s meet at the bar once our rooms are settled’, Appu said. I nodded. Vaishali and Swati looked at each other and suppressed their smiles.
The reception of the hotel was warm and the staff courteous. We checked in quickly and followed the porters to our rooms.
After everyone was settled down in the room, and Vaishali and the kids decided to take a nap, I went to Appu’s room to collect him and we went downstairs for a quick beer.
‘Ah’, I said as I settled down in a chair in the bar, exhaling and stretching my legs. Appu smiled.
‘What a journey it has been. I wasn’t so sure we would have so much fun when I booked the Traveler,’ he admitted.
We sat there, sipping the beer, taking deep breaths, trying to breathe in Varanasi. The bar was jazzily decorated, and we could see young men and women walk in – together – and ask for a drink. This was impossible in our times. Banaras HAD changed! Not for the worse, we hoped.
‘Sutanu should be arriving shortly’, Appu said absentmindedly.
‘Yes,’ I repeated. Sutanu! He was another one who was there, when things went downhill, as they sometimes will. He had been through thick and thin with us. He was probably closer to Appu than to me, but that was my mistake. It was difficult for anyone to get close to me. The regular rules of friendship did not apply when it came to being friends with me. Few understood this, and thus, few could say that they were ‘close’ to me.
The music was loud, it brought me back to my senses. I had been drifting off lately, my thoughts going off in a tangent. Maybe it was the reentry of Banaras in our lives that was responsible for it. There was so much of ‘us’ left back there, that my mind involuntarily kept going back to it.
We were nearly halfway through our beers when Shyam Kishore Mishra joined us. Shyam was a neurosurgeon and was settled in Kolkata, though he was a native of Banaras. He always stood apart from the rest of us because of the distinctive quality of his voice. His voice, ever since I knew him, was hoarse, raspy and difficult to understand in one go. But that did not deter him from talking. Oh, he was one talkative chap. And he had stories about everyone. He knew how people were related, who went where, did what, met who, and then what happened etc etc. Some people’s cerebrums are hardwired that way – not mine unfortunately. And to be honest, I found such talks a little drab.
But today, nothing seemed boring, even Shyam’s rasp was exciting.
Our beers over, we headed back to our rooms – we had to get ready for the dinner. Rajaji had arranged dinner for all of us in an adjacent banquet hall. We would be few families only, but it would be fun, meeting after so many years. I, Appu and Shyam were already here; Sutanu would be here soon and later we were also expecting Sridhar.
Sutanu arrived after a few hours. We met him in the lobby and helped him get settled in the room. We were not meeting Sutanu after a long time; we had been in touch frequently. He had been to Lucknow a couple of times, with Sudipa and the kids, and we had been to Kolkata too. No, never together – me and Appu – but separately both of us had been to Kolkata and had enjoyed his hospitality along with our families. So Sudipa, Swati and Vaishali knew each other quite well, as did the kids. No surprises there, except the sheer exhilaration of meeting again in Banaras. There was no time for another beer, so we all got dressed up and headed for the dinner venue.
The whole group walked out of the hotel gates and turned the corner to reach the dinner venue which was hardly hundred meters from the Hotel Surya.
The entrance had been decked up suitably – Rajaji had done a great job. There were flowers and balloons and signages and stuff. Inside, the hall was spacious and well decorated and yes, there was a drinks stall!!!
As the evening wore on, and the drinks finally hit us, our talks became louder and more raucous. Rajaji joined us shortly along with his lovely wife Shweta. They were our hosts – we felt so proud! Rajaji had done an excellent arrangement. As I hugged Avinash, I went back twenty-five years in time. Avinash had always been portly and soft and cuddly. And yes, he had hands which were always moist, and soft – a physician’s hands. This may have been part of the reason why he was doing so well in Banaras – the main reason, however, was hard work, it always was. Behind every successful man were innumerable nights of hard work which were not visible to people who praised or envied their rise and their prosperity. Rajaji deserved every bit of what he had today, he had not been handed this on a platter. He had worked for it, worked hard and he had been generous with his friends. Not holding anything back, always going the extra mile. And that, exactly, was the reason why people had named him ‘Rajaji’ in MBBS. He always thought ‘BIG’.
To be continued………………………………….
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