The Grand Hotel.
(photo by A.Fisher)
Before I moved to the diplomatic enclave, I lived in one of Asia’s grand hotels, a Raffles for the Subcontinent, a once-glamorous old thing that had been gutted by a multi-national and outfitted with “hospital grade” redundant air-conditioning and “hardened against bomb-blasts.” Expansions had been undertaken; they pried its dome open and fattened its backside; but the original façade remained intact, a toothsome grill of reassuring colonnades and gentle spires. Luyten’s Delhi, reinterpreted by an Indian in the 1950s. From far off, the detail blurred, and the Hotel looked like an egg; but not an edible egg, one streaked with afterbirth slime and beginning to go bad.
Nestled in the city’s south were other grand hotels, a cluster of them, flaming beacons on Delhi’s drab night sky; each an enclosed city, a Vatican, with its own water supply and telecommunications and police force and food supplies trucked in. Life within the hotels took place elsewhere, away from the seething sunlight and hordes of sickening poor. If the capital at night were untethered from the earth then these incandescent orbs were space stations. If the capital at night were a cavern then these few chips of light were gemstones; a long finger of semi-precious aggregate ending in blazing jewel.
Eelco and the Aggregate.
Eelco was a Dutch diplomat’s son who would grow to manage oil refineries all over the world. Then he was a thuggish blond child. Shorter than I. For thrift’s sake neither of us wanted to spring for a cab. So I followed him up a bridge toward South Delhi. From the ground this seemed benign, a mild ascent over the Yamuna, a line of Y shaped pylons splitting the stream of traffic in two. We walked on the island beneath the lamps. From one orange dumbbell of light to the next. The walk was comfortable at first, moist river air condensing on our cheeks, the traffic howling past a few meters away, but then the pavement petered out, until there was nothing left of the island, just bare asphalt littered with tire scraps, and we scurried from pole to pole, trucks rushing past, roiling the air in their wake. At the apex, Eelco grabbed my cuff. He pointed at the city. Clean nuggets of halogen burned above naps of dingy orange arc-sodium, incandescent veins that sliced through the dark vegetal substrate of the enclaves. He was pointing at Hotels. From where we stood the hotels were aligned, a rhinestone garter that wound through the city.
The bridge dipped we as entered the sector, the traffic forming two long sine-waves, one red, one white. The hotels vanished beneath billboard armatures and matrices of crisscrossing tree limbs. The fecal fug of the riverbanks welled up; the city smoke became increasingly acrid the further we walked in. Gradually the pedestrian route cleaved away from the bridge. Our pathway bent from the road into empty space; and the traffic rushed elsewhere. Suspended, with no support visible, the walkway wobbled beneath our soles. The sky was suddenly filled with sparks that curled around us and soared up into the sky on thermals. My eyes teared; woodsmoke, kerosene, burning plastics filled the air; it became harder to breathe. Pits of garbage burned below us. Gullies of it glowing like flowing magma. A tamer, electronic glow hung before us. We hurried toward it. A purple-tinted flourescent dome lit a series of concrete steps descending down into a mesh cage. We swatted at a swarm of dry little flying bugs inhabiting its airspace.
No- I said. Eelco grabbed my wrist and pulled me down. I didn’t dare object. The structure shook with each footfall. Below us, the blunt shapes of impovised dwellings became visible. Faint voices called out from the semi-dark. Peels of amplified music leaked from far away speakers. My body became acutely aware of its volume within space. My skin extra sensitive. The guardrail felt cool in my palm, reassuringly Western, the air was thick and strange. We touched ground. It was soft and sucjed at my shoe.
The stairs led into a slum. The roofs were lower than we were tall. The roofline a plane of crooked slats. Cooking fires glowed from doorways. Cigarettes. Flickers of black and white television. Drains gurgled. Makeshift huts linked with looping wire, all open to the elements. The air was disturbed with minute sounds, massed sighing; around us, lying on mats, beside the road, beside the shacks, feet poked from bedrolls, sleepers. I worried about dogs but said nothing. Pint bottles glinted. Long sticks were tucked beside them. Some snored. Chests rose and fell. Some shifted or farted or scratched. A figure stood from his blankets, and wobbled toward us with stiff steps. He stopped before an open drain and urinated hard. We hurried past. Crescents of light flashed off circular lenses and the arc of his piss.
We climbed from the trench. Up another set of concrete stairs. The slums were in a long gulley; fed from garbage from the hotels, which rose suddenly up from the trees as we climbed out. The Egg towered above us, floodlights illuminating its soft pink shell, which was ruined by ductwork and antennae and ramps I had never seen before: the rear-end. The service entrance. We circled around, and walked in, unremarked upon through the lobby and into the hotel proper. We took a lift. Eelco punched in a floor number. The four walls were mirrored. Even the panel. We stood beside each other, silent, as the lift ticked upwards toward the penthouse floor and our faces reflected into infinity. Eelco took me down a lushly carpeted corridor, past all the rooms. At the end of the corridor was a glass square with a small chrome hammer dangling beside it on a flimsy chain: a fire alarm.
Eelco seized the hammer and yankedt off before I could object. He pushed the door open into a stairwell and we raced down, me a pace behind him, taking two steps at a time. No one followed, so we kept going down, more slowly, down crisp clean stairs the color of eggshell, heading down toward a soft vibration, that grew louder and louder the deeper we went down. The door to the outside was locked tight. We walked up a few floors and pushed our way into a dark space crammed with hulking cubes lined in formation; we had stumbled across a conspiracy, these were war machines. Housekeeping carts–said Eelco, lifting the skirt and removing a handful of miniature shampoo bottles. We poured out some of the white goo onto the floor and then searched the room for more. The most interesting feature was another panel, this on the size of a small door, set against an interior wall. Together, we pulled it open. Inside were thick cables, black rubber the size of a small tree trunk, one had split open, revealing a nest of translucent fiber, sparking. I held my hand against the optics and let beams of information pulse against my translucent skin.