I entered Jaigaon in the dark. It was 7.30 pm and the power had gone, a frequent occurrence in these parts. A market spread out on the road, little shanty shops lit by candles and kerosene lamps, a sprawl of a town. It had the precarious air of a border town, a shape-shifting town which sees much travel. It smelt funny: a mixture of diesel fumes, food odours, sweat and damp ground. I was told that it had rained continuously the night before–sharp, heavy showers that washed the fields but made the town more muggy.
When we reached Hotel Anand where I was to stay, a shiver ran up my spine. ‘Hotel’ is a huge overstatement; the place was a lodge. And it was full of men–only men–and some rather unsavoury types. They sat around in the ‘lobby’, eying me curiously. There seemed to be a bar on the ground floor. Not a good sign. I wondered if a woman had ever lived here alone.
I had just checked into my unprepossessing but habitable room when the generator gave out and the entire place was plunged in sooty darkness. The arrival of the project manager of the NGO provided welcome distraction and an excuse to go down to the lobby, which had some light. And since I was with a group of people (the project manager had come with his wife and child as well as some other people in tow) the stares were a little subtler. But after braving more looks on the way up to my room, I started feeling distinctly uneasy. I had been told this was the “one of the best hotels” in Jaigaon so it seemed pointless to say anything.
As the night progressed, my unease worsened. The lodge seemed to be populated with men of different varieties–mostly single–and some of them distinctly shifty. The room was relentlessly seedy with a night light that cast a strange, haunted red glow on the walls; an AC that let out a low, creaking moan every five seconds; and the incessant rattle of rain on the window panes when it rained. The door had cracks and was secured by two flimsy-looking bolts. There were no grills on the windows. Outside them, the grey wall of a dingy building that looked deserted.
There seemed to be a Truckers Association office across the street in front and there were lots of trucks parked there. Every now and then, a new one screeched up in the night. The watchman’s toc-toc echoed up eerily; someone yelled in one of the other rooms. And much later, when it was quieter, somebody’s loud groan broke through the night.
It’s always hard for me to sleep in unfamiliar places because I’m an insomniac and the particular combination of heat, mosquitoes and insecurity was not a great soother.
I insisted on checking out the “other best hotel”, Hotel Kasturi, the next day and found it was a hundred times better. Nothing fancy, but safe and clean with some actual, real-life women (hallelujah)! I was surprised that the NGO officials, who had booked the room for me, had not realized that this would be a much safer place for me to stay. Just proves that you can’t trust men with making simple judgments that involve seeing things from a woman’s perspective.