White clouds in the horizon had blanketed the mountain peaks when they reached the top. I heard them complaining, “Where are the damn mountains? Did we just climb all the way up for nothing?”
“Calm down! Maybe we’ll have a beautiful morning view of the mountains greeting us.”
They looked around. All they could see were the ruins of the buildings destroyed by the earthquake a couple of years ago.
All of them looked filthy. Their clothes had taints of mud, and they smelled of sweat. They looked upon the hotel entrance, and read out the hotel’s name aloud. HOTEL CALIFORNIA. All of them giggled. One of them came closer to me, and asked if rooms were available. I nodded. I ran my eyes across them to make a head count. There were seven of them, young men who seemed to be in their early twenties. He turned around to the rest of them to make a gesture I couldn’t see. He then asked me for the prices regarding the lodging and fooding. I signaled them into the hotel reception, and stepped aside. They settled the prices with father.
“Show them the rooms”, said my father handing me a bunch of keys. All seven of them followed me upstairs. They chose a big room where all seven of them could accommodate. I showed them the washroom and verandah.
“Thank you!” said one of them. I just nodded, and climbed downstairs.
The trek was tiring. We took turns taking a quick shower. I sat by the window, and looked outside through it. The mountains were still covered in a cradle of the clouds. I closed my eyes for a brief instant and then opened them wide attempting an unsuccessful telekinesis to move the clouds away. There was a blend of chaos and calmness in the horizon; a struggle among the clouds. A train of thoughts and memories lingered one over another. I thought of myself, thought of her; I thought about life and existence. I felt something creeping into my right ear which I tried to shrug away. I turned around to see my friend with a huge grin on his face.
“Let’s roll up these little beasts.”
Meanwhile, four were already busy playing cards while one was taking an evening nap. I woke him up to help us. We started conversing.
“Did you notice the son? I think he cannot speak.”
“Ah yes I did. I thought I was the only one who noticed he was dumb.”
“I wonder how remarkably they can make use of hand gestures to communicate.”
After we were done, the three of us headed downstairs to order the dinner.
A couple of hours later, three of them came to the reception. I was sitting in the corner. They ordered dinner for seven. They enquired about my father. I gestured them towards the hotel entrance, and went into the kitchen. After a while, they came back into the hotel with my father. I could hear them talking about the massive earthquake that shook the whole nation.
“We’re sorry for your loss. It must have been hard for the two of you.”
“Yes it has. But life must go on. We didn’t have enough money to rebuild the house. We’ve been living in this hotel itself since the earthquake.”
To those who come and stay here, it’s just a hotel for them- a refuge from their home life. After their trip is over, they have somewhere to go to where they have a reunion with their favourite pillow, where every single wall and door smells of familiarity that they guide them around even with their eyes closed, where everything around them carries their fingerprints and where they share stories of their travel to their families. But for me and my father, we have no stories of travel to share but only memories of my mother and sisters shared in silent conversations. This hotel has never felt like home; it never will. It’s just a hotel for me too except that I have nowhere else to go. I wish if I could just check out and run across to the other side of the road to my home. But all that remains is the ruins; a crooked building with broken pillars-just like me and my father.
Memories sneaked out of my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. A drop or two just avoided landing into the cooking pan. I wiped away the tears. I did all the cooking for the guests. Father took care of the supplies from the town. I could still hear them talking but indistinctively. After the dinner was ready, I came out of the kitchen. A young man was patiently waiting in the dining. He was one of them. He politely asked if the dinner was ready. I nodded and gestured him to call all of his friends. They appreciated the meal. After they finished and went back into their room, I and father ate in silence.
The night sprawled over the heavenly skies. After doing the dishes, I went to the balcony upstairs to get some fresh air. After a while, I heard a window slide. They were playing cards. I heard them yell “Ace of Spades! Yay! Ace of Spades.” I could also hear another conversation.
“You light the fire this time.”
“I hope it works.”
“This is all we got.”
Then there were rings of smoke coming outside the window followed by a momentary silence before they burst into laughter. I smiled as I realized they were smoking a joint. I could still hear the conversation going.
“So how many gifts have you given her?
“What do you mean by how many? Does it have to be materialistic or it can be in other forms too?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.” *giggles*
“You see. What things are considered gifts actually? I think we need a broader definition.”
“All I asked is how many times you have gifted her.”
“That’s what I’m trying to count. I am not sure what counts as a gift and what doesn’t. The time I give to her, the smiles I bring on her face, do they not count as gifts? I think they should. Everything is a gift you see. If I tell her something she doesn’t know about, isn’t that a gift? The new experiences I try to give her, aren’t those gifts as well? I have received plenty of gifts back from her too. The moments we share-an exchange of existential gifts.”
“Hmmm. You make sense. Go on.”
“We have also given each other gifts too.”
“What gifts are you talking about now? I don’t remember you gifting me anything.”
“Damn! If I come across a good song or a funny joke, I send it to you, man. That is also a gift.”
Then both of them shared a round of laughter. The young man made some sense actually. I continued paying attention to the conversation.
“We give out carbon dioxide as gifts to the plants and receive oxygen. Isn’t that wonderful? We have been exchanging gifts ever since we first came into this world, and will continue doing so even after we leave this world. You know how we decay, and insects and bacteria feed on…..”
“Wait! What the heck are you talking about? That’s science dude. How are those gifts?”
“How should I know? I just think they really are. Let’s get back to your question then.”
“What question? I don’t remember. Oh yes! The question. Did you count?”
“No, wait. I’m counting it in my head. I don’t have enough fingers.”
“You can use mine too. I have T-E-N ten of them.”
“Thanks man. You know man, life is also a gift. But you can’t possess it forever. It comes with an expiry date. So we need to share it. Give a part of yourself to others, and I’m sure you’ll receive something back. It’s not about how much we give or what we give, it’s all about how much love and effort you put into giving.”
“Hmmmm. I think you are right.”
“Look at nature, just look at her. She keeps gifting us.”
“Yes, this joint is also her gift to mankind. Cheers to nature!”
I heard them bursting into laughter yet again. I couldn’t completely agree with the young man. Everything nature gives can’t be a gift. How can the earthquake who took half of my family be a gift to me? I can’t speak. How is that a gift to me?
I looked up at the starlit sky. I thought it was a pleasing gift- a common gift to all. Then I realized maybe nature is biased in giving gifts at times. Maybe I was gifted with a longer life but I wasn’t gifted with a voice. Maybe the young man was right, maybe not. But that night, sleep gifted me a beautiful dream.