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January 9, 1998


Manjula Padmanabhan

The freedom to choose

Dominic Xavier's illustration This is, I promise, going to be absolutely the last piece I write about my now not-so-recent trip to England! But there are at least two encounters which I felt deserved being shared with readers.

One was with the owner of the private little hotel called Willoughby House, where I -- and a few other invitees to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature -- were quartered. It was about the size of what in Delhi is called a 'guest house', but unlike its local counterparts in every other respect.

It offered single and double rooms as well as fully furnished, self-contained apartments. The interior decor was on the neo-fussy side, but quaint: each room interpreted uniquely, including one suite with a splendid four-poster bed. A hospitality tray provided the makings for hot beverages. The rooms were clean and the bathrooms modern, meaning that the sink had a mixer-tap and bath-fittings did not require an advanced degree in plumbing to produce a satisfyingly hot and bracing shower. There was even an in-house cat, for guests who like to see something white and fluffy purring on the landing.

The owner, Mr Higgs, seemed calm and imperturbable to the point of blandness. But when I asked if he could spare a few minutes to tell me how a small family concern like this one ran so smoothly with practically no staff, he began his story with, "Have you seen Fawlty Towers?" the hilarious British television sitcom about the world's most disastrous private guest house. Well, he said, the last two days had been a Fawlty Towers extravaganza.

"It started three weeks ago," he said, when a guest called Miss Small booked an apartment for herself and her fiancee, for two weeks. Just before her arrival, she called to enquire if the apartment she had booked had not merely separate bedrooms, but separate bathrooms as well. Mr Higgs looked across at me, his mild eye-brows raised in shock, "Can you imagine, in this day and age, someone unwilling to share bathrooms with her fiancee?"

Simultaneously, a large party of Scottish guests had been arriving all through the previous day to attend a religious conference. "They might be devil-worshippers for all I know," said Mr Higgs, rolling his eyes. Each separate group had requested changes in accommodation resulting in an intricate game of musical rooms which ended with one party spending the night on the floor of another party's apartment "Because," he said, "she was too frightened to spend the night alone in the apartment with her own daughter!"

And to crown it all, the house telephones had just been re-installed incorrectly: Room 6 had crossed lines with Room 5. I smiled knowingly. The night before, returning at 11.30, I had tried to call Dr Rajni Bakshi of New Delhi's British Council, in Room 5, to tell her I'd wake her with a phone call at 8.00 am. Instead, I got a strange man sounding sleepy and annoyed. I spent a restless night wondering how I'd call Dr Bakshi if I didn't have her number and ultimately dragged myself out of bed at 8.00 to knock on her door.

These confusions aside, Willoughby House had much to recommend itself. In particular a marvellous breakfast, with a spread of breakfast cereals that would have done a supermarket proud; stewed and fresh fruit; your choice of filling for omelettes, and the type of scrambled eggs upon which the foundations of the British Empire were built. Most of the cooking, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, was done by both Mr and Mrs Higgs.

When I asked him what made it all worthwhile, he said, "I travel a lot. And I love to eat good food. What we give our guests here is what I would like to get -- and so rarely do --when I'm away from home."

The other encounter was with one of Salman Rushdie's security guards. Shortly after dinner in the company of the most hunted novelist on the planet, I felt I needed to know what it was like to be employed to place one's own life at risk for the sake of another's. Both the tall burly men in the small room adjoining the restaurant's private chambers in which dinner had been served, smiled and seemed on the point of shrugging away the answer to my question with a joke.

But, then, one of them volunteered, "I dunno. I mean, I know why I'm guarding him. It's 'cause the government of one country has taken out a contract on his life because he wrote something that they didn't like. That's not right." He had a strong face, blond hair and an unaffected manner. "It's not right to do that to anyone. By guarding him, I'm guarding my freedom to be what I like, say what I like." He smiled, embarrassed. "And that's why I do it."

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan