When I was 19, I took a woman I had a crush on to the Taj Lake Palace hotel. This marvelous white-domed fantasia is located in the small city of Udaipur, which is far enough out of the way to give visitors a sense of discovery, of a private relationship with India. My hope, of course, was to get lucky. And I did; one can hardly help it in a place so romantic.
This was in 1991, when I could barely afford to pay for a night at the Lake Palace. I had never stayed at a luxury hotel before, and I felt like a fraud. When I looked at the menus, I read them right to left. I remember getting turned around in the narrow, zigzagging hallways, winding up in colorful courtyards and being so anxious that I wondered whether I would ever find my way back to my room. It was very much like when I was a child and started at a new school: the echoes in the hallways were so loud that I felt like my body was shaking.
I returned to the Lake Palace several years later. Not only did I see changes in the hotel, I also saw changes in myself. I had just been accepted to Harvard Law School, and my fear of money—of not having enough of it—had suddenly vanished. That burden lifted, I felt serene standing under the white domes of the hotel, and the soft sound of the waves splashing against the nearby shore calmed my being. Mostly though, what I felt was vanity, pride even, in the fact that I could afford to stay in a place so luxurious and expensive.
My third visit was in 2001. It was my honeymoon. I was an investment banker. By this point, India had changed, and the Lake Palace had become otherworldly. I remember standing in a courtyard on a cool sunny morning and hearing music playing. I looked up, and sitting on a little platform above me was a small mustachioed man playing the flute. I brought my wife from our room so she could see, too. On this visit, walking beside my wife through the halls and resting with her in the courtyards, I realized that I no longer wanted to show off. Instead, I wanted to recede, to withdraw, to make sure my wife had as much space as she needed to enjoy her stay.
The last time I was a guest at Lake Palace was 2006. There was a barge ride at night along Lake Pichola, which surrounds the hotel. Fireworks lit up the sky, and along the sides of the lake were tableaux vivants with moments from the region’s history. I felt happy to be there. What I felt happiest about, though, was that the Lake Palace still existed, that it was being loved and valued. As the fireworks crackled above me, I thought, maybe I am finally growing up; maybe I am finally becoming the type of man who cares more about the world than about himself.