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A hotel’s tale: How the Taj became the Taj

The story of the Delhi Taj encapsulates the saga of how Indian business struggled – and then triumphed – in the 20th Century

brunch Updated: Nov 12, 2016 19:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The Delhi Taj opened in 1978 and transformed India’s hotel scene

So it looks like the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi may go up for auction and may even cease to be a Taj Hotel if somebody else makes a higher bid. That, at least, is what the Delhi High Court ruled a fortnight ago. Now, we shall have to see what the Supreme Court says.

It’s funny, and more than a little ironical, that it has come to this. Because the story of the Delhi Taj encapsulates the saga of how Indian business struggled – and then triumphed – in the 20th Century. Nobody, not even most people at the Taj these days, seems to remember the story. So let me tell it as I remember it from my conversations with the principal characters.

There were only two proper five-star hotels in Delhi till the mid-1970s. The Oberoi Intercontinental, which opened in 1965, was the king and could charge what it liked. Its only real competitor was The Ashoka which, though it was better than it is today, was hardly in the same league.

The Taj group had dominated Bombay, beating off a challenge from the newly-opened (1973) Oberoi Sheraton, but realised that it would never be a truly national chain till it opened a Delhi property. And the Oberoi supporters (I am being euphemistic here) would not let that happen. Plus there was a master plan for Delhi, which limited the spots where a hotel could open.

Ajit Kerkar, who created the modern Taj group, had planned and plotted his invasion of Delhi. He had his eye on a 32-room hotel on 1 Mansingh Road called Fonseca’s. Apparently, the property belonged to a nawab who had moved to Pakistan in 1947. The nawab gave the property to Mr Fonseca who ran a small hotel on the spot. Mr Fonseca passed the property on to a man called (if I remember correctly) SN Singh.

Kerkar spent a long time cultivating Singh and eventually persuaded him to sell Indian Hotels the lease to the property in perpetuity. (All Singh had was a lease anyway; this was true of many properties in Delhi after the Partition.) The moment he had the signed lease, Kerkar planned the demolition of the old Fonseca’s.

By then, alarm bells had gone off. The Oberoi lobby had approached SN Singh just as he was concluding his negotiation with Kerkar and asked him to give it to the Oberois and to name his price. But Singh honoured his commitment to the Taj.

Next, the problems with the government began. Kerkar heard that municipal inspectors intended to come in and seize the property. There were rumours that goondas would be used to get the plot vacated. Kerkar sealed the outer perimeter of the property and organised 24-hour security.

But no construction could begin because municipal officials told Indian Hotels that the proposed hotel would be an illegal structure. So, for several days, the stalemate continued. The betting was that Indian Hotels and Kerkar would sell their lease and get the hell out of town. This was 1976, the period of the Emergency, after all, and normal legal recourses were not available.

Then, help arrived in the unlikely form of Rukhsana Sultan who ran a jewellery shop at Goa’s Fort Aguada, a Taj Hotel. She told Kerkar that she had heard that the Delhi project was going to be abandoned. Kerkar responded that, yes, there was a problem.

Don’t worry, Rukhsana told him. I know just the man to sort out your problem.

Rukhsana was close to the Emergency regime and to Sanjay Gandhi, in particular. And she arranged a 10-minute meeting with Sanjay for Kerkar.

Kerkar remembers that when he walked into the lounge where Sanjay held court, the “youth leader” was hostile. But Kerkar managed to persuade Sanjay that the Taj had a full legal right to the plot and that the municipal authorities were acting illegally.

To his surprise, not only did Sanjay listen but he got excited about the project. “Delhi needs a good deluxe hotel like the Bombay Taj,” he declared. He told Kerkar to hire a contractor who had worked at Maruti and said he would instruct the municipal authorities to let the project go ahead. But he added, the municipal corporation would have to be part of the project.

Kerkar was sent off to meet a municipal official (who I will not name) who repeated that Indian Hotels had no right to the plot. When Kerkar said that the Taj had a valid lease, the official’s face turned red, he began to quiver with rage and then stood up and shouted at Kerkar, “Get out! Get out of my office!”

Faced with a desperate situation, Kerkar said he would agree to the municipal demands. But in his mind, he was determined to get the best deal for the Taj. And he pulled it off.

Indian Hotels would build the hotel and run it. But it would not push its claim to the plot. Instead, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation would say that it had leased the property to the Taj (thus ending any question about how legal the building was). In return Indian Hotels would pay NDMC (and here I’m relying on memory so I could be wrong on the figures) three percent of the profits and ten per cent of turnover. Kerkar wanted a lease for 100 years or more but the NDMC said that there was no precedent for any arrangement longer than 30 to 33 years.

Though the Taj believed it had a perfect legal right to the property, it had no choice, in those Emergency days, but to sign on the dotted line. But there was a tacit understanding that the lease would continue to be automatically renewed – or so the Taj believed.

The Delhi Taj opened in 1978 and transformed India’s hotel scene. The Oberoi Intercontinental was shown up for what it really was: a 1960s-style hotel for travelling salesmen. (It took 15 years, and Biki Oberoi’s intervention for it to recover.)

It is hard to imagine now but every detail of that hotel was meticulously planned. Kerkar, Camellia Panjabi (his effective number two and ideas person) and the Taj’s two senior chefs (Arvind Saraswat and Satish Arora) ate their way through Italy looking for dishes they could replicate at the Casa Medici, India’s first authentic Italian restaurant.

Haveli, the Indian restaurant, broke with Delhi’s Punjabi food tradition and introduced brilliant dishes from all over India. But until he was sure the food was perfect, Kerkar would not open the restaurant. Each day, Chef Saraswat and Subir Bhowmick, who ran the hotel’s operations, would open Haveli, cook for a full service and then close without being allowed to serve a single meal. Only when Kerkar was satisfied did Haveli throw its doors open.

Nearly everybody who grew up in Delhi in the 1980s has affectionate memories of Machan (Hindustan Times)

The two big successes, of course, were The House of Ming – which introduced Sichuan food to North India and whose bastard child is Sino-Ludhianvi food – and the coffee shop Machan where prices were kept low to attract a younger crowd. Nearly everybody who grew up in Delhi in the 1980s has affectionate memories of Machan.

So obsessive was the attention to detail that Kerkar would call the front office twice a day from Bombay to find out how many guests had checked in. Camellia Panjabi would go ballistic if she found a tiny scrap of litter on the carpet.

In 1982, the Taj opened a second hotel and called it the Taj Palace at which stage, the original Taj began to be referred to as Taj Mansingh. The success of both hotels ensured that Delhi become a Taj city, toppling the Oberoi.

Since then, the hotel’s fortunes have been mixed. Ratan Tata pushed out Kerkar in 1997 and the new management hired a foreign design firm which, I believe, played a practical joke on the new managers by destroying the old Machan and the wonderful old lobby. Machan has never quite recovered but the House of Ming still reigns.

Two new restaurants (Wasabi and Varq) have kept the hotel at the cutting edge and a series of excellent General Managers – Abhijit Mukherjee, Yannick Poupon, Digvijay Singh and now, the terrific Satyajeet Krishnan – have ensured that the Delhi Taj remains the company’s finest city hotel even while the original Bombay flagship struggles with incompetent management.

The general view is that the Taj management mishandled relations with NDMC when the 33-year lease ran out and things should never have got to this stage. So yes, it is possible that the Supreme Court will order an auction.

But even if that happens and somebody else wins that auction, I don’t think that the people of Delhi will ever think of the property as anything other than the Taj.

And speaking only for myself, I hope the Taj stays the Taj; the hotel means too much to Delhi.

From HT Brunch, November 13, 2016

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