The re-opening of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay – closed after the horrific events of 26/11 – is not as much of an event as it could have been. Unlike the Oberoi which created a stir when it reopened a couple of months ago, the Taj has never really closed.
Within a few weeks of the terror attacks the hotel reopened its new wing where the damage had not been so great. Though there were those who wondered if the hotel should have rushed to reopen the tower block, I thought it was important that the Taj reopened in some form, even if it was just the new wing. The terrorists had intended to destroy the Taj and the universal symbol of the Bombay attacks was the image of one of the Taj’s domes on fire. If the Taj had not reopened – even partially – it would have suggested that the terrorists had won some sort of victory.
With the Taj back in action within weeks, Bombay had given its reply to those who had attacked the city. The terrorists had caused disruption, they had taken the lives of some of this great city’s residents, but nothing – certainly no jehadi – could bring Bombay to a halt.
In the months that followed, the Taj opened parts of the new wing bit by bit. The Sea Lounge, on the first floor, had been under siege on 26/11. We all saw footage of guests being evacuated by firemen that night. But it was quickly restored so perfectly that nobody could tell that it had ever been targeted by the terrorists. Masala Kraft where guests had locked themselves in, reopened so quickly that even I was surprised. The Crystal Room, right next to the kitchens where chefs gave their lives trying to save guests, soon returned to normal. Wasabi and the Golden Dragon, where the terrorists had hunkered down for their last stand before the NSG commandos took them out (remember that image of a commando tossing a terrorist’s body out of the Golden Dragon window on the third day?) were severely damaged but the Taj managed to renovate them so comprehensively that they looked even better than before.
All that remained were the rooms. We saw the sixth floor in flames when the terrorists exploded grenades and we knew that the fifth floor had been damaged. What we did not realise when we watched the gun battles on TV was that the damage had extended to the whole hotel. Even areas that had not been taken over by the terrorists had suffered because the thick black smoke from the explosions had charred the walls. And later the water from the fire trucks and the sprinklers had destroyed the soft furnishings in much of the hotel.
The Taj management took a wise and considered decision. They reopened whatever they could as soon as possible as a reply to the deadly intentions of the terrorists. But when it came to the rooms in the old wing, the management decided to go back to basics.
While many of the Taj’s suites were historic and grand, they had begun to date a little. Even those terrific standard rooms with their individualistic furniture (no two rooms at the old Taj are exactly alike) had started to look like they needed a slight polishing.
The Taj decided that it would re-do every single room. It would retain the century-old character of the hotel, of course. But it would create rooms that merged the history of the building with cutting-edge innovations in design and comfort.
To this end, it hired design companies from all over the world: Wilkes Sdn Bhd from Kuala Lumpur, Bio Lissoni from the UK, BAMO from San Francisco and James Park Associates from Singapore. The calculation was that the Taj was too great a hotel to reflect the vision of a single designer. A project of this magnitude required the world’s best designers, all of whom had to try and make the Taj seem as grand to today’s guests as it did to the first guests over a century ago.
I missed the opening but when I went there a week ago, my first thought was that none of the designers seemed to have tinkered with the spirit and ethos of this, one of the world’s greatest hotels. It is still recognisably the Taj of Jamsetji Tata’s vision.
The rooms remain understated but their comfort level has been upgraded. I stayed first in a normal suite which I remembered vaguely from the old days and it did not seem very different in feel though there were welcome improvements: all the light switches were clearly marked, the bathrooms were much improved etc. I moved then to the Seagull Suite (called the Seagull Penthouse in the old days). It was not much larger than a standard suite but it had been redone (by James Park Associates) with so much flair that it seemed bright and cheery and had great views of the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea.
It’s always hard to judge a hotel from the perspective of a guest when you’re there in the first week of its reopening but there were many things I liked. I was pleased to see that the reception (for the old wing) had been moved to the old lobby where it had originally been placed decades ago. I liked the new lounge (the old one will become a suite). And I was relieved that the hotel was finally getting butler service right. (For some reason the Bombay Taj always screwed up with its butlers.)
Some things were not so successful. There was no hot water (only lukewarm water) by noon in my bathroom. The air-conditioning did not work in my suite on the first night. The room service menu is the same old stuff as before. The food at the Golden Dragon remains resolutely mediocre, shocking when you consider that the restaurant that introduced India to genuine Chinese food is now not in the first division of Bombay Chinese restaurants (China House, Royal China and San Qi are all much better).
On the other hand, you could attribute all this to teething troubles and personal prejudice. For instance, everyone at the Taj is very pleased with the Dragon and apparently it is a huge commercial success. And small things like air-conditioning and hot water are easy enough to fix.
What remains the same is the commitment of the Taj’s staff to its guests. On the night of 26/11, Hemant Oberoi took personal charge of all the guests who were evacuated to the Chambers and ensured that they were given a taste of Taj service: sandwiches, coffee, blankets etc. for everyone, even as grenades exploded elsewhere in the building. Later, his chefs formed a human chain to protect guests as they were being evacuated through the kitchen. Unfortunately, the terrorists saw on TV that guests were in the Chambers, rushed to the kitchen and opened fire, wounding and killing several chefs. Even then, the chefs continued to try and protect the guests.
Senior staff behaved with exemplary courage. The general manager Karambir Kang failed to persuade the largely incompetent Bombay police and fire brigade to evacuate guests on the sixth floor and must have known that his wife and children who were trapped in a suite on that floor would perish. Even then, he continued to evacuate other guests and to do his job as though nothing was wrong. Birgit Zorniger, his number two, was away and arrived at the hotel at 2.30 am by which stage the terrorists were in command and the Bombay police were cowering. Despite the danger to her life, she insisted on entering the hotel through a side entrance and trying to evacuate any guests who might be stranded.
As Abhijit Mukerji who heads the Indian Hotels Company’s hotel operations says, it is hard to think of any hotel anywhere in the world where staff would have risked everything to protect guests. Abhijit gives the example of an engineer who had no interaction with guests but who rushed to the lobby to see what he could do to help even as bullets were flying all around. (The terrorists killed him.)
As dramatic as the image of the Taj’s dome in flames were the pictures of Ratan Tata and R K Krishna Kumar (the company’s vice-chairman) standing on the pavement outside the hotel, trying to be there for their staff and for the guests. At that moment, there was not much difference between a room service boy and the chairman of Tata’s. They were all united in their commitment to the Taj.
The Taj doesn’t need me to predict that the reopening will be a success. The reviews have been raves and the bookings are pouring in. But I always feel that the Taj is more than a hotel. It is an idea.
It is an idea, dreamt up by Jamsetji Tata, of an Indian hotel that took on the world’s best hotels (and also, the whites-only clubs and hotels of the Raj) and proved that when Indians were given a chance, they could beat the best in the world. It is fitting that the majority of the Taj’s profits go to Indian charities. And it is appropriate that though the terrorists tried their best, the Taj goes on ahead, unbowed and no longer bloody. In that sense, it is like the city of Bombay. And India itself.