An unsmiling policeman stood behind sandbags, rifle poised. If the metal detector beeped, a polite staffer requested guests to have their bags checked.
Besides the security, on Saturday, a day before the Trident reopened, it felt like the most brazen terror attack on India never happened.
<b1>That’s exactly the impression Rattan Keswani, president, Trident Hotels, wanted to convey as his hotel readied itself, 25 days after 30 guests and staffers were shot by terrorists, a strong expression of Mumbai’s determination to rise again.
“If a guest walks in today, there won’t be a single scratch to remind him of the attack,” said Keswani, on December 20, a day before the 550-room, 35-floor Trident’s reopening.
Two and a half km to the east, the Taj Mahal Hotel’s 21-storey tower prepared to open its doors at 7 pm on Sunday: 1,000 key clients and guests have been invited. Extensive work is under way in the heritage wing where hand-woven silk carpets, antique chandeliers and invaluable heirlooms were gutted in firefights and fires. It won’t open before March 2009.
Come Sunday and all rooms in The Trident, even those on the executive floors and the restaurants — Frangipani, Indiana Jones, The Opium Den and Verandah — will open.
However, the Oberoi Hotel, physically connected to the Trident, will take six or seven months to open.
“We are still doing a structural assessment of the damage and the restoration work, so it’s difficult to give an exact date,” said Keswani. He said there had been several cancellations from guests. “We’ve had 30-35 per cent cancellations, but this could partly be because it’s holiday season and most foreigners are travelling home.”
Others like Arti Surendranath, a regular patron who is away for a wedding, will be visiting the hotel as soon as she can. “I’m feeling terrible that we are not in town for the opening of The Trident and The Taj, but I will visit them as soon as I return,” she said.
The management said The Trident had been inundated by calls from guests who want to visit it on Sunday. “One hundred rooms will be occupied [on Sunday], 60 per cent of which will comprise Indian guests,” said Keswani.
Sunday’s opening will be marked by a prayer session with heads of different communities — a private service, attendance by invitation only.
Regulars will be permitted inside with the routine baggage check and metal detector test. New faces will be asked to provide IDs.
The Trident’s insurance firm, New India Assurance, has already released Rs 25 crore for the restoration; Rs 40 to 50 lakh was spent on restoring The Trident. “After assessing the damage to The Oberoi, we calculated the cost as Rs 40-50 crore,” said Keswani.
Staff remained tight-lipped about the incident, letting their smiles and impeccable uniforms do the talking.
At the Taj, a pre-opening event, a sort of homecoming for about 1,000 employees, was held.
Among those present was Tata group chairman Ratan Tata, vice-chairman RK Krishnakumar and managing director of Taj Hotels Raymond Bickson.
“We sang the national anthem, after which prayers were recited by Christian, Parsi, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh clerics. HR manager V Vaidya read out the names of the 31 staff and guests killed, the nine injured and 592 on duty on the night of the attack,” said a staff member on condition of anonymity.
Bickson pointed out that a painting on the sixth floor, titled The Tree of Life, was miraculously unharmed when the dome caught fire. “For December 20 and 21, the painting has been moved to the lobby, with a giant plaque bearing the victims’ names,” said the source, adding that a bust of Jamshedji Tata on the sixth floor was also miraculously unscathed.
Ratan Tata said the hotel’s reopening sent out a message: “We’re back in business.”
To commemorate the event, the staff left with two souvenirs. “A white card with the victims’ names and a saying by Mahatma Gandhi — ‘Strength doesn’t come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will.’ And a leather photo frame with a picture of Jamshedji Tata on one side and that of the Taj dome on the other. Under the dome are the words, ‘I have held my ground, as human history has unfolded in its timeless procession of laughter and tears, courage and cowardice, wisdom and folly. I will prevail’,” the source added.
Sources said 57 suites have been booked for Sunday; the restaurants are also completely reserved.
Outside the Taj, Janki Sakia admired the staff immaculately turned out in their grey saris and black suits. She and her family had taken the weekend off and driven down from Pune just to be there when the Taj reopens. “It is amazing. It has risen like a phoenix from the ashes,” said the schoolteacher.
All roads leading to the Taj were cordoned off, but curious Mumbaiites found ways to sneak into the alleys around the hotel to get a closer look.
On the fringes of the crowd were those who see the Taj every day. Prakash Chavan, who has been selling peanuts outside the Taj for 15 years, said: “I can’t afford to walk into the hotel, but when they reopen their doors, I’ll clap proudly.”