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Erratica: Dowagers? dance

In Mumbai, ?Taj? doesn?t mean Shah Jahan. It even overwhelms that other cliche of tourism.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2003 03:14 IST
Bachi Karkaria
Bachi Karkaria

In Mumbai, ‘Taj’ doesn’t mean Shah Jahan. It even overwhelms that other cliche of tourism. And why not? A full 20 years before the Gateway of India, J.N. Tata’s historic hotel rose above the Erratica: City’s fabled harbour.
Bachi Karkaria

So, it was perfectly in order for the Taj Mahal Hotel to take over the entire waterfront last Thursday, when it celebrated a hundred years of glamour and gawking. There was a stunning audio-visual beamed on its expanse of hoary stone, waltzing Mathildas from Australia, Odissi dancers — and more creme in the guest-list than there’s been in all the gateaux it has piped out in a century of catering for the rich, the revered and the roguish. All well-heeled.

The new Taj spiked the sky shortly after I came to work in Mumbai. It was a multistoried minaret to complement the Moorish domes of the old. The die-hard didn’t compliment it. This was the old guard which belonged to a time when ‘DJ’ stood for dinner jacket. The nay-sayers were the ivory-shouldered Avas who had samba-ed with Solicitous Solis to the accordion of Goody Seervai, were on back-slapping terms with the bartender of the Harbour Bar, and held all their family celebrations at what they called the ‘Raan-dey-woo’.

But legendary hotels such as the Taj, Calcutta’s Grand or Delhi’s Imperial, like flesh-and-blood (and-facelift) dowagers, have the grace and wisdom to take anything in their stride. Even Bawa French. Besides, the Harbour Bar was the proud holder of Bar Licence No.1, being the first to be registered in Mumbai.

I got the chance to pursue my fascination for old-world hostelries when I was writing a biography of M.S. Oberoi. He was five years old when J.N. Tata, smarting against the ‘Indians and Dogs Not Allowed’ sign outside the city’s Majestic Hotel decided to build a counter which would make it loose sleep and custom. Thank God for self-respect aka bruise-able egos. Without it we’d have none of the great triumphs of history — or its deliciously salacious footnotes.

Seventy years later, stung by racists shouting ‘Curry Cook Go Home’ when he won the bid for Melbourne’s historic ‘Windsor Hotel’, M. S. Oberoi would spend a fortune — and twice that in effort - on its awesome restoration. He decreed that not even an insinuation of curry should flavour any of its menus.

Before global chains enslaved our hedonistic swingers, it was just the Taj and the Oberoi which sparred across the marble lobbies of Indian hoteliering. Both battled for mergers and acquisitions when business hotels gained currency. And both wanted to be privy to the purses loosened by princes turning over their palaces to the new regalia of room rates and a rogan josh recalibrated for American palates. Socialism’s wake-up call had the ironic fall-out of allowing any Moneybags to be a Maharajah for two-nights/three-days.

The low-key Ratan was the gracious host on Thursday night, but it was his flamboyant uncle, JRD, who was MSO’s alter ego. I realized early in our sessions that Rai Bahadur always bench-marked his achievements — even personal ones - against those of the debonair ‘Jeh’. One autumnal ochre dusk, he took me round the serene sandstone ‘cremation pavilion’ he’d built for himself on the sprawl of his Delhi farmhouse, and asked ‘Has Tata got anything like this?’

Dowager hotels must all live with ghosts. That’s part of their charm. Is the Taj really haunted by the startled shade of its architect W.A. Chambers (no relation to its swishy CEOs Club)? Legend has it that he shot himself when he returned to find that his blue-print had been built back to front. It’s a story vehemently scotched by the hotel’s corporate minders.

But, no one will deny that its old corridors ooze with the odour of love and longing — and only the incorrigibly mundane will mistake this for mustiness. Hotels have always been the easiest place for assignations. So much so, that in the early years, all of them rang a bell just before dawn — so that guests could slip back to the beds they were officially booked in.

Which ties in neatly with a story from the annals of another of the subcontinent’s historic hostelries, Maidens in Old Delhi. Two prodigal young women touring the Empire had arrived here, and sent home a telegram asking for money that would enable them to continue staying at this expensive hotel. But the innocuous missive sent their Victorian parents into panic, for it read, ‘Wire Funds Or Maidens No More.’

Media hype and a million dollar make-over? No, Ma’am, a dowager’s most precious treasure are her legends. Wah Taj!


Alec Smart said, “What do you call the mobile operators grouse against TRAI/WLL? A cell-out.”

First Published: Jan 19, 2003 03:05 IST