Lucky for me, I am a hotel. And at 109, I am in my prime. My lobby glitters with jewels, chandeliers and terrestrial stars. I have hosted some of the most sparkling celebrities—from Barack Obama to writers like George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham and Barbara Cartland; from actor Gregory Peck to violinist Yehudi Menuhin. I have emerged strong from a terrible terrorist attack. In Mumbai, I am a beloved landmark; the world over, I am famous.
Although I am no befuddled dowager, it’s still difficult to rewind back to the sepia-tinted days when I was 17 years old...1920 seems such a long time ago—well before John Lennon and Yoko Ono locked themselves in the Rajput Suite for five days and asked not to be disturbed; before those golden years of jazz when Duke Ellington once jammed in the Grand Ballroom; even before writer Aldous Huxley wrote, rather cheekily, that I “combined the style of the South Kensington Natural History Museum with that of an Indian pavilion at an International Exhibition”.
Come to think of it, in 1920 my famous neighbour—the Gateway of India—hadn’t yet moved in. It was completed only in 1924—ok, work started in 1911, but before that I occupied Apollo Bunder in solitary splendour. So I was still the first landmark passengers spotted when their enormous ocean liners approached Bombay. But, the Bombay of those years was a troubled city; dealing with a devastating bubonic plague epidemic, dubious land reclamation schemes and glaring inequities. The English colonialists were very much the masters and lorded it over the native inhabitants. Indeed, legend has it that the wealthy and visionary Jamsetji Tata was refused entry to a Europeans-only hotel. The industrialist was so infuriated that he decided to build a magnificent hotel of his own. He’d fashion a grand symbol to restore Bombay’s self-belief.
In The Creation of Wealth, R.M. Lala talks about how Jamsetji bought a plot of reclaimed land. “The foundations were 40 feet deep, unusual for those days. The long central dome was to be flanked by long, high aisles so that the sea breezes could freely circulate and cool the place. And two smaller domes would flank the two ends,” he writes, about the structure during those early years before the tower wing, the grand lobby and the swimming pool made their appearance. “In his foreign travels,” Lala adds, “Jamsetji made most of the purchases himself, lavishing upon the Taj the finest equipment Europe could offer—a soda and ice-making factory, and silver polishing machines, a laundry, lifts and an electric generator.”
I was the first structure in the city to blaze with electricity when I opened my doors to 17 guests on December 16, 1903. Nevertheless, in the initial years, Europeans felt out of place amidst my Moorish domes and Oriental ornamentation—and I was often dismissed as an old man’s folly or “Tata’s White Elephant”. But then, the Indian princes, always eager to party, began to arrive with their bejewelled entourages—sometimes leading pet tigers straining on chains. And soon, everybody who was anybody was heading my way.
During WW 1, I was converted into a 600-bed hospital. But by my 17th birthday, I was back in business with a roster of impressive guests. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s wife stayed here whenever she quarrelled with her husband. Sarojini Naidu had a permanent suite and often held political meetings. Nevertheless, I have to confess that in my teens and 20s, I wasn’t the decorous, sophisticated hotel that I am today. The rooms were furnished with iron beds and mosquito nets, a washstand and a couple of stiff chairs, while a large punkah churned the smoky, briny air. The rather prison-like corridors were filled with the hubbub of bearers and hopeful tradesmen. But the real action was downstairs amidst smoky cabarets and potent gin slings; watchful adventurers and “advanced” Indian women dancing to odd versions of the latest US hits.
In Night in Bombay, Louis Bromfield describes the vast hall beneath the imposing staircase. “Through the hall and the bazaar that occupied half its area came and went a procession of Arab horse dealers, British Governors and civil servants, Russian and German trollops, Indian princes, jewel merchants, Parsi millionaires, comic middle-aged tourists, gamblers, oil-prospectors. The procession went on day and night, for in the heat of the city and with the fantastic character of many of the guests, the place was as alive at four in the morning as at midday.”
In those heady days, I cheerfully befriended the rough sailors, rolling stones and great gamblers who docked at anything-is-possible Bombay. I watched as dangerous espionage adventures and illicit romances played out beneath my dome. But then I was just a flighty 17-year-old.
The author’s book The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street is out next month
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