The moment I receive the email saying that I’ve been booked into the Iftikhar Khana in Divan’s Bungalow, I know this is a hotel with a story to tell.Divan’s Bungalow is a new addition to Neemrana’s chain of heritage properties. It’s situated in Ahmedabad’s old walled city and seems to fit right in with the Neemrana culture of “non-hotels”. This is apparent the moment I land in Ahmedabad, when the tourist taxi driver declares he has never heard of Divan’s Bungalow. He looks even more puzzled when I read out the address—and spends the rest of the fumey drive arguing that Raikhad is an unlikely location for a new hotel. Finally we reach our destination and encounter goats, barbers’ shops, a sherwani boutique, a printing press and a couple of warehouses. But no hotel. Even the usually omniscient paanwalas look perplexed by our question.
In fact, we actually drive past the dazzlingly white mansion tucked away behind high walls and glorious bougainvillea because there is no signboard on the gate. When I ask the driver about the spruce structure, so out of place amidst its grimy neighbours, he merely shrugs and says, “Some rich man’s bungalow.”
He’s right, in a way. This was, after all, for much of its life the bungalow of the Divan of Radhanpur and still retains the air of a grand family home.
As soon as I step into the rectangular, red-tiled courtyard — enveloped by the three arms of the mansion — a sense of peace descends. The tootling rickshaws and suicidal tempos recede, and in their place are chirruping sparrows and lacy creepers. The stern geometry of the enclosure is relieved by a cool, green fountain, curvy flowerbeds and lush trees. The mansion is decorated with floral plasterwork, two wooden jharokhas, inviting verandas and bright stained glass.
I’m still not entirely sure I’m in the right place — and the confusion is heightened when I step through an open door into a gracious room strung with mismatching handi lamps and jewel-toned chandeliers. The carved sofas, tiled sideboards and carpets possess the sort of careless beauty usually found in the houses of grand great aunts.
The old gentleman and lady sitting in a corner don’t look like any hotel receptionists I’ve ever met. But then the man smiles and introduces himself as the Manager of Divan’s Bungalow, Ganshyam Patel. The lady in the polyester saree is Kokila Patel, his wife and the hotel’s Executive Housekeeping Supervisor. Within moments, Mr Patel offers a warm welcome, cool nimbu pani and, of course, the long anticipated story.
Hanging above our heads and framed in ornate silver is the portrait of Sayed Bavamiyan Kadri, the Divan of Radhanpur, who built this house eighty years ago. His son, M.B. Kadri, was the first Muslim mayor of Ahmedabad and was known for his social work. For years, the house was a busy hub, packed with visitors and dignitaries. Not to mention M.B. Kadri’s large family.
“I was born in that house,” recalls his son Iftikhar Kadri, a famous Mumbai architect and father-in-law of actor Suniel Shetty. “We were many siblings and it was the perfect house to grow up in. Till my mother died twenty-five years ago, it was our family home and I have a lot of affection for it. But my children have no associations with it and I was afraid they would eventually demolish it and build a hospital or something.”
So I.M. Kadri felt the best way to preserve his beloved home was to convert it into a hotel — and he approached Neemrana. And a forgotten mansion in a notoriously “sensitive” part of Ahmedabad became an elegant heritage hotel.
Signs of loving restoration are everywhere. The rooms are named after family members. Beautiful wall hangings — based on old masterpieces — have been specially block-printed for the hotel. Invaluable but eccentric pieces of furniture lend each room its distinctive character.
So Zubeida Khana has high beds with a little stepped platform. Siraj Khana on the first floor has comfortable baithaks tucked into the jharokhas. My own suite, Iftikhar Khana — which comprises a little dressing room, a bedroom and a large sitting room — is furnished with quaint what-nots and velvet-upholstered chairs.
The complimentary breakfast is served in the leafy inner courtyard and involves generous quantities of juice, fruits, toast, eggs and a traditional Gujarati dish, like poha. Guests can also order lunch or dinner, which are served in an elegant dining room filled with chandeliers and curios.
For my lunch, Kokila-ben whipped up a wonderful dal — that distinctive sweetish version that can only really be sampled in Gujarati households. She served this with a dry aloo bhaji and an unusual dish of stuffed parwal and fresh green salad.
Divan’s Bungalow has two separate kitchens. Kokila-ben presides over the vegetarian section, while Sohana Banu is summoned whenever a guest requests non-vegetarian fare. After some discussion, Sohana Banu—whose father used to work for the Kadris — decided on a light khatta gosht for me. The meal was topped off with a delicate doodh paak. Although expensive by Ahmedabad standards, the lunch was very enjoyable because of its authentic, home-cooked character and grand setting.
Admittedly, Divan’s Bungalow is not a hotel for those who expect hushed silence, an army of neat bellboys and an upmarket location. If, however, you are the kind who likes to explore little winding staircases, Chinese patterned tiles and unexpected graves; to while away a morning in a shady inner courtyard and watch the bulbuls flap and madhumalti bloom; to wander through intriguing little alleys, then Divan’s Bungalow is the perfect “non-hotel” for you.
Location Divan’s Bungalow, Opposite Gaikwad Haveli, M.B. Kadri Marg, Raikhad II. About 45 minutes from the airport and 20 minutes from the railway station
Accommodation Three rooms and five suites, all overlooking the courtyard
Tariff Rs 4,000 (rooms), Rs 5,000 (most suites) and Rs 6,000 (first-floor suite with jharokhas), including breakfast. Lunch and dinner Rs 450 and Rs 550 per head
Contact 09179-25355428, divans-bungalow.neemranahotels.com