The BNR hotel, Puri, keeps early hours. At a few minutes after 8pm, a few minutes after we had arrived tired and dirty, we were summoned to dinner. I began to beg: a little more time? A shower? A beer? Two ancient retainers, with inclusive job descriptions — bellboy, waiter, housekeeper, errand-man, cleaner — and names like ‘Ramu Kaka’, hovered solicitously and volubly. In ten minutes, I learnt their personal histories, the history of the hotel, the ways and wiles of regular guests. They had been here for thirty years and twenty-four years each.
I was intimidated before dinner. I needed my father; he would have understood perfectly their courteous but raucous wisecracks, known exactly the tip expected for such services as procuring cold beer (solicited) and peanuts (unsolicited), instinctively found his way around the complicated politics of a sahib-old retainer relationship.
Minestrone soup, crumb-fried chicken and pudding didn’t much help either. Oh, I was very happy with the contents and quality of the meal, but I didn’t belong. Not like the Bengali matron with the low-cut sari blouse who sipped her coffee demurely, or her stolid husband who insouciantly burped his pleasure at the classic meal. Not even like the middle-aged Russian lady in her lace-and-net white top who sat smoking and staring out of the wide, lawn-facing windows.
If you’re under forty, this hotel will seem like it exists for your parents. Even if they aren’t ninety years old. The BNR hotel was founded in 1922 by a British undertaking, the Bengal Nagpur Railway Company, when the thirty-four-roomed Ashworth House Estate was bought from a Dr Elmes. It’s universally known as ‘the BNR’ — in spite of the fact that the company no longer exists, or that it is now owned and operated by the South-Eastern Railway, or that it is in fact officially the ‘SER Hotel, Puri’.
The building had recently been painted a bright shade of pastel pink. I could claim that this is all that’s changed at the famously frozen-in-time hotel. But that’s not true, of course; it’s changed in the way that, perhaps, our parents have. It still offers table tennis, billiards and croquet; but now only if you ask. The rooms are still vast, still have old clotheshorses, and old ceiling fans, and mosquito nets on four-poster beds; but the dressing table is cheap laminate. There are still wicker planters’ chairs on the spacious, breezy corridor-cum-balcony; but plastic ashtrays on the tables. A lot of the ancient and familiar remains; expedient change has been calmly incorporated. A must-visit hotel.
Tariff Rs 2,200 Contact 06752-223006, chanakyabnrpuri.com
Postscript: Someone’s finally bought the BNR (it’s now called the Chanakya BNR Puri) and it’s probably a lot more comfortable than when I visited. Parquet floors, chandeliers, shiny wood veneer beds, inaccurate claims about the hotel’s royal past. I’ll take discomfort any day. –NP