"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Taj Hotel


The Taj was always one of my favorite hotels, an elegant grande dame of the British Raj, tall, ornate, overlooking the Gateway of India in Bombay and perfect in service, rooms, lobbies, and appointments.  Staying at the Taj was a trip back to the Raj with liveried coachmen, white-jacketed waiters, pukka afternoon tea and gin-and-tonics, polished brass fixtures (the nasty smell of Brasso soon became associated with old British hotels), teak and mahogany, planters, and flowers.   The rooms were spacious (although nothing like the deluxe suites of the Five Star hotels of Jakarta and Singapore which were more like the ground floors of Potomac McMansions than hotel rooms), light, and airy, with many overlooking the Arabian Sea.  Breakfasts and dinners were formal with white linen tablecloths, silver, and crystal.  My kind of place; and one of many in South Asia that I visited.

I landed in Bombay in December, 1968, my first trip out of the United States; and when I walked along the promenade at India Gate, the Arabian Sea in front of me, the grand Taj behind, and the mass of India everywhere surrounding, I thought how lucky I was, and what a great decision I made.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune….India!!  Alone, 26, adventure, romance, fakirs, elephants, ganja, and coffee-cream-colored, sari-ed women for the asking.

From the very beginning my aerograms were filled with the wonder of India – the kaleidoscopic markets, the smells of spices, cow dung, jasmine, low tide; rickshaws, Ambassador taxis, Tata trucks, B.E.S.T busses, cows, cyclists, dhots, saris, naked sadhus…I repeated to everyone: “I can’t believe I am here!”

My first contact with India was in a rooming house in Pittsburgh where one of the roomers was a graduate student from Calcutta.  She was from the Black Hole of Calcutta, had those dark rings around her eyes that to me meant Indian women, ate vegetarian food cooked on a hotplate in her room.   That and a greasy Pakistani meal at the 1964 World’s Fair, eaten just to be different.  When I joined CARE, I was initially slated to go to Algeria, a place I had always wanted to visit ever since I saw L’Etranger.  The scene where friends are eating a civilized lunch on a pier on the Mediterranean, under umbrellas in the brilliant sunshine was North Africa.  I wanted to eat civilized lunches, live in a Mediterranean climate, eat oranges and fresh fish.  At the last minute, CARE said that I was to go to India.  Thinking of the greasy puris and the raccoon eyes of Miss Tripathi, I hesitated, but went.

I did not stay at the Taj in those first few weeks in Bombay, but in a much more modest hotel not far from Breach Candy and the water where the office was.  I was so excited about being in India that I remember nothing about the hotel except the sound of the crows (kites) that for me then and now are the sound of Bombay.  In all the movies of Merchant Ivory set in Bombay, you can hear the crows, and I am back.  I recently watched THE HOUSEHOLDER and BOMBAY TALKIES, films set in Bombay at the time when I was there; and the crows were cawing.

Behind the Taj was the Rex hotel where I went with a Goan friend I met in the first week I was in Bombay.  This was a depressing hotel.  It was dark, dirty, and climbing the steps to the door, rats scurried across my sandaled feet.  They would squeak and scatter if I stepped into them with my toes.  The Rex was a hotel for heroin addicts.  I had never seen this scene in my time in New York driving a taxi.  Each room was lit with one ceiling bare bulb, and hat a cot and a chair.  Addicts were nodding in chairs, asleep on the grey sheets of the cots, or stumbling in the room and in the halls. 

Two years after I had moved to Delhi, I returned to Bombay to brief a new American Administrator who had come to take my place.  I stayed at the Taj.  After so many months having tea in the lobby, drinks in the Permit Room (all foreigners had to register as “Certified Alcoholics” to get served liquor in Bombay), and dinner in the restaurants, I got to stay in the hotel, and the rooms were all that I had expected.  They had not lost their lustre, their well-kept elegance, and old period-piece furniture. 

At that time the New Taj was being constructed next door.  It would look nothing like the old, historic, colonial hotel, but would be a multi-story tower – the new India.  What amazed me was the silence at the construction site: the hotel was being built by hand! Up and down bamboo scaffolding went Rajasthani women with headloads; and the only sound was the clink-clink of hammers finishing the concrete walls.  It was the New India, but was most definitely being built by the Old.

The other hotels in Maharashtra where I stayed while “on tour” were non-descript.  I loved taking the train up the ghats, a climb of about 2000 feet which made all the difference in the world.  The clinging, oppressive humidity disappeared about half way up – I remember the spot because there were cascades of water falling down the mountains (I tried to travel in the rainy season when it was cool enough for a sweater in Poona.  It is hard to imagine a life in the torrid heat with no air conditioning and how a trip up the ghats was anticipated for weeks).  The Shreyas hotel in Poona was a simple, concrete and glass hotel with no frills – hard wood beds with thin mattresses and a single cotton covering; toilet and sink, and one tiny tea towel for bathing.  But each room had a balcony overlooking the courtyard where breakfast was prepared.  Dirty pots and pans were scrubbed with water and ash, scraps were given to the goats, and dishes rinsed in a bucket of greyish water.  So the view from the balcony was good – you got to see an Indian “kitchen”; and bad because you saw what was coming up to your room.

I tried to go to Nagpur, the geographical center of India in Maharashtra, and one of the hottest places on the subcontinent in summer, but delightfully cool, fresh, and brilliant in the winter.  Its main crop was oranges, and in winter the smell of oranges blossoms was intoxicating.  In summer, however, there was only incessant, brutal, forge-like heat and dust.  The hotels had no air conditioning and the only way to get relief was to soak a sheet in water, cover yourself with it, and turn the ceiling fan on full blast.  The rapidly evaporating water chilled the sheet, and for a few blessed minutes you could feel cool and comfortable.  However, in the desert dryness of Nagpur, and in the 100F heat of the room which never cooled because it faced West, the brief moments of relief passed quickly. 

I never complained, however.  This was the adventure I had been looking for ever since the moment in graduate school when I met returnees from Peace Corps 1 and 2.  I was in India!!!

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