By Karan Thapar
Memories can be tricky, even unreliable. But those I have of the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay most definitely are not. They’re vivid, detailed and unshakeable. They capture something of the special quality of these hotels — their indomitable spirit, air of privileged class and soothing service.
It’s the shining brass surfaces of the Oberoi that first come to mind. Even late at night, there was a discrete footman ready to rub off grimy fingerprints as guests pushed the large revolving door to enter the hotel. Having done so, he would melt away as swiftly and silently as he had emerged.
In the mornings there was a similar attendant with a dust cloth standing by the lifts. He kept the brass surfaces so highly buffed you could check your hair or the crease on your jacket in the reflection. And, if I’m not mistaken, he was always smiling. A boyish, perhaps impish grin, that seemed to forgive you for soiling the gleaming brass.
Wood was the dominant feature of the old Taj. It gave the hotel its historic look. As you walked past the rooms, your hand dawdling on the smooth painted balustrade, you could feel yourself travelling back in time. And if you walked down the grand stairs, you half expected to see a horse-drawn carriage or, at least, an open top Ford Model T waiting for you.
Unless someone had told you, you’d never have realised the Taj was built the wrong way round. But this meant the pool was always bathed in sunshine. And there was always laughter from the happy guests surrounding it. The back verandahs were a favourite place for tea and snacks.
But the memory that I cherish is of a quiet swim late one summer evening as dusk began to fall on the city. As the gold and auburn colours of the setting sun fell across its surface, the pool seemed to turn magical. I was alone and the only sound apart from the swishing water was a gentle breeze in the trees.
Both hotels maintained coffee shops that welcomed fugitives escaping the hot sticky Bombay afternoon. If the Shamiana was better known, the Samarkand, as it used to be, had the advantage of a location outside the hotel itself. I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981 over two consecutive afternoons and several cups of espresso. Cappuccino was still unknown in India. The waiters knew I was a student who couldn’t afford more but they treated me like any other guest.
I was a teenager when I first dined at the Zodiac Grill. The restaurant had an awesome reputation and I was both excited and intimidated. Sitting at the table, facing its collection of glass and shining cutlery, I felt awkward and self-conscious. Yet the waiter, who shook open the napkin before handing it over, treated me like an adult. When he realised I was ordering injudiciously, guided more by the cost than an understanding of the dish, he gently steered me
to a wiser choice. It turned out that Sole Albert, my initial pick, was just a fancy name for a very expensive steamed fish.
In the 90s, when work took me to Bombay three times a month, my favourite was the lobby level coffee shop at the Oberoi. I would often weekend in the city and brunch on Sunday morning was a particular pleasure at La Brasserie. There was so much to choose I was often paralysed by indecision. “Try a little bit of everything,” one of the waiters said on my first visit. I did. I ended up changing plates seven times.
But I do have one regret I could kick
myself for. I wish I had spent more time in the Sea Lounge at the Taj. I meant to but apart from tea on a couple of occasions we remained strangers. Now I promise
to atone as soon as it reopens. I’ll find a place by an open window, looking out, beyond the promenade, deep into the azure Arabian Sea, where I shall sip fragrant Darjeeling tea and nibble Petit Beurre biscuits.