Friday, November 28, 2008

THE OTHER TAJ - A TRIBUTE


For more than a hundred years she has been that iconic image that comes to anyone’s mind when you say “Bombay”. This unimaginable, horrific image of the Taj Hotel, I know, is bringing an ache to every heart in Bombay today. Have we not all loved and cherished this grand old dame keeping an elegant watch on the shores of our city; a city that looks at her in turn so much with pride. As I write this I am watching on television her burnt shell, blasted windows and charred columns, a fire raging inside; both her and me . I cannot believe it. I am weeping but the tears do not douse that fire.

Just twenty four hours before the mad carnage began I was at the poolside of the Taj enjoying the cool night breeze there with dear friends ; sipping a glass of red wine and laughingly telling the sweet, bright young man who waited at our table to guard my laptop with his life while I went to the ladies’ room. My dear child, I pray and hope you are safe home and in the bosom of your family and may no one ever talk to you again of your precious life as lightly as I did. I hope you will forgive me for that thoughtless remark. I cannot bring myself to think of what you may have undergone just twenty four hours later ; today I read in some newspaper report that the pool was red with spilt blood , as red as the warm wine you served me by its side.

The Taj – every one I know in Bombay has at least a handful of special memories associated with this beautiful edifice which is much more than just the #1 hotel. My young friend Alakta was married here; “Oh Aunty,” she wailed to me on the phone today, “in that very suite that has been burning all day! Oh my heart is broken seeing that”!

I will never forget my first visit to the Taj. A visit that was as special as special can be. It was in 1976. My husband and I were invited to dine with my favourite Uncle and Aunty (I have always called them that, everyone in my family calls them that including my parents whose best friends they were.) who were visiting from Hyderabad. I had practically grown up in their house (during my childhood years in Pondicherry) and they were meeting my husband for the first time and were seeing me as a young mother; yes, my six months old first born was with us. Before taking us down to dine at the Golden Dragon that Mecca of all Chinese Restaurants that is one of the gems that shine in this Taj, Aunty had ensured that a baby sitter from the hotel would stay back in their charming room to look after our sleeping baby. Oh what luxury and what kindness shown to a young, gauche mother.

More than thirty years since that first time and till today, I have caught myself, like so many others, very often being drawn to the gracious portals of the Taj.

The Taj in my “welcome to Bombay” guide book is a mandatory stop for anyone who came to visit with me. I simply had to take my guests there to have a look at that marvel of an architectural masterpiece. And to listen to the oft recounted (maybe not entirely true but worth the telling anyway) tale of how this mammoth hotel was by mistake built with its front facade facing the back streets of Colaba instead of the sea ? And how the French architect killed himself in grief?

I love this picture of my dear friend from land locked Chandigarh exulting in the beauty of the hotel and lovely sea breeze that caresses your face as you stand looking out at the waters.


At one time the lobby was an amazing, classy and beautifully designed work of art. I can still vividly recall the intricately patterned , deep velvety carpet , the stylish sofas around it and the gigantic flower arrangement ; the centerpiece adding the final classy touch with its colour coordinated gladioli and chrysanthemums . I remember we would save up for a once- in -a -while treat; the brunch at the Shamiana which in those days was just off this charming lobby and offered quite a feast.

And after the brunch it was mandatory we step into Nalanda the “little” bookshop which however seemed to be big enough to have place for any title one was looking for.

Then suddenly one day they changed the décor; to garish gold and patterned marble with shades of Dubai sheen and shine both in the lobby and the foyer outside – ouch! The simulated waterfall was even worse. But then we forgave them this trespass for was I not able to, anytime, walk into the Taj and powder my nose at their most comfortable “facilities”. I will today shamelessly confess that many is the time I have just walked in, while in that part of town, returning gracious, polite smiles of the wonderful staff and popped in to visit the well appointed Ladies’ Room. On the way, every single time I would stop to gaze in delight at the glassed enclosure on the wall that contained some of the rarest most beautiful photographs of the Taj's famous guests. Queen Elizabeth and Jackie O , Maharani Gayatri Devi,a breathtakingly lovley , young Shobha De, John Lennon, the dashing Nasser and so many others .

One also forgave them, then, those momentarily misguided souls responsible for the new décor for did they not leave the heavenly Sea Lounge untouched and un spoilt?
Another favourite haunt , the Sea Lounge where one could sit at a secluded window and look out at the calm , beautiful waters of the Arabian Sea lapping away gently at the steps leading to the Gateway of India . I have regularly put away a little of my pin money to splurge on a bottle of chilled Kingfisher while catching up with my work there on many a quiet afternoon; I have brought special friends and family to spend charmed, precious moments together here and one evening after thrilling to Titanic at the Regal I came with my mother, to soothe our nerves with the smooth sea under the windows and trying to forget the disturbing waters that swallowed up handsome D’caprio .

The kindly steward who shared his name with my old college librarian and the gentleman with the magic fingers as they slid over the piano keys added to the perfect atmosphere of this magical lounge on the first floor of the heritage building.

And was it not to the Sea Lounge that my husband and I brought our newly wedded son and his lovely bride one Christmas eve? Yes, it was, and where we met someone,also a familiar frequentor of the Lounge ,the gracious Rusi Lala and his lovely wife ( Mr Lala, author of For the Love of India — The Life and Times of Jamsetji Tata and my Guru in Cancer Care) And it was to the Sea Lounge we came a few years later,with our other son and daughter in law, to drink to the health of our granddaughter, the day she was born in far away Montreal. One day we will bring her too, so she can sit and sip wine in the hotel where years and years ago her Papa, when he was six months old slept in sweet comfort under the watchful eye of the hotel baby-sitter!!

Wah Taj , I wait for that day .

15 comments:

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Very moving. I remember that you took me too there as part of an unofficial tour of Bombay, and how you told me its history.

Viji said...

And Raji we saw Ratan Tata walk down to the water's edge at the Gateway as we stood there drinking in the beauty .....remember ?

Zed said...

Eloquent and heart-felt, and I would have expected nothing less from the amazing Viji Venkatesh, a Goddess of the Universe.

And, You and I too, Viji, have gone to the Taj's Sea Lounge for chai and dessert, after a most peaceful afternoon of meandering through Colaba; after lunch at Cafe Samovar and our early explorations of the Sassoon Library, where you subsequently became a member...

Memories. Just one of a few from a life, in such a special place.

Varun Reddy Sevva said...

I felt all that idolizing of the Taj by the media was pure BS and that it was nothing but another old hotel... I think my view has changed for the better now... Thanks...

Jude said...

That was a beautiful vignette you put together Viji, a sepia-tinted walk down memory lane with the charming Old Lady of Apollo Bunder.

Yes indeed, this wonderfully iconic monument has been part of our lives, a silent sentinel to our years of lightning, and now our days of thunder.

I remember the time in the late Eighties, when I worked as pathologist at Northcote Nursing Home on Ormiston Road , and was often called upon to draw the blood of indisposed guests at the Taj for laboratory investigations, among them celebrities like the beautiful Maharani Gayatri Devi .

Like Zed, I too have fond memories of that day we spent together in the meandering environs of south Bombay,culminating at the Sea Lounge where I was moved enough to scribble verse on the paper serviettes as we sipped our chilled liquid refreshments.

May this gracious lady ,the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, rise again like a phoenix to future glory !

- Jude Winston Vaz

Irfan said...

Dear Viji,

Thank you for this tribute - it made me even more homesick than ever. Three weeks ago my friend Danny and I were in the Sea Lounge having a drink (this after a trip to Mondegar and then a walk past Leopold's).

How terrible this is.

To Bombay!

Cheers, Irfan

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

It is soo sad it burnt the way it did. I have seen the Taj only once-when i was too young to remember. My parents visited it last year when they toured Mumbai...and i said i'll stay back home. I guess that was a big mistake...but im sure that one day, Taj will regain all that it has lost. I trust that thought. A very moving and touching peice, and powerful and honest writing.

Rajeev R said...

The first time I came to Bombay (during my engagement with Shilpa)...I had gone out for a small sight-seeing trip of Bombay. I hadn't seen the Gateway of India & wanted to go there first...When I reached there I was actually disappointed. The Gateway wasn't as majestic as I thought it to be.

We then boarded a boat which would take us to the Elephanta Caves. And then...when the boat started moving slowly into the sea...I saw the "Taj Mahal of Mumbai....!!"

What a sight..!! I'm a sucker for great architectures. And this one was awesome..!! I kept looking at it till it went out of sight. But it never went out of mind. This architecture stuck in my mind just like the "Taj Mahal of Agra".

Thank god it didn't crumble like the JW Marriot in Pakistan. I know it would be restored. But the "scar" would take time to heal....!!

shilpa said...

I HAVE NO WORDS TO SAY..BUT TOO MUCH IN GRIEF,, I M JUST PRAYING FOR ALL THE INNOCENT PEOPLE AND OUR BRAVE OFFICERS WHO LAID THEIR LIVES FOR US TO LIVE IN PEACE...I CRIED EVERY SCENE I SAW ON TV.

Beena Narayanan said...

Dearest Viji, YOU are no less amazing than the Taj! How on Earth do you find the time to write such beautiful stuff, after all that you do? I hereby commit right now to going to the Taj with you, once it is re-opened.

Amogh said...

Ive been to the Taj just once (with Sonal, when she had come here!)...the one thing I remember was how polite and courteous the staff were in spite of the fact that I was at my dishevelled best...not something one experiences at most 5 star hotels...

And now everyday I read about how helpful and self-sacrificing they were even during a crisis such as this one...somehow, to me, these actions were far more symbolic of Taj than the building itself...

Darna said...

This is indeed very sad that such beautiful and magnificient work of art was destroyed :( My visit to Taj Hotel was one of the highlights of my 1st trip to Mumbai in 2005. Hope they can restore the place soon.

Nice of you to write a tribute.

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Miaow!!! said...

You touched my heart!!!
Your words infused life into a structure of mortar, brick and cement!!!


www.3madmoggies.blogspot.com

Clara said...

Thanks Viji, my dear. Thanks for this post. See you in our beloved Bombay in January. Clara (and Riccardo) from Italy