The Taj at Apollo Bunder released recently chronicles the 108 years of the existence of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, and evokes spellbinding sentiment.
The ceaseless clippity-clop of horses hooves is oddly reassuring. I'm in the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, in a plush hushed room. Its gleaming windows overlook the imposing Gateway of India, and a sassily sparkly sea, strewn with boats.
From the window I watch awed crowds gaze at the hotel, between joy rides in gaudy horse-drawn carriages and buying balloons. They stare unabashedly, their arms filled with children, cotton-candy and cameras. I don't blame them. We've all been there. Even during my blasé teenage party years, when evenings at Café Mondegar and Leopolds were followed with dancing at the hotel's discotheque, it was always slightly intimidating to walk into the Taj Mahal's grand lobby, filled with golden light and the lingering scent of expensive perfume.
Today, all I can think of is the terrorist attack of November 26, 2008. Mental images of the fire, guns and bodies flash through my mind while exploring my room on the fifth floor. This and the floor above was where the terrorists wreaked havoc, took hostages and set up camp. I know all this because the hotel staff have helpfully left a copy of the recently released book, The Taj At Apollo Bunder by historians Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi in my room. As pragmatic as I'd like to be, it's disconcerting to flip though photographs, seeing spaces I'm occupying riddled with bullet holes, burnt furnishing and broken glass.
Yet, both Dwivedi and Raymond Bickson, Managing Director and Chief Executive, Indian Hotels Company Ltd, insist that this chapter was necessary. Dwivedi talks of how they worked on the book for 32 years. They originally planned to release it on the hotel's 100 anniversary, eight years ago. “But this century, especially the events of 26/11, have moved the country so much. This is the right time,” she says.
“We needed to tell the stories,” says Bickson. “We didn't know how to acknowledge the way the staff reacted, their heroism.” Recording it was one way. “The book is all about the people. The spirit of the people. It's this spirit that makes up the Taj,” he states. “It's wonderful to chronicle 100 years. Even better to chronicle 108!”
Although the prose is fairly ordinary and the interviews sometimes border on naïve, the book's stories are redeemed by their breathless earnestness and meticulous research. “We looked through libraries and government archives, old newspapers and magazines. Did 150 interviews in all to record the oral history…” says Dwivedi, explaining why this hotel is special. “It was built in the midst of the worst plague epidemic the city had ever seen.” “Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata loved this city, and he wanted to draw people back. Nobody would put in the money, so he put it up himself… it ended up being called Tata's White Elephant,” says Dwivedi, talking of how 100 per cent of the profits used to go into the Tata Trust to be used for charity. “Even after it went public, huge amounts of money continue to go into the trust.”
This was the playground of Indian princes, maharajas and nawabs who trooped in during the early 1900s. The princesses called hawkers from Apollo Bunder to their suites to buy trinkets and fine Chinese silk. In the evenings they would “take the air” in a horse-drawn carriage, much like the peanut-chomping holiday-makers of today, drinking in Mumbai as they rumble around the hotel.
It wasn't all high-voltage glamour. Historians Allen and Dwivedi have also unearthed cheeky anecdotes of more rustic days. In 1966, the building was so run-down the President of Hilton hotels said the old Taj will remain standing “only as long as the termites keep holding hands.” Earlier, the hotel hosted a variety of cats, dogs and pigs for “Dumb Friends Night”. The highlight was Ataturk the dancing horse, who gingerly climbed the grand staircase in hip leather boots with crepe soles, put on so he wouldn't slip.
Stories like these explain why people are sentimental about the hotel. They don't explain why staff were willing to risk their lives for the guests. “Many of them are third generation of families who have worked here,” says Bickson. “They own the hotel. These are the people who give it its soul.”
It's the hotel's 108th birthday, and its corridors are buzzing with decorators, arms filled with fresh flowers, readying the ballroom for a celebratory cocktail party, during which the book will be formally launched. At night the view from my room is appropriately dramatic, given the occasion. The dark sea is strung with joyously lit boats. A concert in progress at the Gateway of India wraps the whole scene with the swelling, spectacular music of Vande Mataram.
Later, in the courtyard, under the comfortingly familiar shadow of that signature red dome, Maharaja of Udaipur Arvind Singh Mewar reads an extract about how it all began with 17 paying guests. “Full board for Rs 20.” Writer William Dalrymple, joking about how he “got the firangi spot” reads about Sarojini Naidu, who had a suite kept at her disposal in the hotel.
Actress Juhi Chawla's bubbly speech is about how her mother joined the hotel “as a simple housekeeper.” She giggles, “I looked at the Taj with stars in my eyes, and said I want to work here too. My mother said, ‘Ok. But don't do housekeeping. Do sales and marketing'.”
Next up is film-maker Shekhar Kapur who confesses that when he first came to Mumbai he “was one of those guys standing outside wondering when I could get in.” He adds, “This is where ‘Bombay Dreams' launched… at a party where A.R. Rahman and Andrew Lloyd Weber sat together at a piano and composed for an hour.” Once the book is unveiled by Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, along with R.K. Krishna Kumar, director, Tata Sons, and Bickson, Tata speaks of how he visited the hotel as a small boy. “The stone monument, landmark of the city has always mesmerized me. It's a symbol of solidarity,” he says. “Those of us who witnessed the carnage witnessed the spirit of the people.” He talks of how the staff protected their guests, “At great risk to themselves, in some cases at the cost of their lives,” stating that the Taj has become a symbol of defiance. “We did get hurt, we did get mauled, but we didn't fall.”
Back in my room, once the lights are off, it's disconcertingly still. I listen to the horses outside, and mentally go over the book's more heart-warming stories: How a guest resigned to his fate at the Zodiac Grill restaurant helped himself to a bottle of the finest Louis Roederer champagne, while grenades and guns were going off all around. Waiter Prakash Bangera stopped him. Then, requested him to wait so he could take out the correct champagne flutes.
Bickson says they conducted prayers led by priests and clerics of various religious beliefs — Parsi, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh — before the reopening. The “cleansing”/ “exorcism” began with Gandhi's favourite hymn “Abide with me” and ended with “We shall overcome”. Whatever your beliefs, undeniably what triumphed here is courage. This was a place of tragedy. But it's also a place of great heroism. And inexplicable sacrifices. We've heard all the stories. But it's only from the inside that you feel them come alive.
Keywords: Taj Mahal Palace Hotel