Society

Fairlawn Hotel gave off the scent of antiquity — a bit damp, and wholly old Calcutta

‘For quite some time, only beer was available and that too in the front garden, which became rather raucous as the night drew on’   | Photo Credit: fairlawnhotel.com

When the British left India they forgot to take Fairlawn Hotel with them. So for 70 years, this ‘corner of a foreign field’ has sat happily in Sudder Street, being British. Or rather, reminding us Britons of what we used to be like.

Not exactly frozen in time, because improvements were made over the years, Fairlawn nevertheless had an ambience firmly rooted in 1930s British India. There was a comforting atmosphere of chintz furnishings, proper dressing-tables, spacious almirahs, and a reliable dhobi service. When you dialled ‘Reception’ a room bearer came immediately to assist you. Fluffy white dogs belonging to the owners, Violet and Ted Smith, occupied chairs on the landing at the top of the handsome staircase. They (the dogs, not the owners) growled gently if you tried to move them, but any right-minded Briton would rather suffer hours of discomfort than move a sleeping dog or cat from its chair.

Jolly evenings

On the first floor of Fairlawn is the grandest room where parties and receptions were held in the 18th century. It had taken the British some time to figure out that rooms above street level could be cooler than those on the ground floor, particularly if there were open arches through which the fugitive breezes could enter.

The colonial bungalow at the core of Fairlawn was built in 1783 by the Englishman William Ford who had bought a plot of land here two years earlier. The original bungalow was a simple rectangular structure of two floors, each with a large central hall and with covered verandas running around the exterior walls. Access to the first floor would have been via an exterior staircase, but at some point during the 19th century, an interior staircase was constructed, which allowed extra rooms to be added.

A number of other alterations took place too, which the practised eye can see. The front verandah was extended outwards towards Sudder Street, and iron columns were inserted to support the new garden room above. It was from here that diners below could hear shrieks of laughter on jolly evenings when Violet entertained the British Deputy High Commissioner and other friends to drinks.

Fairlawn Hotel gave off the scent of antiquity — a bit damp, and wholly old Calcutta

Those of us supping in the ground floor dining room were a little envious, because we couldn’t get the traditional gin and tonics with our evening meal. For quite some time, only beer was available and that too in the front garden, which became rather raucous as the night drew on.

I want to pay tribute to Fairlawn, where many happy days (and nights with a much-loved Indian friend) were spent from 1988 onwards. The first thing I looked for, whenever lucky enough to get the farthest ground floor room, was something that cannot be visualised — it was the smell, the heady perfume of antiquity, a bit naphthalene, a bit damp, and wholly old Calcutta.

My favourite room was part of the inner veranda, which had been compartmentalised at some point with panelled doors. The doors had been firmly painted over and couldn’t be opened, although the marks of the bolts and locks were visible through the thick cream paint.

At night I would imagine a procession of friendly phantoms from old Calcutta passing through these doors and into my room, dressed in their empire-line muslin costumes and stiff red broadcloth uniforms. These were British ghosts but there were also a number of faithful Indian spirits who spent quiet evenings in the corner of my room dozing on charpoys while they waited for the sahibs and memsahibs to retire for the night.

Guests and quirks

As a historian I am perhaps over-sensitive to the past — old buildings and old rooms attract and often haunt me. In an idle moment, when I happened to have a tape-measure with me, I measured the width of the outer wall in my room that led onto the veranda — it was 26 inches wide, over two feet of solid brick to keep out the heat. My ceiling was made of teak beams brought from Burma. When I sat at breakfast in the ground floor hall I could trace the outline on the far wall of earlier doors which had been bricked up when alterations were made.

Of course, not everything at Fairlawn was perfect. Indian staff were made to wear white gloves when serving food to Europeans until well into the 1990s. This peculiar custom arose because white people were said not to like the sight of brown hands serving their food. And there is no doubt that would-be Indian guests were discouraged from checking in at the hotel.

But I won’t let Fairlawn go lightly. It was special and it attracted special guests, whose names will be more familiar to Britons than to Indians — Dan Cruickshank, the architectural historian, Ian Hislop, the editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, and many other quirky foreigners. All of us have sat in the uncomfortable basket chairs in the front veranda, reading the newspapers and waiting for our friends.

Fairlawn was one of the last places to positively encourage smoking — there were proper ashtrays on the occasional bamboo tables and even after I gave up smoking, the odd cigarette, bought from the corner store opposite, would entice me back to bad habits. Everything was painted apple green — the basket chairs, the iron pillars, and the reception area where Sam greeted guests and patiently answered their silly questions with unfailing courtesy.

It had a special place in old Calcutta for those who either couldn’t afford the Grand Hotel or the Great Eastern Hotel, or who preferred something more intimate.

Everyone who has stayed here will have their own memories — my friends who didn’t realise there was hot water until their third day there because no one had shown them how to turn on the hot-water heater; the British aid-worker back from a gruelling year in Odisha who needed to relax; the retired Calcutta policeman who sought me out last year and my numerous friends who knew where to find me whenever I stayed in the city.

Dr. Llewellyn-Jones is an independent scholar and historian, and lives in London with two cats called Havelock and Lawrence.


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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 10:36:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/fairlawn-hotel-gave-off-the-scent-of-antiquity-a-bit-damp-and-wholly-old-calcutta/article22917532.ece

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