We’ve splurged on The Fairlawn in Kolkata for 2 nights. A splendid old bungalow which makes a bold, persistent and unashamed declaration of love to the colour green. (We are told that old, venerable, recently departed and lately lamented Mrs Smith, the formidable and legendary Lady of the House, had the paintwallahs out each day painting anything that didn’t move… old marble tiles and living trees not even spared.)
With Mrs Smith’s passing and the inability of her UK based daughter to continue the family tradition this historic hotel has passed into the hands of the Elgin-Oberoi group. “Oh no” we hear you gasp, “ another beautiful historic hotel is to be plasticised, sanitised, euthanised, and corporatised” ! Fear not sensitive and aesthetic readers, patrons of the arts and lovers of Corinthian columns with all the curlicues.
There are two Oberoi hotel families in India. The larger is MS Oberoi, he of the 5 Star Modern oases of comfort and Grand afternoon teas.
The gem of the family though is his nephew ‘Diamond’ Brij Raj Oberoi whose hotels capture the charm of ages-past, update the amenities and preserve the soul of these places. Below are we with Diamond and his equally charming son Viraj.
Think of them as guardians of good times, preservers of good-things-past. We had a good gas bag with them about their plans and they are very committed to maintaining the hotel’s highly idiosyncratic heritage values whilst also getting the hot water running.
Diamond’s chain adorns the NE Frontier, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim and the like. Diamond was raised in Darjeeling and educated by Belgian Jesuits.
Billy was here decades ago during the era of Mr and Mrs Ted and Violet Smith –
At that time it was all “Sahib” this and “Memsahib” that, chaps could be heard saying things to other chaps like
“Jolly good show”, “ that’s the ticket”, and referring to each other as “chaps”, all the faithful retainers were in full if slightly faded India regalía, chintz, G&Ts at sunset and dusty, partially disintegrating comfort. Strangely Anglo-Indian food was dished up, by barefoot, turbaned, elderly waiters in livery, brown soups, meat and three and puddings. On one memorable occasion Bill dined with a Dutch Mariner, an Assamese Tea Magnate and a BBC Doco maker.
The doco maker was in Cal to film a story about an indentured labourer. Indentured labourers are really slaves whose initially small debts spiral and spiral through usurious interest rates into debts they can never, ever repay, and which their children, and their children after them inherit.
Well, the documentary was made and the former indentured labourer, now a wealthy man after several weeks of pay at the standard BBC rate, paid off his debt and had a sizeable amount of cash left. He liked the idea of going into business for himself. “ What sort of business will you set up “ ? Inquired the doco maker. “Sahib”, the man replied, “I will become a money-lender” !
Famous fellow guests include Melvyn Douglas, Felicity Kendal and Günter Grass.
It has been acquired by Diamond’s Elgin Hotel group and is in the process of restoration now. Not Renovation but Restoration – an appropriate distinction that Diamond made to us when we met him today.
Diamond Oberoi acquires historic hotels and palaces and makes them the best version of themselves whilst preserving their charm and their essence. Both father, Diamond, mother, Nimmi and son, Viraj are charm personified. They have welcomed us to their hotel with the hospitality of family. Think of the charisma of Simon the Likeable from Get Smart. They are the added bonus of The Fairlawn.
Built around 1783 ( 5 years before Cpt Philip rounded the heads into Sydney harbour) ! and turned into a hotel in 1936 it is one of the few remaining Kolkata hotels that haven’t been gussied up and HolidayInned into the sameness of most modern hotels.
The restoration plans are subtle and sympathetic. Get rid of the modern add-ons, replace only where necessary, but ensure a level of comfort appropriate to a hotel in the Elgin group.
Oh and maybe tone down the surfeit of green.
I do hope, however that they keep that zany front wall.
There’s supposed to be a ghost at The Fairlawn and we ask Viraj about it. He hasn’t seen it but certainly everyone feels the warmth of this place so it must be a very friendly beneficient one. Add to this the red-headed, yellow-breasted woodpecker (we’ve only seen one, Viraj has seen a pair) and the good omens are out there a-plenty.
We breakfasted this morning, bumping into the lovely Ulli, a retired gastro-enterologist from Southern Germany who is here to work on the ambulance service for 7 weeks. A noble man.
City of Joy. City of Wonders and Wonderful People.
A little update. Uli sent us a picture from the clinic in Howrah.