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Kolkata Diary

I moved to Kolkata at the end of 1986. The company I then worked for had a laidback attitude to life, so nobody had worried too much about where I would stay.

They suggested I camp out at the New Kenilworth, which was, in that era, an establishment of such charm and efficiency, that I moved out as quickly as I could the next morning.

 

I ended up at the The Oberoi Grand. As you probably know, the Grand is a legendary Kolkata hotel, which was saved from going under by the late Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi in the 1940s. This was all very well but in 1986, the hotel was (by the standards of the Oberoi chain), rundown and depressing.

 

   There was no real entrance. You walked past the shops on Chowringhee till you found a small door.

 

   It looked like it led to a speakeasy or a place that sold dirty postcards but it was, in fact, the entrance to the city’s top hotel. The rest of the hotel lived up to its dingy entrance.

 

   So you will understand the excitement when the Taj finally came to town. Nobody wanted to build hotels in Kolkata, so Jyoti Basu, who was then chief minister, requested J.R.D. Tata to open a Taj property. The Taj agreed on the condition that the state gave them a nice piece of land in front of the zoo. No sooner was the land allotted than various alleged birdwatchers began filing lawsuits claiming that the building would frighten away migrating birds.

 

   I have always been fascinated by their argument which was, in effect, that birds would fly thousands of miles from Siberia to Kolkata till they came to the new Taj hotel. “Oh my God”, they would chirp. “We can’t stay in this city”. And so they would fly back to Siberia, disgusted by the thought that a deluxe hotel had opened.

 

   Obviously, the argument could not be sustained. And the case collapsed. But the delay helped the Grand reinvent itself (I am sure this was a complete coincidence!), with a fancy new driveway, refurbished rooms etc.

 

   You should have seen the excitement that spread through Kolkata when the Taj opened. People came just to see it or to gawk at the lobby. It was the city’s first modern five-star hotel, with restaurants that were as good as those in Delhi.

 

   Since then, lots has changed in Kolkata. The breakthrough came, I suspect, when the state government started reclaiming the wetlands around the bypass. The bypass was a Kolkata institution. Apparently, it had opened shortly before I moved to the city. Its opening was an emotional moment for the people of Kolkata who had been wounded by the unkind (but sadly accurate) comment by Rajiv Gandhi that thanks to the Left Front, Kolkata was a dying city. The bypass became a symbol of Kolkata’s resurgence.

 

   A popular joke at the time went, “Yes, Kolkata was dying. But now it has had a bypass.”

 

   There wasn’t much on the bypass, just wetlands and leather tanneries, which made the area smell.

 

   Then, at the beginning of this century, ITC opened the Sonar on the bypass. When I first heard about the opening (I had moved to Delhi by then), I was scoffing. Why would anyone want to stay on the bypass? What about the stink from the tanneries?

 

   I was wrong, of course. The tanneries had moved. There were no smells. And the hotel, designed by Kerry Hill, had all the hallmarks of his style: waterbodies, low-rise structures, patches of green etc. It was very nice. But no, it did not set the Hooghly on fire.

 

   That finally happened last month when ITC unveiled the Royal Bengal, intended to be a sister property to the ITC Sonar. (The two hotels are connected.) I have not seen this kind of excitement in Kolkata since the Taj opened three decades ago.

 

   The hotel has a lobby with a double staircase that will soon become iconic and throughout my stay, there were Kolkata locals who posed happily for selfies and group shots. (Just go on Instagram. You will be stunned by the number of people who have posted photos of themselves – that’s not counting Facebook where most of the photos end up.)

 

 "My favourite outlet, oddly enough, is the Grand Market Pavilion, which serves India’s largest buffet, with dozens of live counters and a range that extends from chaat to classic French."

   From the outside (and perhaps from the inside too), the hotel is nothing like the Sonar. It is an imposing skyscraper that would not look out of place in a New York/Gotham landscape. (You almost expect Batman to swing by when it gets dark.) It has the solid look of a large, expensively-made building that is timeless in its architecture and will still be around a century later.

 

   It is the inside, of course, that is the point of the hotel. When ITC unveiled Grand Chola in Chennai, I wrote that from now on, all city hotels will be judged as being pre-Chola and post-Chola. I think I have been vindicated on that one.

 

   Nobody in the luxury space dare open a deluxe hotel now that does not have something of the Chola in it, from the large rooms to the high-tech innovations, like the iPad controls.

 

   The ITC Royal Bengal is essentially a refinement of the Grand Chola concept. The rooms are even larger. The entry level room is probably the largest in India, and the hotel exudes a sense of space, abundance and luxury. The corridors are wider than ever, the public spaces are roomy and all of the fittings are expensive and finely detailed (down to the bespoke wrapping they put on each house-made cookie).

 

   The technology-friendly nature of the Chola has been taken one step further. You can watch Netflix in your room, the TV screen can mirror your phone and Internet speeds are quick.

 

   I have three basic criteria for judging luxury hotels. The first is space. I am not interested in trendy hotels with small rooms. I want to feel relaxed and comfortable in my own room. On that score, the Royal Bengal beats every other Indian hotel I have stayed in. (The ITC One rooms are an improvement even on that category’s normal spacious standards.)

 

   The second is service. The essence of luxury is great service. If you are kept waiting to check in, if your shirt is not ironed in time, if housekeeping is not on demand and if room service is not available around the clock, I usually check out and find a cheaper hotel where I won’t have the same expectations.

 

   On that score, the Royal Bengal gets 10 on 10. Nothing is ever an effort and I don’t know what the staff-to-guest ratios are but there always seem to be lots of people around and the staff anticipates the needs of resident guests.

 

   And the third key criterion is food. Ever since Nakul Anand became the big boss at ITC Hotels, he has worked hard to a) maintain the chain’s Indian food tradition while simultaneously going beyond it to explore new cuisines and b) to serve healthy and sustainable meals.

 

   So, the breakfast buffet at the ITC Royal Bengal will not only offer you a choice of healthy grains for your carb fix but there is also a range of non-lactose milks (soya, red rice, almond etc.) for those who don’t want to drink normal milk. (It may help that Atul Bhalla, the man who has overseen the project as vice president and now runs the hotel is lactose-intolerant...)

 

   The food itself is outstanding. ITC has taken a conscious decision to treat Sonar and Royal Bengal’s F&B offerings as one big array so there is no duplication. And the real triumph is the Sonar’s new outlets. There is a performance-bar with rock and blues bands on the extended weekend. Ottimo, ITC’s well-established Italian brand, lives up to its usual standards.

 

   The surprises for me though were the Royal Vega and Grand Market Pavilion. I am not a huge fan of the Chennai Royal Vega, which serves rich, shaadi-type vegetarian food but I can see why ITC would bring the brand to a Marwari-dominated market. What I didn’t expect was that I would love the food at the Cal version so much. I had great dahi-bhallas, super channa bhaturas and an unusual raw mango kheer.

 

   My favourite outlet, oddly enough, is the Grand Market Pavilion, which serves India’s largest buffet, with dozens of live counters and a range that extends from chaat to classic French. It costs Rs.1,250, low by five-star standards for such an extensive and lavish buffet and is always packed out with locals eager to grab the best deal in town. I ate there twice, and both times I loved the North Eastern section. North Eastern food is now trendy all over North India but I have never seen it done as well as it is here.

 

   From ITC’s point of view, the instant success of the Royal Bengal (I imagine it will turn a cash profit this year and soon will become its biggest revenue centre) marks a new milestone after the Grand Chola.

 

   But from my perspective, it marks a fundamental shift in the Kolkata I used to live in. Unless you go to the centre, the city is almost unrecognisable. When I drive in from the airport, I have no idea where I am, or how these fancy new buildings that line the road, suddenly came up.

 

   It is all a far cry from walking down Chowringhee and finding an unremarkable door that led to the city’s only deluxe hotel.

 

   So Kolkata is not dying any longer. Yes, it had a bypass. But who could tell that the bypass would revitalise the city so completely?

 

 

Posted On: 12 Jul 2019 10:17 AM
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