I first got to know the Taj when I was in my early twenties. We lived in Chhattarpur and the Taj was a convenient and well-located resting point on trips to Delhi.
I’m not writing to bid adieu – because I hope it won’t come to that – but to recall the many happy moments I’ve spent at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. The thought it might pass out of the hands of the Tata Group depresses me. I can’t believe it will thereafter be the same. New owners will inevitably create a different place.
I first got to know the Taj when I was in my early twenties. We lived in Chhattarpur and the Taj was a convenient and well-located resting point on trips to Delhi. ‘CP’ was still the place to visit but, in those days of non-air conditioned cars, it could be a hellish journey in summer. The Machan or The Emperor’s Lounge were irresistible halts for cold coffee and ice cream. If you were hungry, there was the House of Ming and Captain’s Cabin.
Late at night The Machan would transform into a meeting-point for twenty-year-olds, gossiping, lingering, literally measuring their lives with coffee spoons! We would spend very little but stay for hours. Not once did the restaurant complain.
Across the lobby was the Khazana, a treasure-trove. From dressing-gowns to French hunting prints, from silver bowls to Kolhapuri chappals, it offered a bewildering but beautiful collection of products I found irresistible. In the ’80s it was one of the few places where you could buy British newspapers. That was my excuse for visiting!
Down in the basement is the Barber’s shop I’ve visited every single month since 1978. My problem is I have the worst hair in the world, frizzy, dry and unruly. Pritam was the first to tame it. “Keep it short”, he said, “and it will look straight.” He was right. I’ve had short hair ever since.
When Pritam retired Govind took over and now, waiting in the wings, is young Rajesh Kumar Singh. One of the reasons I look forward to my monthly visits is the opportunity to natter. They help me judge politicians and assess the popular mood. They also correct my biases. Bernard Levin once wrote that amongst the wisest men he knew was his barber. Pritam, Govind and Rajesh are proof that’s true for me as well.
In the 1980s, when I was a television journalist in London and would visit Delhi on work with finicky TV crews, we would unfailing stay at the Taj. The first time was June 1984, days after the army siege of the Golden Temple. It was an uncertain period and to be safe I invited our interviewees to the hotel. Thank God I did because it was the efficiency of the Taj switchboard operator that salvaged our biggest interview.
That was Prakash Singh Badal. He’d agreed to come to Delhi but around 5 in the morning he was suddenly arrested and surreptitiously rang to tell me with the police waiting in the next room. I’m not sure how the operator realised the importance of this call but she insistently buzzed till I answered thus enabling me to do the interview on the phone and tell the world the story of Mr. Badal’s arrest.
Paradoxically, after returning to Delhi my visits to the Taj became less frequent. Perhaps that’s because I take the place for granted but even that link will snap if it changes hands. And if that happens my memories will be no better than granddad’s tales of a forgotten past. Only if the Tatas retain control might they stay relevant!