A few steps down the wealth staircase, however, people take a while to become unfaithful. It’s not so often that they visit these places. And the memories formed there carry some weight, retain some momentum, that keeps taking them back, till they, too, reluctantly decide to move on.
In the ’60s, a brand-new hotel opened in Calcutta. It was the place for fat wallets to go. The building was a modern 12-floor semi-skyscraper, the lines were modern and clean, the smell of AC super-fresh, the coffee shop serving prawn cocktails and sundaes that were the best – or almost the best – in town, the swimming pool garnished with bikinied and small swimming-trunked people, the disco a new creature attacking our zehn. By the late ’70s, the place was finished, totally de-happened, running, as it were, on empty.
What had happened was that the Big Bruiser of the famous old hotel and the New Upstart on the busiest F&B street in the city had both upped their game. In the meantime, the promoters of the 12-storey had reached the lining of their deep pockets. The hotel survives today, and has even reached a kind of even keel, putting behind its decrepit years of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. But it’s no one’s idea of a great place to park one’s custom.
In the late ’80s, a new player joined the hospitality roulette, a famous chain name, decent location, bigger swimming pool, 3-4 restaurants, good service from a trans-national staff. A couple of decades later, other big-name hotels began to spring up along the airport road.
The location of these new behemoths left a lot to be desired for those of us who live in old Calcutta. Still, for most loaded visitors making brief forays into the City of Cloy, these hotels were perfectly placed close to the airport and Rajarhat/New Town a.k.a. Kolkata‘s Gurgaon. All this hotel-nama came flooding into my memory when I visited the Old Bruiser recently. Being one the two oldest hotels in the city, the place has seen many dips and revivals across its century-plus life. Walking in, everything looked the same, and, perhaps, that was part of the problem. In this business, stasis means entropy. The reception hall had the usual tinkling of a piano – except now it was piped. The staff were fully local, young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but the eyes didn’t notice much, and the tails were very green. Greeting my friends who were checking in, the same two people were falling over each other to complete the same tasks while other stuff was left unattended.
In the corridors going around the courtyard swimming pool, several doors were padlocked. In the rebranded coffee shop, we asked for a table for three. ‘For right now, ma’am?’ The person asked. ‘No, we are here to reserve a table for next year,’ one of us almost said.
The food was tolerable, but hardly memorable. The service warm, enthusiastic, and clueless. The wine overpriced and tasteless, and the best beer in India unavailable. It wasn’t a horrendous experience. But you could feel that the chain running the hotel – a chain for which this was once the flagship property – was giving the place a stepmotherly treatment.
Ah, well, this is Kolkata, and we’ve seen it all before. Either the place will die. Or it will change hands. Both of which would be sad. Or, it will be dropped into a vat of makeover potion. Which would be nice.