Sunday, October 24, 2010

Weekend with Ranjana

I've been working too hard, frankly, and so has my husband Pramod. This weekend, though, our friend Ranjana (bless her!) came to spend Friday night with us; and we finally made time for a long overdue night out in the city.

Friday night, at our apartment complex, waiting for the car.
I'm wearing a halter-neck top that I bought eight years ago. That's how dated my wardrobe is. As I was dressing up, I decided enough was enough. I would definitely go shopping on Saturday. Being a workaholic is ok. But wearing the same darn thing over and over again? Sheesh. I'm not *that* ossified.
When the car came, we set out for Bandra, to pickup an old school friend of Ranjana, and then headed to Aer, the rooftop bar at the Four Seasons.

Ranjana and Pramod at the Four Seasons rooftop bar
If you want my honest opinion, this is truly the most outstanding piece of real estate for a bar/restaurant in all of Mumbai. The cover charge at Rs 3000 per couple is stiff by the city's standards, but the incredible view of the city glittering below is very worth it. We hung around at the bar for a few minutes, until our table was available.
City glittering below
Honestly, this photo does no justice to the view. The full moon was out overhead, and the city lay beneath us. The walls are of sheer glass, making the most of the view. The seating is a sophisticated white, and the dim lighting is perfect. It lifts the spirits, this place.

All seats taken
On a Friday night, all seats were taken. The crowd is a mix of all age groups; but this is not a teeny-bopper place; it is significantly older. There were many people here catching a drink after work; I saw a lot of business suits and formal office wear. The Four Seasons is very conveniently located for people with offices in Worli and Lower Parel. For those working in Nariman Point or Fort, it is a logical mid-way stop on the way home. I rather liked the feeling of being part of the "office crowd". Tables are large, so even for bigger office groups of 8-15 people, there's lots of space.

We ordered nachos and chicken satay; the nachos were not as crisp as they should have been. The satay was pronounced excellent. I didn't even look at the menu; so I don't know what else was on offer.

The worst part of Aer is really the music. The night we were there, it was some electronica/techno type of thing; totally ugh. After an hour of listening to it, I was ready to give up and die. Pramod - who is more sensitive to music than I am - walked up to the DJ and said, hey, check out the people here, do you think this is the kind of music this age group is looking for? As it turns out, the DJ had nothing else to play; or maybe he had been instructed to play nothing but this nonsense. Pramod and the DJ chatted amicably for a long time; while the rest of us looked on and wondered what they were talking about - maybe they were earnestly discussing the city music scene :)

It was a relatively cool October night, but I think November-February would be perfect. I'm definitely going back again, to see if the music changes at all. Fortunately, the music isn't loud.

After Aer, we went back to Bandra and dropped off Ranjana's friend.
It was midnight by then; and on an impulse we decided to check out more places. I dragged Pramod and Ranjana to Pali Village Cafe for pasta and dessert and coffee. But we got there too late; they could only offer wine and dessert. So off we went to that old favourite, Olive.

Chilling out at Olive
For a place that is so much part of the city party scene, Olive is quite unpretentious. The food is good, the service is decent, and the crowd is a merry mix of all sorts. We found a nice corner at the bar to hang out; and then Pramod wrangled us a table to take a late order for pasta and pizza and tiramisu. Quite a lovely end to the day.

Oh - and one more thing - if you're wondering whether I kept my shopping resolution - here's the proof :)

A productive Saturday afternoon at Zara
We went shopping at Palladium on Saturday. Ranjana and I were joined by my sister, and we spent a happy afternoon trying on all sorts of things.

Zara is such a delight - I could kiss every single designer that works for them. By some miraculous magic, the clothes at Zara make you feel feminine and beautiful, in a way that other stores don't quite manage. Ranjana bought up half the store; and my sister bought winter clothes for her upcoming trip to Istanbul.
I was content with three simple additions to my wardrobe. But I'm already looking for another weekend out now, so I can wear them. Pramod, are you reading this? :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Of grand hotels and other things

No, I'm not writing about the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!
The Taj is undoubtedly a city icon, but Bombay has been home to several other fancy hotels; some older than the Taj, and some its contemporaries. It's time someone wrote about them! By some quirk of history, none of these grand hotels now survive as working hotels, except the Taj. But several buildings remain, reminders of past days when these were grand hotels where the elite of the city hob-nobbed and conducted business.

The Majestic Hotel, Colaba, 1909 (built just 6 years after the Taj Mahal Hotel).

The Majestic used to be one of the city's premier luxury hotels; it was built by an Italian firm that ran the super-snobbish Savoy at Mussoorie and Carlton in Lucknow. Nothing but the best would do for the Majestic! These days though, it houses a hostel for members of the legislative assembly, a basic canteen, and a department store on the ground floor. Quite a come-down from its glory days!

The Majestic is not the only old grand hotel; there were others too. Where did these hotels come from? Who built them? For whom?

To look for answers, we must go back 150 years, to a glorious era of prosperity when Bombay became an important global centre of trade and commerce.

In the 1860's, Bombay saw unprecedented growth because of two key events. First, the American Civil War (1861-1865) led to a global shortage of cotton, because exports from the cotton fields of America were blockaded. The demand for cotton from Bombay shot up; prices rose to astronomical levels, and dizzy fortunes were made overnight by the city's cotton traders and shipping merchants. The second momentous event was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1864, which dramatically improved shipping.

As trade grew, traders and merchants from overseas started coming to Bombay for business; and naturally the demand for hotels went up. Hotels were certainly a more attractive option than the "chummeries" or clubs that gentlemen could stay in. What's more, travellers by sea had become used to the high hospitality standards offered by well run steamships, and looked for similar comforts in the ports.

Among the earliest grand hotels was Watson's Hotel; which reflected the owner's enthusiasm for ironwork (considered cheap to build).

Watson's Esplanade Hotel, 1867-69

It was a 'Whites Only' hotel; and was built by John Watson, who ran a drapery business in the city. The building's unique cast-iron frame was imported from England, and reassembled here. In its heyday, the hotel boasted  well-appointed rooms, and a grand ballroom. It's most attractive feature was an atrium. The waitresses, I am told, were imported from England as well :) After John Watsons died, the hotel closed down. Today it is a warren of small offices. I took a photographer on a walk into this building, and she clicked this very interesting photo of the nameboards inside Watsons.

After Watsons came The Bycullah Hotel built in 1871; and the Green's Hotel built in 1890. Both these buildings were earlier mansion flats; they were converted to hotels.

Green's Hotel was bought by the Tatas, and demolished in 1973, and in its place, the Tower wing of the Taj came up.

The Bycullah Hotel, 1871.

I'm not sure what happened to the Bycullah Hotel - but it's not there any more. The pillar in the photo is still there, it's locally called "Khada Parsi" or The Standing Parsee. It is now squashed between two flyovers; see this photo. So Bycullah Hotel has disappeared, then. Does anyone know when or how?

The next hotel to come up was The Great Western, converted to a hotel in 1890 or so. In the late 1700's, this building was the residence of the Governor of Bombay; then subsequently it was the home of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian fleet. In the 1800's it was the Recorder's Court House. Today, the building houses small businesses, an art gallery, and a designer garments store.

The Great Western Hotel, 1890, originally home of Governor Hornby (who bunded the breach at Mahalakshmi)
The road on which Great Western is located is Dockyard Road, now called Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg. The facade of this street remains the same today as it was all those years ago. The Doric porte-cochere of the hotel was demolished to widen the street, so the Great Western is like a face without a nose :) but other than that, walking on this street is a great way to experience the old Bombay.