The sprawling lobby area is illuminated by a white Christmas tree in the centre, rightfully lending a cheery, festive fervour to the place. A vibrant MF Hussain painting graces the wall behind the front desk. As guests amble about on a lazy evening, the staff at the hotel are neck-deep in work, for the week is a special one. Exactly 11 decades ago, on December 16, 1903, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel came into being. For a hotel that has been around longer than the monument that stands behind it — the Gateway of India — the Taj has seen it all, and indeed survived to tell the tale.
After the horrific 26/11 attacks that gutted several parts of the hotel, including the grand staircase that offers an inside view of the dome in the heritage wing, the hotel has been beautifully restored to its palatial glory. As I saunter up the staircase, the feeling of walking through an area whose grandeur was wrecked by gun-toting assassins makes me shudder. The grand staircase was the first cantilevered staircase (supported sans any pillars) of its kind in the country. A bust of Jamsetji Tata is perched upon a small platform on the first floor landing. Incredulously, the bust did not suffer any damage in the siege. The Taj At Apollo Bunder, a coffee table book by historians Charles Allen and the late Sharada Dwivedi, about the historical journey of the hotel, mentions Mahatma Gandhi going up the same steps to address a group of Englishmen in the ballroom.
The ballroom was even witness to a speech by Lord Mountbatten. Sarojini Naidu had a permanent suite of rooms at the hotel in the ‘20s, while Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s wife sought the solace of the hotel whenever she fought with Jinnah and even died at the Taj. When John Lennon visited in 1968 with Yoko Ono, he never ventured out of his suite and no one was allowed inside, not even the cleaner.
“The Taj has seen generations change in front of its eyes. In fact, I have seen the transition from Gen next to Gen text,” laughs Chef Hemant Oberoi, the grand executive chef at the hotel. Oberoi joined as a young trainee in 1974 and will complete 40 years at the hotel next year. His office is crammed with trophies, awards and pictures of his journey — he was the only Indian chef at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant’s (Louis XV) 25th anniversary celebrations in Monte Carlo — but humility is second nature to him. “Back when I joined, there was a sense of loyalty, the need to stick around.
We’ve always been a close-knit family and the hotel has always valued its employees even after they leave,” he says. He cites the example of a chef who would make the stuffing for the roast turkey every Christmas, but retired 12 years ago. “Even today, he comes every Christmas to make the stuffing,” smiles Oberoi.
As I walk through the hotel, I’m introduced to several employees, all of whom utter ‘15’, ‘20’ and ‘30’ when asked about the number of years they have been working at the hotel. In an age ruled by the diktats of impatience and greed, talking to such employees is a revelation of true loyalty. In fact, Tehmton Mistry, a bartender at the famous Harbour Bar, has been with the hotel for almost 35 years, and is one of its oldest employees. “I spend more time here than I spend at home and everyone here is like family. The place and the guests are so lively and it feels great to take care of them,” confesses the teetotaler. On the day of the attacks, Mistry was not at the hotel but says that he got calls from people across the world, including guests whom he had served, wanting to know if he was safe.
The Harbour Bar was the city’s first official bar, established in 1933. “The license number is 001, the very first,” beams Mistry. The bar, aside from the restaurants Wasabi and Golden Dragon, was also destroyed in the siege and underwent substantial renovation.Zodiac Grill has a staff of five people who have worked at the hotel for more than 25 years.“That’s how things remain consistent,” says Oberoi.
The palace corridors of the hotel feature paintings by MF Husain, SH Raza and Gaitonde, while gold framed pictures of some of its most eminent guests, like John Lennon, George Bush, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, lie ensconced in glass enclosures. After 26/11, the hotel established a sculpture of the tree of life behind the lobby area, recovered from the wreckage, serving as a memorial with the names of all the victims who perished in the attack.
Walking through the famous Rajput suite, lavishly done up in hints of gold and which offers a mesmerising view of the Gateway and the Arabian Sea, it’s hard to imagine that it was once lying in the throes of destruction after the attacks. Special craftsmen from Udaipur were brought in to help restore it.
After my jaunt, as I sip on tea at the Sea Lounge amidst the soothing sounds of the piano, Chef Oberoi’s words ring in my head. “The customers have evolved, times have changed, but the Taj will always remain the Taj.” I concur.