The Grand Dame Of Chowringhee

After expertly navigating the impossibly clogged route from the airport, our taxi coasted to a halt in front of a colonnaded arcade teeming with what seemed like half the population of Calcutta. “This can’t be it” I muttered to R in dismay, while he peered out with equal skepticism.

Then a pair of wrought iron gates swung open, and liveried doormen ushered us past baggage scanners and metal detectors – those  necessary reminders of 21st century malevolence – into the elegant marble lobby of the Oberoi Grand. An oasis of quiet calm, a whole world removed from the bedlam outside!

The address reads No.15 Jawahar Lal Nehru Marg, but the Grand Hotel began life at no. 13, as the replica of a Sussex home that a Col. Grand had coveted as a young boy. It changed hands in 1870 when an enterprising Irishwoman, Mrs. Annie Monk,  set up a boarding house on the site – the first of its kind in this part of the world –  whose commercial success, despite its tatty interiors and unsavoury reputation, led to the acquisition of no.s 14 – 17 Chowringhee.

With Mrs Monk winding up shop and returning home in 1894, titles to no 16, that was by then the crumbling Theater Royal, was picked up by an astute Armenian adventurer named Arathoon Stephen, whose humble beginnings as a penniless refugee, and later, assistant to a leading jeweler, had not stifled his dreams. At an opportune moment nearly two decades on, the theater mysteriously went up in flames, leaving Arathoon, fully insured and poised to turn his destiny from cart pusher on Chowringhee to millionaire hotelier. The name of his grand venture, an inadvertent (?) tribute to the original owner!

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View from our balcony

By 1937, ten years after Arathoon’s passing, repeated outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, forced the gates of the Grand Hotel shut, until Mohan Singh Oberoi, another ambitious fortune seeker, upon hearing of the defunct hotel from a friend in the Delhi station, hopped onto the next train to Calcutta, in the hope of adding the 500 room property to his burgeoning hotel business. The story of how this young college dropout from Punjab, lured customers fearful of dying from disease back to his spectacularly refurbished lodging, hosted transiting allied forces during the war (coming close to being knighted for his efforts) and eventually set up a hospitality empire synonymous with luxury and exemplary service, is history.

There are many grand hotels in India. But to date, you will be hard pressed to find service of the kind dispensed by the Oberoi group in any of them. We had experienced it on the Nile cruiser Oberoi Philae (sadly now defunct, along with their Mena House in Giza), and the Oberoi Grand was no exception. From housekeeping to restaurant staff, and chef to concierge, customer satisfaction is their prime objective. While the food – apart from our standout Thai meal at Ban Thai  – wasn’t always exciting, they went out of their way to cater to our tastes and requests for local cuisine. The lovely poolside being out of bounds in the evenings unless one had reservations for a special (pricey) set menu, was the only annoyance in an otherwise perfect stay. I owe thanks to general manager George Kuruvilla and his team for contributing hugely to our enjoyment of Calcutta.

The Grand Dame might not be as magnificent as she was in her prime, in the fifties. But for me, no glitzy rival in a sterile neighbourhood can match her old world charm. Or her location, despite the frenzied bartering outside her gates. And I doubt there could be a better refuge, at the end of a muggy, harrowing, Calcutta day.

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PS:
Thumbnail image from hotel website.

Historical facts sourced from “To A Grand Design”, penned artfully by Bachi J Karkaria and filled with humourous anecdotes and old images, that makes for a fabulous take home gift for residents. Here’s an excerpt.

The Oberoi Grand doesn’t come cheap. But ASK! Not all offers show up online. I wangled a great deal that was just marginally more than what we would have paid for a room at the Tollygunge club with a few extras thrown in. My daughter had to eat her “In your dreams Ma! You are going during the Christmas weekend!” 🙂