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Taj - the crown of Mumbai

The author reminiscences his trysts with the Taj Mahal Hotel and explains why it is a part of every Mumbaikar

Taj - the crown of Mumbai

The Tatas are to Bombay (Mumbai to you) what Napoleon Bonaparte was to Paris. Take away the little corporal and what have you but a town of pastry cooks and butchers. Take away the Tatas and Bombay is or would have been a fishing village floating on a sea of pomfrets and mackerel.

When I was a small boy growing up in Bombay, I was told that everything good about the city had been provided by the Tatas. Electricity was brought by Jamsetji Tata from the nearby valleys and without power, where would the textile industry be? The tramways - which have now disappeared - were installed by the Tatas. Bombay's water was brought through pipes put in place by a Tata company. And the Taj Mahal was of course a Tata hotel, only one of its kind east of Suez.

I do not know how much of this is true but most of us in Bombay believed it. Like most schoolboys, I had a crush on the Taj, although we were too poor to taste its goodies. I did not venture inside the place until I had returned from England and that, too, because I had no place to stay and my company put me up at the Taj.

Years later, I was escorted - if that is the right word - to the Taj by Sir Homi Mody, who was, I think, the chairman of Taj Hotels and a character in his own right. He had been a member of the viceroy's executive council under Lord Linlithgow and later, after independence, a governor of Uttar Pradesh, but his stories and jokes had little to do with these august positions. He knew more about the Taj than even its cooks and bearers and his enthusiasm was infectious.

We entered the hotel through the kitchen - the same route taken by the terrorists 50 years later - and found ourselves smack amidst fresh fish and vegetables stacked on the counters. Sir Homi knew the names of all the fishes as if he had known them personally and probably did. By the time we emerged from the fragrant kitchen to the main building, we stank like those fisherwomen who gut mackerel in the Mahim bazaar, but Sir Homi was as fresh as a daisy.

We had a slap-up lunch that lasted hours, with Sir Homi instructing his bedraggled chef on the niceties of filleting the Bombay duck and carving the joint. We then repaired to his room on the third or fourth floor from which you could see the great harbour lying before you, like the Spanish Armada before Horatio Nelson.

I have been to the Taj several times since and often stayed there, but it was not the same without Sir Homi. He was the quintessential Tata man - a man who thoroughly loved his job, whether it was running India under the British from New Delhi or rustling up special recipes for his guests at the Taj. In Jamshedpur, also a Tata town, once I saw Sir Jehangir Ghandy, a resident director of TISCO, running his fingers gingerly over a steel rail that was being packed into a railway wagon, like a father seeing his son off to a boarding school for the first time.

Now you know why the whole of Bombay wept when the Taj was torched by those thugs from across the border for no rhyme or reason. Very few Bombay-wallas or Mumbaikars have seen the inside of the Taj, let alone stayed there, it is as much their hotel as the Tatas' and has been so far as long as they and their families can remember!