Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nehru Slept Here...

Am deadlining like crazy, so this is an old article about my very favorite hotel ever, The Imperial in New Delhi. If you should ever find yourself wanting a place to stay in that city, this is an amazing place to hang out.

The "recent trip" referred to below was actually for our tenth wedding anniversary. We celebrated our eighteenth this past Sunday. Time sure flies when you're old and boring....

As my husband and I climbed into a cab on a recent trip to India, I thought again that the first and most powerful impression one has of this country is always olfactory. The air is spiked with sandalwood, coriander, patchouli, hair pomade, woodsmoke, urine--a grab-bag profusion of floral wonder and, Oh, the humanity! There is nothing else in the world that smells like this; the closest thing would be a Cajun-spiced public men's room in which someone has just dropped a liter of Shalimar from a great height.

It can be overwhelming, intoxicating. After a fifteen-hour flight it knocks you off balance. And then there is the fact that the colors are different, here. Even driving through the darkened streets at three a.m., they seem dusty, somehow, and always just a shade off what your eye expects. There were, for instance, dimly mauve elephants dozing by the side of the highway, tucked amongst the makeshift tents full of people. And then, of course, what you're seeing is most likely pretty different, too (at least for the average North American business traveler).

As we neared the city it seemed every traffic island had fifty men asleep on the concrete, laid out neat as buffet cutlery beneath the buzzing streetlights. Everything seemed to be buzzing, in fact--especially my head. I longed to lie down, to not be in motion any more, to just chill for a bit before I faced the full sub-continental assault on the senses. Thankfully, I had been here before, and had booked us a room in what is perhaps my favorite hotel in the world.

The driver pulled through the wrought-iron gates of the Hotel Imperial, then slowly cruised along the driveway between a long allee of palm trees, surrounded by gardens. We were ushered into the great, cool marble lobby by a silent and turbaned doorman who might have just wandered out from the pages of a Flashman adventure. By the time we were slumped against the ornate wooden paneling of the elevator, being swept up to our floor, the two of us were travel-gritty and nearly cross-eyed with fatigue.

The room, simple by this hostelry's standards, was bigger than many apartments I've occupied in Manhattan. The ceiling was easily twelve feet high, and towering casement windows looked out over the riotous gardens below, framed by long white curtains whose double Aegean-blue stripe along the hem put me in mind of Mother Theresa's headdress.

A good long hot bath and several huge fluffy towels later, we were much repaired. Like well-trained road warriors, we remembered to brush our teeth with the bottled water provided next to the sink, and then fell thankfully into the crisp white sheets of the perfect bed, for once needing no melatonin.

I remembered, upon awakening, the wise words of British author and politician A.P. Herbert: "the critical period in matrimony is breakfast-time." Travel-weary though my husband and I still were, I knew that our union would be fortified by the splendid offerings of the Garden Restaurant (which has a magnificent view of, yes, the hotel's gardens).

We stumbled to the elevator and through the lobby, headed for the Imperial's interpretation of a coffee shop. Once inside the airy white dining rooms, we were gently ushered to a table and furnished almost instantly with an elegantly proportioned pot of excellent coffee, accompanied by tiny pitchers of steamed milk. The waiter then directed us towards the astonishing breakfast laid out along a series of linen-draped refectory tables.

We started in on the flesh of red papaya and perfect mangos, which we dressed with the headily fragrant juice of local limes. Though the western delicacies looked amazing, I tore myself away from the omelet fines herbes offered by a white-jacketed man in a toque, and moved on to the enticing platters of delicately spiced aloo bhaji (the superlative local version of home fries) and a fresh batch of poori, the round bread that, though deep-fried, was so light and airy it was more like a brioche-pita hybrid.

The room itself had undergone some renovation since I'd last been here in 1987. Though remade as space so light-filled it seems part of the grounds outside, the design retains all the charm of the hotel's origins.

The Imperial, one of the world's most reasonable five-star hotels, is one of the legendary Four Maidens of the East (the other three being the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, Raffles Hotel in Singapore and Mumbai's Taj Mahal). Conceived as a place where the English and Indians could meet socially, construction began in 1930 at the express orders of the then Viceroy, Lord Willingdon.

Sardar Ranjit Singh was in charge of the project. Before long, he had to approach the Viceroy to tell him politely it was becoming hard to keep to any sort of budget, as Lady Willingdon's suggestions regarding the hotel's tableware and furniture were "excellent but expensive."

Willingdon had a remedy, requesting that the seat next to him at the grand ball to mark the opening of the hotel be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Ultimately, the place-card went to the Maharaja of Patiala, who paid an appropriately princely sum of 50,000 rupees for the place of honor.

Inaugurated in 1935, the hotel boasts today 285 guest rooms set on eight manicured acres of garden in the center of Delhi. And ironically, the liberal meeting place envisioned by one of the last British Viceroys was the setting for some of the major events of the country's Independence movement.

As journalist-author James Cameron once wrote: "To cross the threshold of the Imperial is to get a crash course in Indian affairs." The place, he continued, "[w]as full to the doors with a fluctuating tide of politicians, princes, newspapermen, idealists, cynics, black marketeers, beards, turbans, uniforms, sweat, Australian whisky and obsessed fanatics of all persuasions."

It was, in fact, in the billiards room here that a large portion of the Indian Constitution was drafted. Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party colleagues held innumerable caucuses and strategy sessions in the ballroom, the individual suites with 14-foot-high ceilings, and the white-trellised verandah.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, future father of Pakistan, was enjoying a round of cucumber sandwiches with Sardar Patel on this same verandah when a Muslim League fanatic took a shot at him. Patel grabbed Jinnah and dragged him indoors to safety.

Nehru frequently dropped by for official receptions after he became Prime Minister, but drank only fresh fruit juice and water. A strict vegetarian and teetotaler, he never sampled the hotel's famous baked Alaska, as it contained eggs and brandy. It is still on the menu, however, for the delectation of those of us who are somewhat less pure.

The head barman, M.S. Bisht, was quoted as having said that he had "laid tables that had two wine glasses for (red and white wine respectively), a glass for the port, another for sherry, a whisky glass, a champagne glass, a cognac/brandy glass, a liqueur glass, and a water goblet--regardless of what those at the table drank." The dapper Mr. Bisht began his career at the Imperial as a "glass boy" in 1953, and can rattle off the names and proper method of concocting mixed drinks that few alive today have sampled, or even heard of.

The quality of the food here is outstanding, as well. Since the hotel's opening, when four of the world's finest chefs were imported (from France, Italy, Lucknow, and Dacca) to man the Imperial's kitchens, the cuisine available has astonished locals and foreigners alike.

The beauty shop, not a spot I normally frequent in hotels, is also unbelievably wonderful. I was worked on from head to toe for two hours by some very cool, entertaining, and talented people. For a hundred dollars, including a ludicrously large tip, I received a manicure, pedicure, massage, haircut, blonding touchup, and facial. I emerged feeling like a different, and much happier, person.

If I had just won the lottery and had free run of the amazing jewelry store in the lobby, I don't think I would ever have come home. Overall, I am seriously tempted to try being the Indian (and overaged) version of Eloise.

There is nothing about the Imperial not to like, unless you are hell-bent on spending the rest of your life staying in a Holiday Inn as some sort of bizarre penance. In all of my travels, I have never felt as refreshed and well cared for as I have here, and yet the service is never obsequious or smarmy. I would make the fifteen-hour flight each way just to spend a weekend at this place.


  1. Wow...I can't wait to see what you post with a little time to work. The other three Maidens of the East? ;-)

    I think that you owe yourself another visit. Soon.

  2. Thank you, Jeff. At this point, I think I'd be happy with a weekend in Fresno.

  3. I once stayed at the Shangri-la in Singapore, which at the time was rated the best hotel in the world. Last time I was in Singapore, the Raffles was closed for remodeling. (The Singapore Sling was invented at the hotel bar.) After that, the "best" honor went to the Orient in Bangkok. I never stayed there but I frequented one of its bars. I'll never forget. My drink came with a lime in a tiny metal dustbin-like thingie so that you could squeeze it and not get your fingers wet.

    Hope you recover from deadline fever soon, C! Shall I bring chicken soup?

  4. I can see it now ... the Cornelia Read and Anthony Bourdain tour of the world! You make a fine travel writer, my dear.

  5. Twenty two years ago this summer I parted ways with a friend with whom I'd traveled across the Europe. My friend went on to India and urged me to come along. I chose to stay on the beach in the Greek Isles, thinking someday I'd get to Asia. I never got there. Ah, regrets. Though in hindsight I probably would have been sleeping atop trains, not in The Imperial.

  6. Just eight years ago, you got a spa day for $100! I'm insanely jealous.

    Great article, Cornelia.