A Ho­tel’s tAle

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE -

SO IT looks like the Taj Ma­hal Ho­tel in New Delhi may go up for auc­tion and may even cease to be a Taj Ho­tel if some­body else makes a higher bid. That, at least, is what the Delhi High Court ruled a fort­night ago. Now, we shall have to see what the Supreme Court says. It’s funny, and more than a lit­tle iron­i­cal, that it has come to this. Be­cause the story of the Delhi Taj en­cap­su­lates the saga of how In­dian busi­ness strug­gled – and then tri­umphed – in the 20th Cen­tury. No­body, not even most peo­ple at the Taj these days, seems to re­mem­ber the story. So let me tell it as I re­mem­ber it from my con­ver­sa­tions with the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters.

Kerkar spent a long time cul­ti­vat­ing Singh and even­tu­ally per­suaded him to sell In­dian Ho­tels the lease to the prop­erty in per­pe­tu­ity. (All Singh had was a lease any­way; this was true of many prop­er­ties in Delhi af­ter the Par­ti­tion.) The mo­ment he had the signed lease, Kerkar planned the de­mo­li­tion of the old Fon­seca’s.

By then, alarm bells had gone off. The Oberoi lobby had ap­proached SN Singh just as he was con­clud­ing his ne­go­ti­a­tion with Kerkar and asked him to give it to the Oberois and to name his price. But Singh hon­oured his com­mit­ment to the Taj.

Next, the prob­lems with the gov­ern­ment be­gan. Kerkar heard that mu­nic­i­pal in­spec­tors in­tended to come in and seize the prop­erty. There were ru­mours that goon­das would be used to get the plot va­cated. Kerkar sealed the outer perime­ter of the prop­erty and or­gan­ised 24hour se­cu­rity.

But no con­struc­tion could be­gin be­cause mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials told In­dian Ho­tels that the pro­posed ho­tel would be an il­le­gal struc­ture. So, for sev­eral days, the stale­mate con­tin­ued. The bet­ting was that In­dian Ho­tels and Kerkar would sell their lease and get the hell out of town. This was 1976, the pe­riod of the Emer­gency, af­ter all, and nor­mal le­gal re­courses were not avail­able.

Then, help ar­rived in the un­likely form of Rukhsana Sul­tan who ran a jew­ellery shop at Goa’s Fort Aguada, a Taj Ho­tel. She told Kerkar that she had heard that the Delhi project was go­ing to be aban­doned. Kerkar re­sponded that, yes, there was a prob­lem.

Don’t worry, Rukhsana told him. I know just the man to sort out your prob­lem.

Rukhsana was close to the Emer­gency regime and to San­jay Gandhi, in par­tic­u­lar. And she ar­ranged a 10-minute meet­ing with San­jay for Kerkar.

Kerkar re­mem­bers that when he walked into the lounge where San­jay held court, the “youth leader” was hos­tile. But Kerkar man­aged to per­suade San­jay that the Taj had a full le­gal right to the plot and that the mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­i­ties were act­ing il­le­gally.

To his sur­prise, not only did San­jay lis­ten but he got ex­cited about the project. “Delhi needs a good deluxe ho­tel like

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