The return of a city icon
It was Napoleon who called the Piazza San Marco in Venice “the drawing room of Europe”. What he meant was that the views were wonderful, the cafes and restaurants excellent, and, sooner or later, you would run into anybody who mattered. The analogy may be imperfect but if ever there was a public drawing-room in New Delhi it is the extended marble lobby of The Oberoi, with its gallery of shops, informal or fine dining eateries, comfortable lounges, views of water bodies, fairways of the adjoining golf course, and, from the upper floors, vistas of Humayun’s Tomb.
On January 1 this iconic hotel reopened after a two-year makeover, the third in its history since its plagued inaugural in 1965. In her book Dare To Dream: A Life of M.S. Oberoi (Penguin Portfolio; 1992) journalist Bachi Karkaria describes the incredible struggle of the hotel dynasty’s visionary founder to complete India’s first five-star modern hotel. For six years the concrete hulk of the building stood unfinished, an eyesore in central Delhi, due to funding problems, and on opening night, it was the “whining air-raid sirens” of an Indo-Pak war that darkened the long-planned “wining and dining” gala.
Since then, however, The Oberoi in Delhi has never stopped being the hugely profitable cash cow of the ~12 billion holding company, East India Hotels, which runs 33 hotels around the world. The present renovation, single-minded ly driven by its executive chairman PR S “Biki” O be roi—who will turn 89 next month — cost close to ~5 billion and not the inflated figures quoted in the media.
This week I spent a long afternoon being shown round the many nooks and corners of this building that I have intimately known, for work and pleasure, since the 1970s, and being warmly welcomed by the company’s two heirs, Arjun and Vikram Oberoi. So much has changed but not the abiding charm, work ethic, and attention that the owners and their staff of 700 bestow on guests, old and new.
The whole place looks bigger and lighter — it must be the only hotel to reduce the number of rooms and suites from 285 to 220 over eight floors to conform to international standards of space. Its subtle new chic, by leading New York-based hotel designer Adam Tihany, is lifted by unexpected flourishes. The familiar Lutyens inspired marble fountain in the lobby has been moved; in its place stands a contemporary jaali installation with tiny rotating discs inlaid with semi-precious stones and mirrors. The swimming pool is a cobalt waterbody with flaming tor cheres rising after dark. The eight categories of rooms, with quiet references to Delhi’s layered heritage of Mughal, Victorian, Art Deco and Lutyens’ architecture, have bursts of peacock blue wall. High-tech gadgetry has been introduced: Small bedside iPads enable guests to turn off lights, draw curtains, choose room service menus, and inspect who’s outside their door.
All of Delhi — well, almost — is stopping by in the roomier ground floor Three Sixty Degrees restaurant, from toddlers to elderly ladies in wheelchairs, and troops of visitors being led for a “look- dekho”. In half an hour I spot heart surgeon Naresh Trehan, PR honcho Dilip Cherian, and assorted “politician” types; auction house Saffronart’s promoter Dinesh Vazirani breezes past — “thrilled”, he says, to reopen his art gallery in the basement. “It’s more loungey now. Drop by for a coffee sometime.”
The restaurants, too, have changed: The rooftop Chinese in a new avatar led by Michelinstarred A. Wong of Wilton Road, London; there is a private residents’ lounge; and informal open air dining is the new order, from poolside Korean food to a large rooftop terrace with heating and wind-control sensors and an electronic canopy.
In the cigar lounge, the Oberoi scions explain key primary concerns — safety, especially after the Mumbai attacks, and health standards — behind the mammoth facelift. “We stripped down the hotel completely, doubling the number of fire escapes and putting in new-technology detectors,” says the 51-year-old, tall, whitehaired Arjun, who is head of development for the group.
It has been a difficult year for him. Five days before the opening, he lost his remarkable Germanborn mother, Jutta Oberoi, after a prolonged illness. He pulls out a few sheets to read bits of his tribute at her memorial. “Her karma was Indian,” he says quietly. “She asked for her ashes to be scattered near the Gateway of India, where she first arrived at the age of twelve.”
Vikram, his cousin and “Biki” Oberoi’s son, who is three years younger and the group’s CEO, appears to dispel our sombre mood of mutual remembrance. They completed three hotels in 2017: Near Dubai, in Chandigarh, and The Oberoi, Delhi. He enthuses about the great effort and expense put in to counter Delhi’s grave pollution. “We’ll have cleaner air than in London, and soon as good as Switzerland.”
I leave the brothers exchanging cheerful banter and greeting guests as they see me off at the commodious new revolving door. “It’s good for the next 15 years,” they say of the edifice, the acme of hospitality that their grandfather created half a century ago.