One wintry evening, as I left office, I was ushered into a large, dazzlingly white Rolls-Royce Phantom by an immaculately coiffed lady in a maroon sari. The seats were encased in buttery beige leather you could tangibly sink into, and a selection of joysticks, tastefully out of sight, allowed me to manipulate myself into a proper luxuriating pose. Sunk low, I stared out as the car slid noiselessly across potholes; as fish-carts and smaller cars struggled past like minnows alongside a majestic great white. When we pulled up at a traffic light next to a small red car, a little boy inside leaped against his window, and his father turned, his own eyes shining with boyish glee.
That was my brief introduction to the Presidential Suite kind of existence—or rather, the Maharaja Suite, as the Delhi Leela Palace calls it. At a rack-rate of Rs 5.5 lakh a night (luxury taxes extra), this room belongs to a parallel reality, unimaginable to few and inaccessible to most except heads of state, movie stars, oil barons, high-powered executives who rise daily in a different time zone, and the kind of socialites who gaze determinedly above roughshod mortals from within an aureole of extinct animal furs.
And, as it turned out, Akon, a Senegalese-American singer and producer who’d alighted on Bollywood after ear-worming his way into the top ten charts with Lonely, an auto-tuned song that sounded like the last-ditch love song of a melting robot. Then, there was Tom Cruise, for a few hours. The Prime Minister of Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai. “And several Thai princesses, some businessmen from Germany, a delegation from UAE…” said Deepti Uppal, head of Public Relations, Leela Palace Delhi. “The Maharaja suite is really very special. Everybody who stays there is very important. Anyone who spends Rs 6 lakh a night on a room is not not important.”
Not that they are likely to forget that. When they emerge from the Phantom, they’re spirited through an express check-in, and if they’re not ushered through a separate elevator for security concerns, they’re received with fanfare in the lobby—as I found out. As soon as I passed the front door, I found myself draped in jasmine garlands, a bouquet of red roses was pressed into my hands, and a tika was applied to my forehead. On my way to the elevator, rose petals rained down on me from a balcony overhead.
I found myself on the fifth floor, before a very large, very gilded double-door. Inside was a cavernous complex of marble and gold. A large dining room, a massive living room with a glittering Murano chandelier, a wood-panelled study, an intimate living room with velvety couches in front of a massive flatscreen TV, a personal gym, a bedroom with a preposterously inviting bed which came with a pillow menu, and a walk-in wardrobe. Finally, and most inviting of all, was the washroom, with its gleaming onyx countertops and jacuzzi. As Uppal pointed out, it’s the largest of any hotel in Delhi—and, as a personal aside, it’s almost certainly larger than my rented barsati.
Unabashed excess, or “unapologetic luxury”, as Uppal puts it, is something of a religion at the Leela. Every object is at a lofty, disdainful remove from the noun it denotes—and nowhere is this more abundantly apparent than in the Maharaja suite. The gleaming, marmoreal surface I pad across in the washroom is no floor. The glittering chandelier, near fearsome in its resplendence, is no light fixture. That silver cup (which I rapidly filled up with pistachio shells) is no utensil. That white showboat sailing past a succession of dropped jaws in the Delhi traffic was certainly no car. The artwork—antique silverware, historic photographs, exquisite paintings and ornate craftwork in stone and metal—is no decoration. As Uppal informed me, the artwork across the Leela’s Delhi property costs a total of £5 million—“which is,” she added, “like, a big figure.”
Elsewhere in the hotel, too, everything is so over-the-top it levitates high above normalcy. Rajesh Namby, the food and beverage manager, takes me to three different dining establishments, each of which has some sort of superlative to its credit. The Qube, its all-day multi-cuisine restaurant, dishes out the High Life, a caviar-and-lobster festooned confection that, at Rs 9,999 (plus taxes), is India’s most expensive pizza. “We’ve sold about 60 slices so far,” Namby said. “That’s about 5-6 portions per month!” The Library Bar has a black-crystal encased bottle of century-old cognac, the Louis XIII Rare Cask. It’s Rs 1,30,000 a shot. “We’ve sold 12 shots so far,” Namby said, adding with a grin, “I’ve made my budget for the next three years.” Meanwhile, their star restaurant, Le Cirque, is currently running a food festival starring white Alba truffles, which are more expensive than gold. Well, I ate some of those truffles, and let me tell you, that buttery, lightly crisped thing that dissipated in my mouth like dew was no food.
The Maharaja Suite in the Leela Palace’s sumptuous Udaipur property comes with a slightly lower price tag—Rs 2.5 lakh—but it fetches you far more than you’d know what to do with. The suite encompasses a lavishly appointed living room and dining room, a walk-in wardrobe, jacuzzi, spa-room, bedroom, and right outside it, a sweeping terrace of gardens and ponds, with a panoramic view of Lake Pichola and the Aravalli mountains. Scattered around the suite are carved metal statues of regal elephants and horses, and a rich oil painting of the present Maharana presides over the dining table.
Consistent with the royal theme, previous residents of the suite have included the honeymooning Bhutanese king, business aristocracy like Kokilaben Ambani, assorted Emirati royalty, and Soha Ali Khan. It’s hard not to feel a bit like Bollywood royalty yourself when you waft out on to its terrace, with the lake spreading before you, a personal butler behind you, and your own personal swimming pool gurgling contentedly at your feet.
Perhaps what luxury does most powerfully is return you to another sort of contented gurgling: that of babyhood. You never open doors. Invisible hands unmake your messes. Plates of delicious food are set before you and taken away. Your every whim is yielded to with soothing phrases: ‘Certainly.’ ‘Pleasure.’ You don’t sleep so much as get swaddled in velvety womb-like darkness. The world may not be your oyster, but for a night at least, it feels unquestionably like your kingdom.