This eccentric hotel in Kolkata brings its guests back again and again for the inimitable ‘Fairlawn experience’
This wasn’t meant to be a phantasmal exercise. But a spooky feeling was an unintended consequence of it. Watching Ghost at the dead of night, sitting on the same bed Patrick Swayze had slept on, could only be an invitation to, well, the spirits. No, objects like coins didn’t start moving on their own, but the eeriness persisted till I switched to watching Heat and Dust to make a connection with another person who had also spent many nights on the very same bed—Shashi Kapoor. He, along with wife Jennifer Kendal, had stayed in Room No 17 (my room for the night) of Calcutta’s unique Fairlawn Hotel on their honeymoon and many times after.
This two-star, eclectic and delightfully eccentric hotel on central Calcutta’s Sudder Street is just the place to connect with a host of other celebrities—filmmaker Ismail Merchant, actors Melvyn Douglas, Penelope Cruz, Julie Christie, Felicity Kendal and Om Puri, travel writer Eric Newby, writers Dominique Lapierre, Gunter Grass, Ian Hislop and Glen Balfour-Paul, British playwright Tom Stoppard, TV presenters Dan Cruikshank and Clive Anderson, and even Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (Sting, for the uninformed)! And all have paid glowing tributes to the hotel and its wonderfully charming owner Violet Smith (going strong at 88). Lapierre goes to the extent of wishing he loses his passport when he stays at Fairlawn the next time so that he can stay on at the hotel forever. Newby, having travelled the world many times and stayed in the best hotels, calls Fairlawn his “most favourite hotel”. Not surprising, because Fairlawn is like no other hotel. Precisely why I checked in—to experience, first hand, the charms, idiosyncrasies and rich history of the hotel and the 226-year-old rambling mansion it is housed it.
Stepping in through the iron gates of the hotel is like entering a green oasis set amidst the smoke, dirt, decay and bustle of the city. A profusion of plants, mostly palms, provides an immediate soothing experience and leads to the portico where, every morning, the redoubtable Violet holds court and gossips with her guests. She has many memories, a cherished one being that of Swayze who stayed at the hotel for three nights while filming for City of Joy in 1991. “He was very nice, soft-spoken and very much a family man. He had told me about the ranches he owned in California and New Mexico where he bred Arabian horses, about his wife Lisa and his childhood. Despite the tight schedule, he would always find time to chat up with me. He was courteous and a thorough gentleman,” the coiffed and elaborately made-up octogenarian says. Patrick, she adds, had checked into a nearby five-star hotel, but stayed at Fairlawn for three days at the fag end of the filming because he liked it. “The other cast and crew of the unit had put up here and so he used to spend a lot of time here every day. That’s how he got to know me,” she says.
Violet also tells me how her parents and grandfather escaped the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman regime in Turkey in 1915 and reached India through Isfahan (as many referred to Iran earlier) and Afghanistan. She married Edward Frederick Smith, a British Army officer, in 1944 and moved to England later, but returned in 1962 to take over the affairs of Fairlawn. She also tells me about her daughter Jennifer (Fowler, after having married David Fowler), settled in England, who visits several times a year (as she was while I was there) to run the hotel.
Jennifer grew up with, and is a close friend of, British actress Felicity Kendal (younger sister of Jennifer, Shashi Kapoor’s wife) . She remembers a young Shashi (“drop-dead gorgeous he was,” recalls Jennifer) courting the elder Kendal sibling. “They (the Kendals) owned Shakespeareana, a moving theatre company and travelled all over to stage Shakespearean plays. While in Calcutta, they would always stay at Fairlawn. That’s how I got to know Felicity. Jennifer was 11 years older to us. It so happened that in the spring of 1956, Prithvi Theatre (owned by Prithviraj Kapoor, Shashi’s father) and Shakespeareana were in Calcutta at the same time. Prithvi Theatre was staging a play at New Empire and Jennifer had gone to watch it. Shashi, who was an actor and stage manager then, saw Jennifer in the audience and fell in love with her at first sight. He followed her to Fairlawn but didn’t muster the courage to enter. After shadowing her for a few days, he picked up the courage to speak to her. She was mortally scared of her father, Geoffrey, a very strict man, who got to know of the budding romance. A very nervous Shashi finally approached him to seek Jennifer’s hand, but Geoffrey refused and asked him to wait for two years to be sure it was not infatuation, but love, that the couple had for each other. Shashi was so much in love with Jennifer that he joined Shakespearana to be with her rather than wait two years away from her. Finally, after the two-year period, he sought Geoffrey’s permission, but was turned down again. But this time, Jennifer put her foot down and the couple went away to Bombay and got married. The Kendals didn’t attend the wedding. Shashi and Jennifer came down to Fairlawn for their honeymoon and checked into Room 17. The room was later christened ‘The Shashi Kapoor Room’. Since Swayze stayed much later in that room, the honour of having a room at Fairlawn named after him was thus lost,” Jennifer tells me.
It is not only rare and precious reminiscences like these that guests are treated to that makes Fairlawn inimitable. It is, in fact, quite like entering an illustrious family’s country home. Family portraits, as well as those of the famous who’ve partaken the ‘Fairlawn experience’, are displayed liberally all over the hotel. But first, there are the portraits of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Prince William and Lady Diana at the entrance, emphasising Fairlawn’s very British character.
A grand staircase that leads up to the first floor from the front lounge is also a pleasantly cluttered gallery with framed photographs and letters from guests, as well as clippings of various complimentary articles in Indian, British, Spanish, German, French and even a Cuban publication.
The sprawling first floor lounge is lined with showcases which hold knick-knacks and memorabilia, many dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Jade vases, Chinese porcelain jars, delicate glass statuettes and figurines, sepia-tinted photos of Violet’s parents and other Armenian and Jewish families that used to patronise the Fairlawn, antique pieces and much more. These kept me engaged in the cheery lounge, made happier and homelier by the floral-printed curtains on the doors and windows, for a couple of hours. Many writers, like Gunter Grass, Eric Newby (he started writing his seminal tome Slowly Down The Ganges at this very lounge, Jennifer tells me) and Dominique Lapierre, found this lounge the ideal place to write in. For the record, and to maintain a hallowed tradition, I too started writing this piece out of this lounge. Presumptuous, eh?
The defining colour of Fairlawn is green. Not just the abundance of potted plants, the colour of the walls, linen, wicker and cane chairs, settees and stools, many of the draperies and even some of the crockery are green or have splashes of it. It’s Violet’s favourite colour. “Green symbolises freshness, vibrancy and reminds one of nature,” she says. She has even hung green plastic creepers and ferns from the awnings, portico and balconies. It’s just this sort of fascinating idiosyncrasy that defines Fairlawn. Yet another is the brass gong in the dining hall—it’s rung at 7.30 am, 1 pm, 4 pm and 8 pm every day to announce breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea (with fruit cakes or cookies) and dinner respectively—which took me back to my boarding school days when the gong would regulate my waking hours. Till a couple of years ago, guests were allotted their specific tables. “The idea was to mix and match guests to keep conversation going, much as we have in our own families. But we discontinued it since many didn’t like to be told where to sit,” says Jennifer. Conversation, nonetheless, flows with an easy amiability, thanks largely due to friendly, white liveried waiters, the conviviality of Fairlawn and Violet.
Violet loves to regale guests with tales of the mansion’s, and Calcutta’s history. She tells me the building was constructed by one William Ford in 1783 and Sudder Street was originally named after Ford, but came to be known by its present name after a Sadar (lower) court came up on it later. Sadar, obviously, got anglicised to Sudder. From 1812 to 1840, Captain James Mount and his son Sir George Mount owned the mansion. The Mounts, says Violet, were a feared sea-faring family and were believed to be involved in smuggling opium and textiles. Violet’s mother Rosie Sarkies (the Armenian surname ‘Sargsyan’ was simplified by her parents to ‘Sarkies’) bought Fairlawn from two British ladies in 1936 and it has stayed with the family since.
During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned for troops and officers of the Allied Forces; Melvyn Douglas, then a major, occupied one of the rooms. The Kendals were one of the longest staying guests at the hotel. “They were very poor and staged plays in the first floor lounge for guests and others to pay for their room and food,” recalls Jennifer. A framed poster of a Shakespeareana play—Dear Liar, a dramatisation of Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Mrs Campbell, a Seagull Empire-Capstan Filter Kings event at Kala Mandir for which tickets were priced from Rs 10 to Rs 20 (quite steep in the early 1950s)—occupies pride of place at the landing of the grand staircase. Violet’s happiest memories are those of her own wedding (with Ted Smith) in 1942 and that of her daughter in 1968 at Fairlawn. “Both were grand weddings where hundreds of guests turned up,” she says.
It is no wonder, then, that many keep returning to Fairlawn. Like Paul and Mary Womack of Detroit who returned to “relive the Fairlawn experience” after two decades. “This is a truly enchanting hotel and unlike any other we’ve stayed in anywhere else. It’s so homely and so charmingly eclectic, like a potpourri of styles and influences. And in no other hotel would the proprietor chat up with guests and take such good personal care of them,” they tell me.
I meet Desmond Baker, a Briton of Indian origin, who has come to Kolkata after 55 years. “I finished my school in Calcutta and in 1954, joined my family in the UK. Fairlawn was recommended to me by some acquaintances. And I see their praise for Fairlawn and Mrs Smith was actually understated. I’ve travelled the world and nowhere have I stayed in a hotel like this. It is really much more than a hotel. The rooms are so cheerful and individualistic, and the tariff reasonable,” says the 73-year-old who can’t move without crutches after replacement surgeries on both his knees. He plans to stay at Fairlawn for longer than the originally intended three weeks. “And, God willing, I’ll return after a couple of years to stay here again,” he adds.
Jennifer tells me that about 40 per cent of the guests at the 18-room hotel are regulars. “There are many who stay with us regularly, some coming back after decades. Some are even planning a ‘Friends of Fairlawn’ kind of community,” she says. She ardently believes in an adage she has borrowed from Indira Gandhi and made her business motto: ‘Receive tourists as guests and send them away as friends’.
Personally speaking, when I checked out of Fairlawn late next morning after a full English breakfast (complete with perfectly fried eggs, sunny side up, baked beans and bacon), I knew I had joined that charmed circle of people. Violet puts it best: a retreat and Fairlawn go together like bangers and mash.