In 1836 — when Bahadur Shah Zafar was yet to ascend the throne in Delhi to become the last Mughal — a man called David Wilson opened a bakery in Calcutta, which was fast growing into a second London. The bakery, a great source of comfort for homesick sahibs, did so well that Wilson soon acquired adjoining properties and in 1840 opened a hotel, cleverly naming it after Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India who lived right across the road.
Until then, Calcutta boasted of only one hotel, Spence’s, also located a stone’s throw from Wilson’s bakery. Spence’s, which opened in 1830, had its share of admirers, who included Jules Verne. While scanning the archives of The New York Times, which I subscribe to online, I found only one mention of Spence’s, in an 1888 dispatch that was datelined ‘Spence’s Hotel, Calcutta’. Thereafter, for nearly a century, no Calcutta hotel merited mention in the paper other than Wilson’s, by then rechristened the Great Eastern Hotel. If you came to Calcutta, you had to stay at the Great Eastern, whether you were Mark Twain or Rudyard Kipling or Queen Elizabeth.
While no one seems to be sure when exactly Spence’s Hotel shut down, one knows for certain when exactly the Great Eastern was rescued from closure — in 2005, when the property, by now dilapidated and rat-infested, was bought over from the West Bengal Government by The Lalit group. Reopened to the public in 2013 as The Lalit Great Eastern, it is today the oldest existing hotel in India — a 176-year-old brassware restored and polished, its lifespan extended by another century or two.
At the hotel, where I checked in last weekend, it is hard to miss the advertisement placed in the October 1840 issue of The Englishman and Military Chronicle: “D. Wilson and Co. beg respectfully to announce having taken those splendid and spacious Four-storied Premises, No. 1, Old Court House Street, formerly occupied by Messrs. Thacker and Co. and the Sans Souci Theatre, opposite Government House, and are sparing no expense in the alterations, and fitting it up in a manner that will render it one of the most comfortable family hotels in India.”
Nearly two centuries later, the new owners are doing precisely the same thing — sparing no expense in the alterations — as they blend the Victorian, Edwardian and modern eras to give something unique to Kolkata, which has been notorious for neglecting its handsome colonial-era buildings. The Victorian block, comprising 49 suites, is still under renovation, and will open in February next year.
The three nights I stayed there, I skipped dinner, simply because I overate during lunch, gorging on Bengali food that was prepared in its sanitised kitchens, but tasted very home-cooked. On the third day, lunch was actually home-cooked: I had happened to mention to the resident manager that I had never had litti-chokha, the quintessential Bihari dish, during my decade-long association with Kolkata, and so he had got me litti-chokha from home.
To burn calories, I walked — outside the hotel and inside. I walked around Dalhousie Square, Kolkata’s Westminster, where the hotel is located; I walked the streets of Kumartuli, watching Durga idols being made; I took a ferry across the Hooghly and walked on the Howrah Bridge. Walking in the corridors of the hotel was also as good as walking back in time. From time to time, one came across glass wine decanters, silver napkin-holders, silver water jugs, ancient teapots — all belonging to the time when the Great Eastern was known as the Jewel of the East.
It is one thing to recreate the past with the help of imagination, quite another to recreate it with actual pieces from the past — The Lalit Great Eastern has achieved the latter. When you hold an old wine decanter, you are forced to wonder whether it bears the fingerprints of Rudyard Kipling. It just might — who knows?