Tuesday, 7 October 2014

OOZING COLONIAL CHARM — THE FAIRLAWN HOTEL OF KOLKATA

Photo courtesy: Fairlawn
The 'past' is throbbing and alive in Fairlawn. Not in a 'time-warp-kinda way' but like a stylish septuagenarian — full of old world charm, glamour and chic, but modern. That's an apt way to describe Fairlawn the hotel in Kolkata which is a landmark in itself. So was its owner, Violet Smith who passed away a few weeks ago at age 93. She was fondly called the Duchess of Sudder Street — the hotel is located at the junction of Madge Lane and Sudder street, a few minutes away from the century old New Market area. 

Fairlawn is for those who are nostalgic about a bygone time — when style, class and charm were an integral part of everyday life. You can find it in the colonial charm of the hotel. And the 200 years old artefacts that you will find all over the place carries within it stories from another era. 

Violet Smith (middle) with her family
Legend has it that Violet's mother, Rosie Sarkies and her father (Armenians) fled Turkey which was in Turmoil back then. They reached Kolkata in 1933, which had a sizable Areminian refugees back then. Mommy bought a hotel named Astoria for four-and-eight-anna coins, which she had saved in two kerosene cans, hidden from the prying eyes of her spendthrift husband. Savvy and street-smart Rosie turned Astoria into a boarding house for Armenians for a rent of Rs.150 per month — inclusive of all meals. In return Rosie gave the refugees, away from home, few things familiar to them — food and family atmosphere. Within three years, Rosie, an astute woman, sold Astoria to another Aremenian for Rs.6000 (it was 'big monies' those days) and bought Fairlawn — which was built in 1783 by an European William Ford who had purchased the land from Sheikh Ramjan and Bhonay two years prior. The street was initially called Ford Street. Later it came to be known as Sudder Street when the Sadar Court was built. 


The building passed down five different owners before Rosie bought it and established Fairlawn, which went on to become a landmark hotel, which is still run by her family. Rosie went on to build five more hotels in Calcutta and one at Emperors Gate in Kensington, London. 


It was at the Fairlawn hotel, run by her mother, Violet met Ted, a British Army Major. Later the two would wed and go on to become the owners of Fairlawn in 1962. The hotel had been Violet's "obsession" till the very end. It is said that the guests of Fairlawn were all treated to Violet's 'personal touch' and charm. She was invested in the comfort of the guests. And she did have some really big names on her guests list which included the Kendal family (mother and father of famous British actress Felicity and Jennifer — the latter went on to marry actor Shashi Kapoor). Apparently, the theatrical family stayed in Fairlawn  — on and off — for nearly 30 years. Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer had their honeymoon here at Fairlawn. And it is also said that there was a room in the hotel that was dedicated to Shashi Kapoor for very many years. Violet also played hosts to filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, actor Patrick Swayze (by the way Fairlawn is featured in his film The City of Joy), Sting, writers Dominique Lapierre and wife, Gunthur Grass and many more. 


What's interesting is when you visit Fairlawn you sense that the walls contains within itself the creative energies of all those wonderful guests and the wonderful spirit of Rosie, Violet and the others in the family. It is like visiting a well-maintained ancestral house where every nook and corner has a story to tell. And just like one's ancestral home many of the staff at Fairlawn are children of the families that have worked at Fairlawn for years.


Talking about Violet, her daughter Jennifer Fowler said in a recent interview: "My mother loved people. She loved playing the hostess. My father was the manager — he actually ran the hotel, kept note of the accounts, exerted quality control on the then continental kitchen.  My mother didn't know where the kitchen was."


To say that Fairlaw is 'green' is an understatement. With its coat of green paint and much loved plants of Violet all over the premise, the hotel exudes warmth. Add to it the age-old British colonial charm, walls pock-marked with family memorabilia and gracious wait-staff — you should be ready to be transported to another era albeit with all modern creature comforts.


Four years ago, the younger generation renovated the hotel to make it more suitable for the modern tourist — running hot water, air conditioning, wi-fi...they even put in a softner and de-ionising plant; not to mention a backup generator, which means you don't get stymied in Kolkata humidity when there's a powercut. However, it is sad to see that they have discontinued Rosie's original 'tariff-includes-all-meals' plan and also the gong that announced 'breakfast'. Well, one cannot always have everything, all the time, right?

However, you can still order the Fairlawn's famous British Roast. It might not be on the menu, but the kitchen will still cook you a kick-ass roast if you request for one. After all, Fairlawn takes great pride in following their motto: Meet tourists as guests and send them away as friends. That's what Rosie did and her daughter Violet after her —till she died. And that's what Fairlawn will continue to do for years to come. So, if you ever find yourself in Kolkata, pay a visit to Fairlawn.
Tariff:
Double/Twin: Rs.3700 + 17.86% tax 
Single: 3700 + 13.35 % tax
Extra bed: Rs.1200 + 17.86 % tax
Service Charge (which is distributed amongst the staff) : 5%
The above is inclusive of breakfast.
Fairlawn Hotel Pvt.Ltd.13A, Sudder Street, Calcutta 700 016, India. Phone: 91 - (33) - 2252 1510 / 8766 / 8767 / 0125. Fax: 91 - (33) - 2252 1835.Email: fairlawn@cal.vsnl.net.in fairlawnhotel@gmail.com