Lecture on old Bombay hotels debunks myths and unearths scandals


April 19, 2016

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There has been a persistent rumour that Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Tata was denied entry to the European-owned Esplanade Hotel or ­ in a less popular account ­ Pyrke’s Apollo Hotel. In retaliation, the legend goes, Tata built the grand Taj Mahal Hotel at Apollo Bunder. It’s a lovely tale of victory snatched from humiliation; but as researcher Simin Patel discovered, the story is highly implausible.

By Nergish Sunawala |TNN

18_04_2016_006_061_008While doing her Oxford University dissertation `Cultural Intermediaries in a Colonial City: The Parsis of Bombay , c 1860-1921′, Patel found that as far back as 1871, three young Bengalis stayed at the Esplanade Hotel. If Indian patrons were welcomed in the 70s, there would be little reason to snub a prominent industrialist 30 years later. As for Hormusji Modi’s Apollo Hotel, it was a Parsi-run establishment unlikely to turn away a member of the same community . In fact, EW Pyrke wasn’t even a partner proprietor when the Taj opened.

On Monday , Patel will give a talk titled `Gentlemen Prefer Hotels: The Hotel Trade in Bombay , 1860-1903′ at Kala Ghoda’s Obataimu Boutique.Her lecture will begin in 1860s when the trade took off in the city , and conclude with establishment of the Taj.

In the early years, Parsi proprietors played a key role in the industry .They monopolized the trade by running clean establishments ­ free of the adulterous scandals that plagued their European rivals. Jacob Felmon, proprietor of the Prussian Hotel, for instance, accused his wife, Nina, of adultery with one of his partner proprietors, and the case went to court, ruining his establishment’s wholesome image in the press. Patel often chanced upon newspaper ads touting a European hotel’s good reputation followed by a report ­ in the same paper ­ of a scandal involving the owner.

Parsi proprietors’ names became synonymous with their hotels and surnames were also modified to serve as “portable personal advertisements“ like `Pochkhanawalla (inn keeper)’, Billard-Table-wala ­ all hotels advertised their Thurston Billiard tables ­ Cakewala and Bakerry .

Parsi proprietors also began ca tering services, which enabled members of the community to inter-dine with Europeans. This was a huge step forward at a time when strict codes prevented the native population­ including Parsis ­ from eating food prepared and served by members of other communities. “The catering services introduced by Parsi proprietors, by supplying Parsi cooks and Parsi waiters, enabled Parsi guests to partake of the dining experience in cosmopolitan settings,“ explains Patel.