Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Taj Reborn, and the Elephant Race

MUMBAI - A few more details about the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower's rebirth after last year's terror attacks on Mumbai emerged in a chat I had last night with the hotel's public relations manager, Nikhila Palat.

I sipped masala tea sweetened with milk in the Sea Lounge, a Mumbai institution and romantic spot for generations of the city's courting couples and matchmakers, while she filled me in on the latest developments: The 260-odd rooms of the 1903 Palace wing are still being repaired and modernized, but some will be available for occupancy by the end of this month. Some parts of the hotel will take longer. For example, the ballrooms, which are acquiring licks of fresh paint, will be fully renovated and repaired "by March, hopefully,'' Palat said. The club rooms for the hotel's best customers, temporarily installed on the second, third and fourth floors of the Tower wing, will move back into the Palace wing "by April, hopefully.'' Already, the grand staircase in the Palace wing that leads from the ground floor to the Sea Lounge and various function rooms is fully restored; it is a beautiful, dignified entryway.

I could still hear some drilling and see workers moving about, putting the finishing touches on the Palace wing, parts of which are draped in netting and scaffolding. Presently, all guests are being put up in the circa 1972 Tower wing, the first part of the hotel to reopen after 26/11. It's quite nice, but it doesn't have the grandeur of the heritage part of the hotel, which Taj recognizes. "We want to give people the experience of staying like royalty,'' Palat said. But in the first year after the attack, "We had to lodge them in the Tower wing because of the situation.''

The good news is "the situation'' is nearly resolved. By next summer, the work will be wrapped up, and the Taj Mumbai will officially reopen with a gala party. It's good to see this famed hotel coming back - and given the enthusiasm and flair that Mumbai people display when they party, the gala should be a party to remember.

It's not related to her work at the hotel, but Palat tells a funny story about a festival in her home town that features an elephant race. For years, she recalls, a male elephant owned by her family won that race, and as a reward, the big guy was allowed to hold the cup that symbolized victory. But age caught up with him and one year, he didn't win. No matter. The elephant went over and picked up the cup anyway. None of the judges had the heart to tell him no. Or maybe they just weren't big enough.

It's a sweet story, and it says something about Indian culture. In my country, we have dogs. In India, elephants.

For more information: Web: Telephone (India): (91-22) 6665 3366. E-mail:

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