Why Oberois is so special
Delhi has many five star hotels and more are coming up in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games. For instance, the Hilton Piccadily Hotel will soon open in Janakpuri and the Marina in Connaught Place outer circle is getting a face-lift to reopen as the Raddison Marina. The Marina has been for long a landmark in CP and the block of outer circle where it is located has long been referred as the Marina Arcade. The area also had its share of notoriety and at one time Taxis to take gamblers from Delhi to the UP and Haryana border for gambling purposes would run from the parking lot.
Delhi’s best card sharpeners would gather here to show their skills for gambling which is illegal and many used to be also caught by the police under the Gambling Act. It is good to know that the Hotel is getting a transformation and my friend, Dr Ashwini Mehta who is part owner of the place appears to be very excited over the relaunch.
In Connaught Place, the Nirula has finally given way to Haldiram and the corner somehow does not look the same any more. Nirulas was of course the pioneer of fast food in India and one had got so used to that location that even after it is gone, the L Block corner is still referred by us Delhiites as the Nirulas corner. Though most people were frequent visitors to the fast food outlets and the Confectionary at ‘L’ block corner, I remember going to the Omar Khyyam Room in the early seventies soon after I joined college. The Omar Khyyam room was the hotel’s bar and it was later converted into the Potpourri restaurant. Earlier, a wine shop was also located on the ground floor next to the Confectionary. The Potpourri now functions from its new location at the Central Court hotel some blocks (N-Block to be precise) away, also in the Outer Circle opposite the Scindia House. The Safari restaurant used to be there before the Nirulas started their operations from the new location. One has to climb the steps to go to Potpourri but it is no longer the same after the place change. The ‘N’ Block has another restaurant, the Amber that replaced the Milkbar, a restaurant known for its famous Tamato Fish lunch. The Milkbar used to be owned by a Civil Lines family, which also had stakes in Napoli restaurant on Dehradun’s Rajpur Road. Milkbar was one of the few restaurants in CP, which also had a jukebox with plenty of good English and hindi songs.
Another restaurant, which disappeared from this block, was the Regent where a Handsome crooner Mark used to entertain visitors every evening.
Delhi’s changing face also witnessed the disappearance of the Capital Park Hotel which gave way to the Park Hotel on Parliament Street and the Fonseca Hotel where the Taj Man Singh is now located. While I was in school I saw the Oberois being constructed and do remember that it was built on a graveyard which made the entire thing look a bit spooky at that time. I also recall that when it was completed sometimes in the late sixties, Oberoi Intercontinental as it was known at that time became Delhi’s best hotel. Its opening also coincided with a case of tragic suicide when a young man jumped from its sixth or seventh floor. I later discovered that he was my second cousin, Aniket.
I have also had this strong emotional connection with the hotel on three counts. Firstly, I saw it being built and a group of us would often skip school (DPS) and wander in the area and beyond till the Golf Club for a stroll sometimes. Originally it extended very near Mathura Road and the hotel had to give up some land when the flyover next to it was constructed.
The area where the Parking lot is located now used to be the Nishat Lake where a lot of Jam sessions would take place in the mid seventies. Mike Fay and his wife Sudha would entertain people along with their band, mostly on shows sponsored by the Weston TV’s Vachannis. It used to be great fun. My emotional attachment with the hotel is also on account of its owner, late MS Oberoi being from my father’s native village Bhaun in the Jhelum district (now in Pakistan). MS Oberoi and my father’s maternal uncle, late AC Mehta were childhood buddies and also continued their friendship after shifting to Simla in the nineteen thirties. My grandmother would often refer to Oberois as “Mohan Singh da Hotel” whenever we passed the place in our car.
Inside the Hotel there used to be a fine dining Mughlai restaurant called the Taj (in the waiting area and beyond of the present 360. Very few people may recall that this particular restaurant had a table where no candle could be lit or no bulb functioned if it was placed overhead. The story, which did the rounds at that time was that, the table was located right above the spot where a Sufi mazar used to exist earlier. Therefore, lighting was not possible at all. An added incentive of going to the hotel would be that one could see Leela Naidu (she was then married to the owner’s son), once in a while and also many film stars. Dev Anand used to stay at an exclusive suite there while on visits to Delhi and Raj Kapoor hosted one of his silver jubilee party for Bobby’s success also at the hotel where wine and whisky flowed like water. The Siddhartha producer Conrad Rookes had a permanent suite in the hotel and could be spotted in company of beautiful women on many occasions. The Tabela, the hotel’s discotheque was a favourite place of young people and would always be packed especially on Saturday evenings.
I also recall how Leela Naidu’s twin daughters disappeared from the hotel and since the family did not want any publicity no case was lodged but informal investigations by the Hotel’s chief security officer, a former CBI detective were preferred. The girls were found very shortly and the matter was never allowed to get any publicity.
My final emotional connection with the Hotel is that it was here that I was hired as Senior Editor (incharge of city and NCR) by the HT after being interviewed by the present Chairperson Shobhana Bhartia. I was the deputy RE of TOI and the then Executive President Naresh Mohan had already interviewed me. The final interview session took place at the Belvedere where I had a meeting with Ms Bhartia.
Delhi may have many hotels but my bonding with Oberoi is very special.