By Russi M. Lala
A horrific terrorist attack has ravaged one of Mumbai’s most-loved symbols and taken the lives of many of its dedicated staff. This heritage hotel was not started as a commercial venture. It was Jamsetji Tata’s gift to the city he loved — as the Taj Mahal of Agra was Shah Jahan’s memorial to the woman he loved.
MUMBAI’S PRIDE: Before the Gateway of India was built, the Taj Mahal offered the first view of the city of Bombay to ships sailing into the harbour. Even now, with many more tall buildings on the skyline, the hotel engages immediate attention.
The 1880s and 1890s were a time of great construction in Bombay. The Grand Victoria Terminus was built, and after it the Municipal Corporation building, another beautiful structure, followed by the Churchgate headquarters of the B.B. & C.I. Railways (now Western Railways). But there was no hotel worthy of the growing city.
Being an ardent fan of Mark Twain, Jamsetji Tata may have read of the writer’s fate in the so-called ‘best’ Watson’s Hotel: Mark Twain and his family were roused every morning at dawn by doors slamming, servants shouting, and “fiendish bursts of laughter, explosions of dynamite.” The Irish chef at the hotel was apparently more conversant with the French language that with French cooking, “serving up Irish stew on 14 occasions under 14 different French names.” Sir Stanley Reed, Editor of The Times of India, said Jamsetji had an intense pride and affection for the city of his birth, and when a friend protested against the intense discomforts of hotel life in Bombay, he growled: “I will build one.”
One day without consulting anybody, not even his sons or partners, he announced his plan to build a grand hotel. It was his personal contribution and money he was putting in — not that of Tata & Sons. Along the present Yacht Club at Apollo Bunder was a little bay where yachts used to scull. The British were reclaiming the land and he bought a substantial site of two-and-a-half acres on November 1, 1898 on a 99-year lease. There was no formal laying of a foundation stone but a traditional coconut was broken and a Parsi diva (oil lamp) was lit, perhaps by the well or spring between the present swimming pool and the lifts. This ceremony took place in 1900.