There is a quiet green place in the heart of old Kolkata. A short walk from the bars and restaurants of Park Street, a green gate encloses an old bungalow and a lush garden. Its lime facade is punctuated by green wooden shutters, festooned with plants. I am at the Fairlawn Hotel, where every night the garden is full of laughter, and in a courtyard inside, an army of empty bottles awaits disposal. In the mornings, coffee in the shade has the pace of a benediction. Ashtrays take an age to empty.
Built in 1783, when Warren Hastings was Governor General, the house on Sudder Street became a hotel in 1936 after passing into the hands of a Mrs. Rose Sarkies. Her daughter, Violet Smith, the legendary “Duchess of Sudder Street”, managed it until she passed away last year aged 93. Over the 20th century, the Fairlawn passed into traveller lore, calling out to actors, artists, and writers. Shashi Kapoor wooed his wife Jennifer in these halls, and they spent their honeymoon here. Travel author Eric Newby called it his “most favourite hotel”.
I never had the chance to meet Violet Smith, but wandering through her home, I felt like I had encountered a very strong and idiosyncratic personality. The walls are covered with framed newspaper clippings, pictures of the British royal family, souvenir tea towels, and posters of distant and unconnected locations across the Commonwealth. It is cluttered, broadly irrelevant, and absolutely charming.
Fairlawn belongs to a Kolkata that once was—and, when I turn my head a little—still is. I walk down the street to the vast Indian Museum, where 19th-century skeletons of whales hang from cables. At Park Street close by, there is a cemetery filled with East India Company worthies. At night on Sudder Street, dealers peddle hash. In the morning, the bustle of the market breaks your sleep.
This is not a place for the ambitious and energetic, model professionals, or captains of industry. This is a place to come with a lover, or to work on that novel that may never be completed; a place where time is measured in bottles of beer. This is not a hotel for those who want to win the world, but for those who’d rather forget it for a while.
Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “History In Green”.
Accommodation The Fairlawn Hotel is a short walk from Park Street, in the centre of Kolkata. I stayed in a butterscotch yellow room; the fittings were old and the switches even older. The fans turn slowly as if through the fugue of decades. The furniture is mismatched and I found myself marvelling that a place could go to seed with such grace (13A Sudder Street; 033-2252 1510/8766; www.fairlawnhotel.com; doubles from ₹3,200 Apr-Sept).
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