The Irony of an Iron Building

Many of us know that the American Thomas Edison received more than 2000 patents worldwide. He also developed early motion pictures which were then shown to people through Kinetoscope, his new machine into which you peeped-down to see this new invention. Sadly, he didn’t see a future in this business, so it was the Lumiere brothers of France who grabbed the opportunity to develop the Cinematographe. This was a device that recorded and processed images, to finally project them as moving pictures on a screen. The brothers’ first films were very short, which, after being first exhibited in Paris in December 1895, were taken to the road next year. In July 1896, their work was shown to an exclusive, paying audience at what was called The Watson’s Esplanade Hotel in Bombay, a five-minute walk from Gateway of India, whence the brothers entered the country.

The Watson’s Esplanade Hotel (more famously just Watson’s Hotel) was a pride of the city at the time. Let’s quickly see how uniquely this hotel happened upon Bombay. There used to be a successful English businessman named John Watson living in that city. He was running short of space for his flourishing tailoring and drapery business, so he sourced from England the design and all the prefabricated cast-iron frames for a building that would do fine for his trade and make him so proud. In the early 1860s the materials were brought into Bombay and as the structure began taking shape, Watson grew increasingly fond of it. Somewhere along the line, he converted the idea into a hotel for European guests. This had especially to do with the stunning 98 by 30 feet atrium, which was being built under a skylight. Yes, this would be a ballroom for guests to dance in. The hotel would have wide and long balconies all built around a courtyard, and the balconies would lead to individual rooms. The hotel was readied and it soon became the most stellar example of colonial opulence in India. It also became a whites-only place, and remained so for decades.

Enter Jamshetji Tata. Or rather, the unable-to-enter Jamshetji Tata.

Businessman Jamshetji was the man who started the Tata Group. He felt insulted for they didn’t let him into Watson’s (whites-only, remember?). So he decided to set up his own hotel, a few minutes’ walk away. This would become The Taj Mahal Hotel, arguably the most famous hotel in India today. He built it on the waterfront too, bang across the landing where passenger ships arrived. One chuckles at the thought that when Watson’s Hotel was top class, there was no Taj Mahal Hotel around, and today when the Taj is top class, the Watson’s has gone, at least as a hotel.

Meantime, in the last quarter of the 19th century, it was high noon for Watson’s Hotel, with even the first films shown there, as we just saw. The structure ceased to be a hotel in the 1920s when it was sold to new owners. After that, it has changed hands as also names, including being called Mahendra Mansion. One chuckles again, this time for the fact that at one point the same Tata Group, whose founder was once spurned at Watson’s entrance, went on to buy the hotel, only to sell it away later.

In recent years, India’s oldest cast-iron building has been in serious structural trouble. You don’t even have to be a structural engineer to certify that, just a layman’s glance at the exterior itself is enough. In 2005, parts of the building fell off, killing a person and damaging cars below. Another part fell off in mid-2018, resulting in that part of the road being closed for months. The city’s Municipal Corporation has declared the building to be dangerous and has advised occupants to vacate it at once, with redevelopment as an option. However, the occupants won’t move. Most of them are lawyers whose work engages them with the Bombay High Court just a few seconds walk from the structure. The Mumbai City Civil & Sessions Court is nearby too. The lawyers have stalled the Municipality’s efforts, by taking the matter to court. There’s nowhere the municipal folks can turn to, while we have a disaster waiting to happen in South Mumbai’s Culture District. That is such an irony, because the very people who should be helping the law take its course are the cause of coming in its way here. Incidentally, there’s no signboard of any kind whatsoever that it was here that India’s film history had started. This is a sad airbrushing of our history. Not to forget that we produce the highest number of films in the world.

Finally, we come not to an irony, but to a mystery. One wonders how the word hotel became a substitute for an eatery in Hindustani parlance. Forget about 30 or 40 years ago, even today, some people say, “Chalo hotal mein khaana khaate hain” (Let’s eat in a hotel today). Even today, one finds names like Ram Bharose Hindu Hotel or Allah Bux Hotel across towns in India. These are establishments that will give you food, but no room to stay.

Do you recall these songs engaging with the idea?

Aao hamaare hotal mein chai piyo ji garam garam

Biscut kha lo naram naram

Jo dil chaahe maang lo humse

Sab kuchh hai Bhagwan qasam…


Garmi ho to sharbat pee kar kar lo dil ko thanda

Sardi ho to kha lo bhaiya is murghi ka anda

Is hotal ke andar ja kar le lo babu naya janam…

(SD Batish, Sudha Malhotra/Shakeel/Ghulam Mohammad/Kundan, 1955)

This one is more recent:

Kisi disco mein jaayen

Kisi hotal mein khaayen

Koi dekh le na humen yahaan

Kaheen ghoom ke aayen hum

Chalo ishq ladaayen, chalo ishq ladaayen, chalo ishq ladaayen sanam

(Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik/Sameer/Viju Shah/Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan, 1998)

Today, the iron structure is under the scanner as one of the World’s 100 Most Endangered Monuments, as listed by The World Monuments Watch. As its website tells us, “The World Monuments Watch is a global, nomination-based program that uses cultural heritage conservation to empower communities and improve human well-being. Through heritage, the program seeks to improve the resilience of communities, enhance social inclusion, and build new capacities in the heritage conservation field and beyond. Through the Watch, World Monuments Fund partners with local stakeholders to jointly design and implement targeted conservation programs…”

The operative words above are “to jointly design and implement”. India successfully cooperated with the World Health Organisation to eradicate polio from her soil, and so we are polio-free. On the other hand, our neighbour Pakistan had elements who thought vaccination was a western conspiracy to sterilize its children. Today, three nations, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, are paying the price for coming in the way of progress. That makes me digress to a song which has nothing to do with a hotel.  But it sure has to do with irony:

Chingaari koi bhadke to saawan use bujhaaye

Saawan jo agan lagaaye use kaun bujhaaye…

Maana toofaan ke aage naheen chalta zor kisi ka

Maujon ka dosh naheen hai ye dosh hai aur kisi ka

Manjdhaar mein naiyya dole to maanjhi paar lagaaye

Maanjhi jo nao duboye, use kaun bachaaye…

(Kishore Kumar/Anand Bakshi/RD Burman/Amar Prem, 1971)


Originally published on 5 January 2019 in DNA Jaipur, page 13

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