Home Chennai Connemara Diaries

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    With the iconic heritage hotel shutting down for major renovation, we take you back to its earlier days of turban-clad bearers and royal guests.

    WALKING up the marble steps of the Connemara Hotel in the mid-sixties was an experience. Like taking a flight for the first time, or diving off the deep end of a swimming pool, you never knew whether to take a deep breath, or stop breathing altogether. Even the Art Deco façade with its stiff geometrical lines and regimented slits for windows seemed forbidding.
    Inside, time stood frozen. Just as the ancient bearers wearing long floor length gowns in white drill over their native clothes stood at attention like soldiers. Or with their helmets of white-coiled turbans more like beached turtles waiting for the tide to take them out to sea again.
    “Welcome Mem, welcome Massah!” they would cry if they noticed someone wearing a sola toppee — those pith helmets that were a badge of the colonial planter’s aristocracy — enter the dim interior of the Connemara foyer.
    The famous trio
    One of my favourite hostesses was a Bengali dancer who had married a Frenchman. Her name was Usha Chatterjee Gratry. Her husband, Charles Gratry, was tall and blue eyed. When he took your hand, he appeared to swoon briefly over it and graze it with the merest soupcon, or hint of a kiss. The third person in this ensemble was another aristocrat, Prince Raymont, of Italian descent. When they descended the steps of the curving staircase leading from the first floor, it was like watching an episode from a Merchant Ivory film.
    Poppadum files
    We always ate at the dining room upstairs, in what is now the Ballroom. Tall-stemmed fans hung down from the ceiling. The white robed bearers advanced upon us with dishes that had been covered with domed silver-plated lids.
    “My dear man, do you have an envelope?” Charles Gratry would ask the headwaiter. “Please bring it here. I want to fold this poppadum, it is so limp that I would like you to put a stamp on the envelope and post it to your mother.” Being French allowed Charles to make witty comments about the old British Raj style food.
    People watching
    Beautiful people were a premium at the Connemara. For instance in the 60s, we had two of Satyajit Ray’s most delectable heroines haunting the corridors of popular imagination in the city. One was Sharmila Tagore, fresh from her debut in The Apu Trilogy, and studying as a student at the Doveton Corrie, but able to attract the most desirable of young swains of that time with her double barreled dimpled charms. The second was Madhabi Mukerjee of Charulata fame.
    Others were the exotic hawai-sundaris as the Air India air hostesses were known at a time when flying itself was seen as the preserve of just a lucky few.
    Even the men were more beautiful. Stephen Spender the poet, the golden boy of his time just before the two World Wars, was one of them. There was no question but any poet or writer, actor or performer stayed at the Connemara. Spender’s thatch of spun gold hair had faded to silver, but his nose was still as finely honed by the chisel of time as that of a Roman aristocrat. When he spoke in his soft cadenced tones you could not fathom that there was a barb in his words. For he was an enchanter who once wrote: “Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair/a railway fare/a revolution….”
    That might sum up the Connemara’s charms as well. After 125 years and many changes of style and owners, she will survive. There is too much riding on the tales that link the Connemara’s history with that of the city and the people that created the legend.

    Sleep easy
    Book a night in one of the hotel’s iconic heritage rooms. They’ve always had takers for their Victorian arches and period furniture. The rooms’ highlights are its 135-foot ceilings and the tall colonial columns separating the bedroom from the sitting area. Tariffs from Rs 10,500 per night onwards. Details: 66000000

    Join the club
    Popular with late morning and early evening visitors, there are two special sandwiches at The Verandah. Non-vegetarians usually go for the Connemara Club Sandwich, rich with chicken and bacon fillings. The other, a cottage cheese special, is chock-full of greens. Priced at Rs 700 each. Details: 66000000

    On a platter
    Why wait an entire year to have the thali at the Raintree? Available in vegetarian, non-vegetarian and seafood variants, the items on it include dishes like crab meat soup, crispy fried chicken, seer fish curry, gunpowder idli, curry leaf curry and more. Don’t miss the appam and idiappams. From Rs 1,450 per thali.
    Details: 66000000

    Hostess to remember
    Usha Gratry’s  Bengali lineage was as impeccable as her chiseled cheekbones. Her father had been a Major General in the Indian National Army and close confidant of its charismatic leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. Fifty years later, when all the  main actors had moved on, the Taj management placed a framed portrait of her at the  entrance to the old wing of the hotel.

    — Geeta Doctor

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