Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India, 5 July 2017, 2130 hours:
I have been coming to this hotel since 2008, which was the year that my paternal aunt and her family moved out of Shimla to Pune. Prior to that, I had spent most summers and many winters at home in Shimla because my dad’s younger sister and youngest brother had made Shimla home since 1970. Both of them worked at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and had made fine careers and raised fine families in Shimla over a period of four decades.
At first it felt odd coming to Shimla and staying in a hotel. Really odd. It’s like going home but not staying at home. But after a couple of visits, I got used to the homely manner of the management and staff at The Clarkes. Up until 2008 I had never really been able to afford stays in really good hotels. But The Clarkes changed all that. Firstly, it is an Oberoi hotel so the quality of stay is above par; secondly it is an efficient and quality-oriented hotel; thirdly, it is great value for money because it doesn’t cost as much as a comparable hotel might cost in the big cities. In fact, even the two other Oberoi properties in Shimla (The Cecil and Wildflower Hall) are more expensive propositions.
But my connection to The Cecil and The Clarkes is a bit more complicated than economics and good service. Back in the 1970s, when I was a toddler and then a young child, our family (parents, aunts, uncles, cousins) would troop to The Mall from our Summerhill residence. We would visit The Ridge, walk The Mall Road, eat at Baljee’s Fascination, and invariably end up at The Clarkes and then turn back. Nothing more, just that much.
Then, when I stepped out of college, I spent a year in stints in Mumbai and Bangalore, and then found myself in Shimla with my classmate and dear friend Dmess, knocking on the doors of The Cecil and The Clarkes for a job, any job. I remember walking into The Clarkes and stopping by at the Front Desk and asking about the General Manager and vacancies, and after a reasonable chat with the GM, leaving my application and bio-data (resume) for consideration. Ditto at The Cecil. We spent a couple of months in Shimla that summer, but didn’t get a job.
Across the next two decades, I kept coming back to visit my family in Shimla and passing The Cecil every day since it is in Chaura Maidan, which is on the way to The Mall when one walks it up from Summerhill or Boileauganj. Although I didn’t walk to The Clarkes again till 2008.
Like all other hotel management graduates from Mumbai’s Institute of Hotel Management, I knew the importance of the Oberoi Group and the significance of the hard-work that M. S. Oberoi put into building the Group. But as a student of history, I also knew the importance of both The Clarkes and The Cecil to India’s hospitality industry. The Cecil was the first hotel where M. S. Oberoi worked (as a clerk in 1922), and The Clarkes was the first hotel that M. S. Oberoi eventually bought. From accounts available (from the book India’s Industrialists, Volume 1, By Margaret Herdeck, Gita Piramal), the way it happened apparently was that Mr. Oberoi was at The Cecil when the manager was Ernest Clarke. Clarke moved from The Cecil for a year to Delhi (taking the young and capable Mr. Oberoi with him) and then returned to Shimla to take over The Carlton Hotel (which was in liquidation) and reopened it as The Clarkes Hotel. In due course, due to his hard-work, efficiency and contribution to the hotel’s growth and reputation, the young M. S. Oberoi was offered and bought one-third of the hotel (with help from family and friends). Subsequently, when The Clarkes (Ernest and his wife Gertrude) moved back to England, M. S. Oberoi raised funds from family again (also pawning his wife’s jewellery) to buy The Clarkes Hotel. Less than a decade later, he also ended up owning The Cecil.
Since 2012, I have been to The Clarkes almost every year, and talking to the staff, walking through the halls, rooms, looking at the old pictures, participating in the New Year gala dinners, having the morning silver-service style breakfast, and enjoying the walks around Jakkoo Hill, I get a very clear sense of the eras gone by, and also of the sheer passion, hard work and ingenuity it must have taken to build one of India’s greatest hotel empires. How long will it be before this era passes too? I wonder about it every time I visit, because surely it is a matter of time before modern service and menus and methods come into play?
For now, I am simply grateful to imbibe the sincere courtesy of the Front Office staff – Rakesh Sharma, Sheetal, Jyoti Thakur, these are people from in and around Himachal and who have been with the hotel for quite some time. I enjoy the gentle, unhurried pace of conversation, and the warmth with which the whole hotel greets the family and the sheer joy of the children as they run through the carpeted corridors to the table tennis and basketball enclosures to the carefully tended gardens and back to the dining rooms for a quick glass of juice under watchful eyes of the service staff (Roshan Lal, Rajinder, Subhash, Roop Singh, Dhani Ram, among others). The Housekeeping staff led by Balika Thapa is unobtrusive, available day and night (trust me, we have called them at midnight and they have turned up smiling!), and take care of you just like all the other employees of the hotel.
Tomorrow morning, we will be off to Kinnaur (after a hearty breakfast and a packed lunch from the dining room). For tonight, a cup of hot chocolate served from the heavy silverware pot will do the trick.