KOLKATA, India — Tucked away from the hustle of Sudder Street, the colonial-era Fairlawn Hotel offers a glimpse into an elegant, bygone era and the chance to rub elbows with the proprietor, an elegant grand dame.
I had made my first reservations (via Skype from a Starbucks at the Kuala Lumpur airport) and settled on the Fairlawn because it was the first hotel that answered its phone. After a short flight and a taxi ride that provided a blaring introduction to India’s cultural capital, I arrived at the faded majesty of the Fairlawn Hotel, ensconced behind iron gates.
In the daylight of the following morning, the hotel’s storied history began to emerge.
The walls were lined with letters from celebrities, visitors, friends. Among the framed missives were ones from the likes of Patrick Swayze, who stayed there while filming the movie based on the 1985 Dominique Lapierre novel, “City of Joy.”
For a stately structure that has been around since 1783, it seemed perfectly reasonable that more than a few bold names had made their way here. A garden in front leads to a small, semi-covered patio area where visitors can enjoy a smoke or a Kingfisher beer within a few steps of the emerald-green lobby.
A comprehensive collection of tchotchkes and a mixture of furnishings from various periods suggest a wide range of stories about the owners, its guests and its place in local history.
Photographs of Ted and Violet Smith, who owned the hotel since 1962, also adorned the walls. (Previously, the Fairlawn was owned by Violet’s mother, Rosie Sarkies, beginning in 1936, according to the hotel’s website.)
On my second and final morning, I spotted Violet seated at her usual table in the dining room, finishing her breakfast. Coiffed and dressed as if she were attending a formal dinner, Violet looked perfectly at home amid the elegant surroundings. There was a regal air about her, as a member of the hotel staff cleared the plates.
Not wanting to disturb her too much, as I imagined guests did all the time, I approached cautiously and told her how much I had enjoyed visiting the landmark hotel.
Graciously, she thanked me and spoke briefly about how she had come to make a home in Kolkata and loved it.
“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” she said. “I’m a warm person. I was born here.”