It was late in September. I flew early to Mumbai for an Edu-Fair, at the heritage Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which had turned into an 8-hour marathon.
Dog-tired, I was yearning to retire to my sea-facing room. Finally, when I entered my room, the tasteful blend of Indian aesthetics and European flair was mesmerising, true to the unique Taj signature style.
As I glanced out the window, I noticed the rain-drenched Gateway of India standing regally with the sea as its backdrop. The monsoons were almost over but with the current Covid19 situation, things were tense and a lockdown announcement was imminent. Switching on the telly, I watched grimly as news channels announced a 90-day lockdown starting midnight today! As this reality sank in, I glanced at the thundering skies just in time to see a lightning strike the Gateway, temporarily blinding me, while a searing pain ran through my body and I passed out.
When I woke with a start, I sensed something strange about the mellow brightness in my room. Standing up, massaging my sore muscles, I realized that my spectacular room now looked retro. Confused and giddy, I opened the door and found a newspaper placed outside in a vintage-looking corridor. Hastily retreating, I walked to the window only to get flabbergasted. There was no Gateway blocking my view of the sea! Everything looked old-fashioned.
My eyes scanned the newspaper – 2nd September 1911!
How on earth?
Was this time travel?
Was I still at the Taj?
My head was pounding with myriad questions.
Adrenaline was pumping furiously as I wondered, what next?
Feeling ravenous, I looked for my luggage to getready; instead found the cupboard containing a mix of exquisite Indian ethnic wear, English gowns, and accessories, befitting the early 20th century.
Dressing gorgeously made me step out with confidence for the complimentary breakfast. It was grander than I imagined, and quiet too. Happily, I loaded my plate admiring the exotic global cuisines of another era in near solitude. Sitting at a corner table, was a lone man watching me curiously.
Before I could look away, he cheerily tipped his hat. Responding with an awkward smile, I quickly focused on my plate. As I was finishing, I noticed the stranger headed towards me. Thinking it only polite, I asked him to join me. George Wittet was Scottish, an architect in “Bombay”. Luckily, he was the talkative kind and only asked me my name. He mentioned his work on the GPO building project and referred to the Prince of Wales Museum among his newer projects. Realizing that he was one of only two architects who had popularised the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, I felt impressed. His alluring light blue eyes and baritone voice was making it hard for me not to stare. Since we were well past breakfast, I expressed my wish to see his work in the hope of seeing him again. To my utter delight, he invited me to join him for a special tour the very next day!
Thus, I began a series of wondrous journeys in elegant horse-drawn carriages, with a handsome Scotsman as my guide, exploring buildings and other sites in Bombay. I was able to converse comfortably with George given that we seemed to share very similar ideals in life. My cover story, incidentally true, was that I hailed from an esteemed Kovilakom household in Kerala and was presently visiting Mumbai. Over the ensuing weeks, there was no denying that our attraction was mutual although we were in no rush.
One evening in late October, George, looking rather melancholic, told me that the Taj was hosting a banquet in favour of King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary, who were the first British monarchs visiting India for a coronation ceremony in December. On probing, he explained how he had been commissioned to design something for the occasion and was yet to find any inspiration. Ardently wishing to help, I spent the next few weeks having long animated discussions with him on a variety of plans. We grew much closer over this time and one evening I was pleasantly surprised when George gifted me a bouquet of red roses. Flustered and blushing, I accepted shyly. He jubilantly revealed that finally, he had his idea and that I would see it on the 2nd of December. Just before leaving, he winked and confessed that it was a proclamation of his love for me.
Overjoyed by the sweet turn of events, it took me a while to fathom that date’s relevance. Anxiously, I realized it marked my 90th day in Taj! What if the lockdown was somehow significant? What if I was here only for 90 days?
Close to losing my sanity, I decided to write a note to George explaining who I really was and how deeply I reciprocated his feelings. The remaining days went by in a blur and the excitement of the monarch’s arrival reached a feverish crescendo on 1st December. I hadn’t seen much of George lately but we had planned for dinner before the D-day.
It was a rainy evening and George looked dashing in his well-fitted suit. With a glint in his eye, he asked me if I was ready for tomorrow. I smiled sadly and gently handed him the note, requesting him to open it only after the banquet. He sensed my gloom but didn’t probe further. Before parting, I leaned forward and kissed his cheek and headed back to my room.
That night, a thundering storm ravaged the city and with a deep sense of foreboding, I walked to the window and looked out to the sea once again. Soon enough, lightning struck and I passed out. When I eventually woke up, I knew what I had to do. Looking out into the sea I saw the majestic landmark that we are all so used to – the Gateway of India.
However, for me, now it had become the Gateway of Love!