I woke up to the sound of galloping horses and marching feet. And I thought, still sleepy, ‘What happened to social distancing?’
When I checked into the Savoy Ooty in late March, I, like most people, didn’t anticipate the sudden lockdown. Truth be told, getting stuck in a place as pretty and plush as the Savoy is not nearly as punishing as I made it out to be to my boss. It’s the quaint, self-pampering holiday I always dreamt of but never had.
So I was kind of surprised to hear this much activity this early in sleepy Ooty. ‘What time is it?’ I reached out for my cellphone, but it wasn’t there. I was fully awake in a flash. I looked for the hotel phone on the nightstand but it wasn’t there either. That’s when I looked around and noticed the changes. This isn’t a luxury ‘heritage’ room. This is as if all the antiques have suddenly become brand new.
Tentatively, I stepped out of the room. It looked much the same outside though. The same lush green lawn, the same white cottages with red roofs overlooking the breathtakingly picturesque, misty Nilgiri hills. Suddenly an orderly appeared. He wasn’t wearing the usual Taj attire but flashed the same bright smile and bowed down rather strangely,
‘Good morning Memsahib.’
‘Good morning. Erm, where am I?’
He looked puzzled but answered anyway ‘Sylk’s Hotel, Memsahib!’ I took a deep breath, fully knowing how insane the next question would sound:
‘And what year is this?’
‘1915 Memsahib’ The orderly answered with the expected expression.
This has got to be some kind of joke. ‘Can you find me Ritesh, the General Manager please?’
‘No Ritesh here Memsahib. Ross Barkley Sahib is manager’.
‘Can I meet him then?’
‘He busy Memsahib. Welcoming Maharaja and Maharani of Pudukottai.’
I came back to the room and climbed onto the bed. At least in its indulgent coziness, I will be reminded of something familiar: the Tajness that I’m used to.
It’s been two months that I’ve been living in 1915. Having found no way to get back to 2020, I’ve decided to accept the new life in old time.
Fortunately, the fifteen thousand rupees I withdrew from the ATM had transformed to pound sterling of colonial times. Given its purchasing power, I knew I won’t be starving at least. I slowly got acquainted with the other guests. A retired Colonel Bradley Cooper and young his wife, Lord and Lady Gaga, a young Turkish reporter Rami Malek, a particularly shy Greek painter Banksyus and an American movie actress Dona Trump. But the most remarkable of all guests was the Maharaja and his Australian Maharani, Molly Fink.
Molly was probably the melancholiest queen that one could ever imagine. Ostracised by the colonial government and having survived a poisoning attempt as soon as she came to India, she was clearly disillusioned as to what it means to marry a monarch. The couple loved each other dearly and it was clear that the Maharaja would do just about anything to please her and keep her safe.
Molly became interested when she learned that I had been to Australia (in February when I visited the University of Sydney for work). I think in me she found a link that connected the two countries in some way. In a short while, I became a constant companion of the royal couple. We would stroll the manicured lawns on a chilly moonlit night, rode up to the lake in their Landau, had breakfast together devouring on mouthwatering croissants with strawberries from local farms and sipping on tea from the nearby estates. In the evening after we stuffed ourselves with an exquisite ten-course meal crafted by the French Chef M. Jean Reno, we would retire to the opulent mahogany-lined lounge by the fireplace.
While they would sip on their port, I would read my favourite poems from Gitanjali, an English translation of which got published a few years back in 1912.
But Molly’s sadness persisted. ‘I’ll never be accepted here. I’m just too different for them.’ She’d say. I knew it was difficult, for an Australian to blend in an Indian family. I mean it’s not easy even in 2020 and this is over a hundred years before. And then it struck me. Something that I fell in love with at the Savoy from day one. If not anything, it will lift her spirit, even for a few days. ‘I have an idea’ I told her, ‘But you’ll need some practice to pull it through’.
It’s been a month since we have hatched our little conspiracy. Only a handful knew about it barring M. Reno and a chef who was specially smuggled in all the way from Coonoor.
On the fateful day, at lunchtime, the Maharaja was waiting at the dining hall for his queen to join him and was totally taken aback when the appeared from the kitchen door. She held a ganguva, a brass plate in her hands. And on it, a lavish spread of Badaga cuisine; kadimittu, eragi hittu, batha hittu, avare udaka, soppu, sandege and bathal. The Maharaja was speechless as she laid it in front of him. The Maharani said with a smile, ‘Let’s go back to Pudukottai. Invite all those who are opposed to our marriage. I will cook for them and I will show them that I can be as traditional as any Indian wife.’ Sadness filled the eyes of the Maharaja. ‘I wish it was that simple Molly. They have refused to even let me buy a house here. No. We are going to go back to Australia. I’ve already made arrangements.’ The couple left Ooty the next day. But left behind a legacy of the Badaga thali at the hotel that I knew would survive the test of time. A legacy in which I had a small part to play.