Arriving in a new city after dark always gives a surreal first impression that usually rights itself the next morning. When our taxi from the airport turned right onto Kolkata’s notorious Sudder Street, the narrow, pot holed road was ablaze with neon lights and crawling with international backpackers. It is lined with dark alleyways that house what guidebooks warn is the worst of Asia’s cheap accommodations: no running water, squat hole toilets, cockroaches and rats. I was relieved when the taxi pulled into a courtyard and the old two story structure inside glowed a brilliant nile green color under Christmas lights hung everywhere. Cartons of empty Kingfisher beer bottles stood next to wicker furniture, and potted palms. In the crowded “beer garden” just off the lobby came the voices of Brits, Kiwis and Aussies. The Fairlawn Hotel‘s first impression never changed; it enlarged.
The building was constructed in 1781 on land bought by an Englishman from Sheik Ramjam and Bonay. It passed through several British owners before being purchased by British military commander, E.F. Smith and his Armenian wife, Violet in the early 1900s for use as a guesthouse and their private residence. Violet passed away two years ago but her personality and influence are everywhere in the Fairlawn. Guests, many who are regulars, still talk about her evening descent down the staircase in pearls, full make-up and a red haired wig for a nightly gin and tonic with guests.
The stairway to the second floor rooms is lined with family photos, portraits of British royalty and framed newspaper clippings about the Fairlawn and its famous guests. Multiple times a day staff polish the banisters to remove fingerprints.
The upstairs sitting room is a combination museum of English history in India and photograph album of Smith family vacation snapshots.
At breakfast the first morning I asked for a cup of milk tea, the traditional Indian drink we’d been served everywhere at all times of the day: sugar with tea and milk. The waiter looked appalled (the Fairlawn is a proper British establishment) and returned with a silver tray holding a bone china teacup and saucer, sugar bowl, silver creamer and a silver teapot covered with a tea cozy. Also the breakfast menu’s two choices: a proper English breakfast or porridge and toast with marmalade. No lassi. No pickled vegetables. No rice and curry sauce. Clearly inside the Fairlawn I was no longer in India’s India.
Outside the courtyard of the Fairlawn and the window of my room, the poverty of Kolkata was very real. Desperate locals and immigrants from surrounding regions live on the streets hoping to eke out some kind of basic existence from the backpacker crowd. You can buy anything on Sudder Street. Anything.
Inside the Fairlawn each day brought a new group of tourists. Some were researching English family roots of grandparents and uncles who had lived in Kolkata when it served as the capitol of the British Empire in India. Others were Fairlawn regulars who found Kolkata to be more interesting than India’s other cities. And some were there as I was to volunteer at one of Mother Theresa’s charity homes for the sick, disabled and dying. The Fairlawn staff have worked at the hotel through its generations of owners passing jobs down from father to son. They know the regular guests well. Which beer they prefer – Kingfisher regular or strong; at what time they like their afternoon tea; if they like the lobby air fan off or on while reading their morning India Times.
Crossing the courtyard threshold of the Fairlawn as I did multiple times daily became an exercise in attitude adjustment. Outside was the Mother Theresa home for disabled children where I volunteered, the hand push rickshaw drivers who labor hard to earn $1 USD per day and the extraordinary poverty of Kolkata. It’s both shocking and sad. Inside the ghost of Violet Smith still presides over polished banisters, proper tea and an evening gin and tonic.