Wednesday was one of the tougher days I've had at work. I was multi-tasking on several stories, never a good thing for a writer, and had several Google Docs windows open on my workstation. A farewell lunch for a colleague, who is in her notice period and leaving early December, at The Tasting Room at Raghuvanshi Mills didn't help with my rapidly overbearing workload. After a well-proportioned Tuna sandwich I ran back to the office to polish off an editorial piece on business education. It was filed an hour late. A short intro piece to a pictorial cover story scheduled for later this week followed. And I was barely half way through it when I got a call from my contact at a PR firm: "Your request has gone through. They will give you an hour-long slot from 6:00 to 7:00 PM. Dinner is out of the question."
The CEO of a very important and large international company was in town and I had requested an hour-long dinner meeting with her. This was for our popular weekend profiles page. They had reverted on Monday with a 6 to 6:30 half-hour slot. I told them it was pointless to talk to her for half an hour. And then, two days later, the PR firm had managed to inveigle out an hour long slot. It would be in her suite at the Taj Palace hotel near the Gateway of India as she already had dinner plan that night.
Around five, just as I ditched the intro piece to run downstairs and catch a cab, the publicist called back to say that the interview had been postponed by another half an hour. My meeting would now be at 6:30 PM. I gasped in relief. Now I would reach early and have enough time to chill out at the Taj lobby, double check my audio recorder and take a leak before I met the CEO for our interview.
I found a cab almost immediately and ran over my interview questions in my head for a while. Then I pulled out my Diwali-gift PSP and played the penultimate stage of God of War (on Easy mode of course). As the cab pulled into the road by Regal Cinema I saved it just before the final boss battle, stuffed it back into my messenger bag and then pulled out my audio recorder.
There was a line of two business types in suit jackets ahead of me at the metal detector. When my turn came I handed a security guard my messenger bag and walked through the metal detector. The guard felt all over the bag and then handed it back. I, in a split second, ran through all the jokes me and the missus make about these insipid security checks they do all over Mumbai at malls, hotels and multiplexes. A quick feel, nary a glance and a wave through.
Walking into the Taj lobby is one of the most dependable ways to reduce my blood pressure. The AC kicks in first, then the piped music and finally the shiny, warm, clean, buzzy ambience. I look to see if there is a guy on the piano. I always do this. Its a habit that can't be explained.
That night there wasn't. The piano sat quiet.
The next thing I do, without fail, is marvel at the doors into the Zodiac Grill and wonder what lies behind. Who lies behind? What astronomically large bills are being presented and paid? And then, like always, I promise myself that once the book is out I'll make a million bucks and take the missus there. (She doesn't admit it but a meal at the Zodiac Grill is clearly one of her short-term life goals.)
I walked around for a bit, made one circuit of the arm-chairs and sofas and then settle into a corner of a two-seater still fiddling with the audio recorder in my hand.
Oh wait, some of you might remember the audio player. Remember that Benq mp3 player I bought so long ago from Abu Dhabi and which some of you readers dissed me for? That very same, now replaced by a mighty 80GB iPod, serves as an audio recorder. It records audio superbly, is tiny and can store up to six and a half hours of recording in serviceable wav format.
In the minutes before every interview I handle I tend to fiddle with the player to calm my nerves. I switch it on, check capacity, then battery, switch it off and then do it all over again. I can never get used to the process of suddenly turning up one evening and probing into the personal lives of CEOs. Most oblige but it can still be a little nerve wracking.
The lobby is not as busy as usual. As I wait, a suitably socialite looking woman speeds down the lobby followed by an older woman who reassures her that "It is okay to wear shorts here baby!"
I recognize no one except for a Mr. Wickmann. (My memory may not be precise on this.) I know his name because of the quaint and subtle way in which the Taj summons people waiting in the lobby. Someone walks around with a little whiteboard, with a name on it, stuck on top of a stick There are two small bells on the stick which jangle as it is carried about. Around 6:20 or so someone comes looking for a Wickmann. Wickmann is a tall, white-haired man with spectacles. The staff member escorts him away somewhere.
The publicist picks me up around 6:35 PM from the lobby and we walk down the corridor that connects the new Taj to the old one. To me that walk is the shiniest part of the Taj. The windows and floors and lights all combine to make it this shimmering tube of light. I noticed little of the walk, though, as the publicist made small talk about the global economy and recession and what our paper thought and so on. In fact the only thing I did notice was a show window. It was empty except for a bottle of Dom Perignon on a little stand in the corner. At the time I thought it was a very poor display for Dom Perignon.
We went up the lift to the sixth floor of the heritage building and then took a left, over a flight of stairs to the CEO's suite in the corner. I was too strung up for the interview to notice the wooden barristers and ornamentation of the corridors of the old Taj.
Our interview started late but lasted for just over an hour. She spoke about her life in the industry, her weekend pastimes, the Indian market and how she once served in the Israeli army. Then it turns out that she has dual citizenzhip: Israeli-British. I quietly admire the cosmopolitanism of it all and then sip on a black coffee. She offers a few hotel chocolates and biscuits but I refuse.
We get up after I switch off the audio recorder and exchange business cards. We shake hands and then she tells me that she's off to meet a few local business associates for dinner. We share some small-talk and then I finally leave after a short but interesting interview.
This time when I step out I look around and smile.
The old Taj is quite simply a stunning hotel. There is so much to look at everywhere. The walls, the carpets, railings and art are all pretty special. And I have plenty of memories strewn all over the Grand Staircase. There was that quiz that we came third in a few years ago thanks to a stunning last round on Tata history cracked by yours truly. And that evening, after a horrible training session that may have damaged my brain permanently, when I first thought perhaps I should really write for a living.
I am accompanied to the lift and then down to the lobby by the CEO's personal assistant. We talk about how beautiful the hotel is, how awesome London is and how we must meet when I am in the city next time. We go separate ways at the bottom. She scurries away to organize something about dinner and I walk back through the connecting corridor back to the lobby.
I stand in the lobby for a second and think of what I should do next. I could go and buy some sandwiches from the Taj deli for later. They are very expensive but you do get good authentic cold cuts. Or maybe I could call the missus down to South Bombay for dinner.
But then she has been feeling guilty about missing the gym for so long and I decide against it. Dal roti at home it shall be. I walk around the lobby a bit. And give myself an eyeful of all the rich and famous. I also note to myself that the flower arrangement tonight looks very lame. Sometimes the Taj places absolutely fantastic arrangements. Not that night. After ten minutes of loafing around, and bidding farewell, I turned around and walk out through the glass doors. I stand on top of the steps, look out to the sea for a brief glimpse and then trot out to a taxi. The publicist then runs up and offers to share a cab and drop me at Prabhadevi.
We leave the premises at around 8:15 PM give or take a few minutes. Two hours later those bastards attacked. That night I see the Taj burn. The fire leaps from a room on the sixth floor possibly right next to the one in which I interviewed my CEO.
I will never, ever forget that sight.
My CEO was located unharmed the next morning. Perhaps many of the other people I walked past and nodded at politely were not.
When the Taj returns to business, as it must, no prizes for guessing who will be among the first to go back into that lobby. I must.