The ‘past’ is throbbing and alive in Fairlawn. Not in a ‘time-warp-kinda way’ but like a stylish septuagenarian — full of old world charm, glamour and chic. Fairlawn, the hotel in Kolkata, is a landmark in itself. So was its owner, Violet Smith who passed away in 2014 at age 93. She was fondly called the Duchess of Sudder Street — the hotel is located at the junction of Madge Lane and Sudder Street, a few minutes away from the century-old New Market area.
Fairlawn is for those who are nostalgic about a bygone time — when style, class, and charm were an integral part of everyday life. The hotel oozes colonial charm. And the 200 years old artefacts that you will find all over the hotel is replete with stories from another era.
Legend has it that Violet’s mother, Rosie Sarkies and her father, both Armenians, fled Turkey which was in turmoil. They reached Kolkata in 1933, which had sizable Areminian refugees back then. Mama Rosie bought a hotel named Astoria for four-and-eight-anna coins, which she had saved in two kerosene cans, hidden from the prying eyes of her spendthrift husband. Savvy and street-smart Rosie turned Astoria into a boarding house for Armenians for a rent of Rs.150 per month — inclusive of all meals. In return, Rosie gave the refugees nostalgia – Armenian food and a family atmosphere. Within three years, Rosie, an intelligent woman, sold Astoria to another Armenian for Rs.6000 (it was ‘big monies’ those days) and bought Fairlawn — which was built in 1783 by a European William Ford who had purchased the land from Sheikh Ramjan and Bhonay two years prior. The street was initially called Ford Street. Later it came to be known as Sudder Street when the Sadar Court was built.
The building passed down five different owners before Rosie bought it and established Fairlawn, which went on to become a landmark hotel, and is still run by her family. Rosie went on to build five more hotels in Calcutta and one at Emperors Gate in Kensington, London.
It was at the Fairlawn hotel, run by her mother, Violet met Ted, a British Army Major. Later the two would wed and go on to become the owners of Fairlawn in 1962. The hotel had been Violet’s “obsession” till the very end. It is said that the guests of Fairlawn were all treated to Violet’s personal touch and charm. She was invested in the comfort of the guests. And she did have some really big names on her guest’s list including Shashi Kapoor (Room No 17 was dedicated to Shashi Kapoor for very many years). Violet also played hosts to filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, actor Patrick Swayze (by the way Fairlawn is featured in his film The City of Joy), Sting, writers Dominique Lapierre and wife, Gunther Grass and much more.
What’s interesting is when you visit Fairlawn you sense that the walls contain within itself the creative energies of all those wonderful guests and the spirit of Rosie, Violet and the others in the family. It is like visiting a well-maintained old house where every nook and corner has a story to tell. Many of the staff at Fairlawn are children of the families that have worked at Fairlawn for years.
Talking about Violet, her daughter Jennifer Fowler said in an interview: “My mother loved people. She enjoyed playing the hostess. My father was the manager — he ran the hotel, kept note of the accounts, exerted quality control on the then continental kitchen. My mother didn’t know where the kitchen was.”
To say that Fairlawn is ‘green’ is an understatement. With its coat of green paint and many plants of Violet all over the premise, the hotel exudes warmth. Add to it the age-old British colonial charm, walls pock-marked with family memorabilia and gracious waitstaff — you are easily transported to another era albeit with all modern creature comforts.
A few years ago, the younger generation renovated the hotel to make it more suitable for the modern tourist — running hot water, air conditioning, wi-fi…they even put in a softener and de-ionising plant; not to mention a backup generator, which means you don’t get stymied in Kolkata humidity when there’s a power cut. However, it is sad to see that they have discontinued Rosie’s original ‘tariff-includes-all-meals’ plan and also the gong that announced ‘breakfast.’ Well, one cannot always have everything, all the time, right?
However, you can still order the Fairlawn’s famous British Roast. It might not be on the menu, but the kitchen will still cook you a kick-ass roast if you request for one. After all, Fairlawn takes great pride in following their motto: Meet tourists as guests and send them away to friends. That’s what Rosie did and her daughter Violet after her —till she died. And that’s what Fairlawn will continue to do for years to come. So, if you ever find yourself in Kolkata, pay a visit to Fairlawn.
Photo courtesy: Fairlawn Hotel
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