L. Aruna Dhir’s book is full of mind-blowing, inside stories of Indian hotels.
She is the ultimate insider of hotels, a storehouse of information that can keep India’s Page3 syndrome run for decades, even generations. But before I run through L. Aruna Dhir’s book, it is important to write about life and times in big hotels.
Dhir worked in some of India’s top hotels as a communications person; she knew all those who checked in at the front desk for rooms and argued for better upgrades even before they produced charge cards and filled in forms. And others, in ball gowns and tuxedos, headed to the Grand Ballroom. Dhir saw it all, soaked in the experiences and wrote a book, Hotel Adventures With The Stars. It has loads of news, a large quantity of juice.
What happens within the walls of these hotels have always fascinated me. I grew up with Chowringhee, which was a brilliant Bengali film with a handsome Uttam Kumar in the lead. I read with interest Arthur Hailey’s 1965 novel, Hotel. And then, there was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which was shot in Rajasthan and created waves. It even went into a Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
So Dhir is in the middle of everything. Hotel Adventures With The Stars has some intricate details of top guests who walked into the hotels where she worked and shared their experiences with her next to ice sculptures and custom-made dance floors that clients ordered from outside vendors. Dhir interacted with the wealthy Indians, and top guests from abroad who would attend second generation wedding – the bride’s mother had also been married in the same hotel – and just talk among themselves and say, ‘Oh, my God, what a party’.
Dhir had a great time, it was like speed-walking into the ballroom while balancing a tray of plates on one palm. At times, it was a stressful job but she handled it in style, she knew she had to live up to the name of the hotel. It was a very stressful job but – going by the book – it seemed to me she enjoyed every moment.
So now, let’s get deep into the book. I loved her interactions with top filmstar Shabana Azmi, Dhir first met her during a Left rally at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) around 1990-91. And then she met the feisty actress when she was about to be nominated as a MP to the Rajya Sabha. Dhir was then at Hyatt. She again met Shabana at a function and discussed about the cast divide and social issues impacting India. But then, Shabana was not all that Dhir saw and experienced. Writes the author: “When I look back, I realize that I behaved like a wide-eyed, bumbling teenager who, in her naiveté, was of the belief that this strong, action oriented, opinionated woman leader would, like Moses, take us all to the Promised Land.”
A year later, Dhir was told by a friend that how Shabana and her husband, Javed Akhtar, were proving to be real toughnuts. “She was persistent that every whim of hers be met with. She even threatened to cancel the trip and the event if she was not put up in the Presidential Suite. While the reports around the AIDS commercial could not be confirmed, the hotel story I had no reason to doubt,” writes Dhir.
Her interaction with top director Mira Nair is also exciting. Nair approached Dhir when the latter was with the East India Hotels that ran the Oberoi chain. She got some clearances but the final call had to be taken the legendary Prithvi Raj Singh Biki Oberoi.
“Mira was assertive and forceful on her part too. “Yes, the hotel would be shown in a good light.” No, they would not inconvenience the guests. Finally, we received Mr Oberoi’s consent to our utter relief and rejoicing. I had a lengthy sit-down with Mira on how her crew would go about shooting. Mira had planned to shoot one scene, or maybe two at The Oberoi.” The rest is history. Monsoon Wedding was one of Nair’s most popular films and was shot in a record 30 days, one or two of which were filmed at The Oberoi.
Do you want more from Dhir? Then you must buy a copy of this book and get straight to the chapter where she writes about her experiences with the maverick, lovable Sanjay Dutt.
Read the lines carefully: “I inched closer to the centre of the office and got to stand at a vantage point from where I could see Sanjay Dutt clearly. Dressed in a blue suede blazer and stonewashed blue Jeans, the latest boy-man sensation was truly sexy. Radiant complexion with pink undertones, a green, 5 o’clock shadow and those dreamy, deep-set eyes made him even more luscious. I don’t know how I got to be the only girl in the theatre owner’s chamber amongst a swelling group of local boys, but I caught Dutt’s eye. He beckoned me and engaged me in a light-hearted conversation.”
“We now know, by his own admission, that he has had 308 girlfriends and then some. Even then, I noted his slightly flirtatious ways. He was all gentlemanly but he knew how to shower a girl with attention. Sanjay made me feel special. But he was naughty as hell. Not indiscreet or improper. Not rowdy or perverse. Sanjay was impish and mischievous. Playful and wicked! I whipped out my new autograph book that, until then, only had the treasured signature of India’s Iron lady, the inimitable Mrs Indira Gandhi. Sanjay signed my autograph book with his distinctive flair and large-heartedness, the facets he has come to be recognised with over time. He wrote “Love you too much,” and passed the book to Grover who signed off with a tamer message.”
The book is a delightful compendium of delicious stories based on Dhir’s encounters with celebrities from different walks of life, spanning the world of cinema, arts, music, sports, politics and literature. I switched on the black and white Bengali movie Chowringhee to understand what it takes to witness bizarre incidents at a top hotel and what it takes to avoid talking about it.
Dhir did not talk for years, now she has written a wonderful book.