D N Singh
It was a cool morning, with an occasional breeze from the sea. The ocean was calmer than what it was the previous night. The hazy horizon was merging with the sea at one point from where one could easily notice a faint golden glitter trying to force its way through the visual assimilation. Suddenly, the morning sun pops up from the bosom of the blue sea spreading a soft radiance of hope, as if melted-gold was flowing with the waves throwing up small sparkles of diamond. The early hour’s tranquillity was occasionally stirred by the mixed note of chirping of little birds and the bells of the cycle-rickshaws carrying people on the road that runs almost 10 kilometres along the shore.
We were watching this early spectacle of nature from a place which itself combines the elements of history, heritage and grandeur. Popularly known as BNR, in Puri, the place proudly stands to showcase a Victorian architecture. During the 1930s this place was a sort of holiday home for the Railways’ big bosses who visited Puri for vacations. The name BNR was given because then Orissa fell within the Bombay-Nagpur Railway circuit. The design had, and in fact, still has something different in taste. Huge arcs loom through the entire expanse of the verandah laid with red cement flooring, which is still intact, both in the ground and the first floor. The building is also arc shaped.
The huge long verandah running all through the length of the building can be best described as the corridor of the present-day taste. The arc-shaped frames made of wooden plates to cut away the glaze of the afternoon sun have shown no sign of decay even after so many years, are still intact and strong.
As soon one enters the BNR hotel, now rechristened as the Heritage Hotel you find a small reception made of mahogany wood desk where a background of the same wood limits the reception to a space not measuring more than a small hall, which also houses the lobby with two sets of olden-days black-wood cushioned chairs. Larger than life black and white photographs hang on the walls, including those of Jaquelin Kanedy, Rajaji and Pandit Nehru who stayed here. The guest register prides with the remarks of legends like E M Foster and Satyajit Ray. Ray, in fact, was addicted to the comfort of this splendid arc-shaped resort of the ‘30s.
Foster was very impressed, during his short stay, by the hospitality which was “Victorian” in nature and the food, of absolute “Indian delicacy”.
To reach the first floor you have to take the wooden staircase that goes up in a serpentine curve behind the reception. The corridor or the verandah is without any break, running in an arc from one end to the other. While walking along the verandah one cannot ignore the huge arc patio emerging out prominently towards the sea and a pair of white-cushioned cane chairs flanking a glass-topped tea-poy waiting round the clock to offer any guest the best possible spectacle of the ocean.
The doors of each room are the same old, two-piece brown wooden doors fastened in the middle by two iron rings. On each side of the doors are two cane chairs with white cushions. One wonders about the quality of the cane which has weathered the changes down the last many decades. The lightings of the corridor also bear the taste of old times. The bulbs have changed but the row of arc-shaped lampshades fixed on the walls with geometrical precision is the same one which once used to soothe the evenings of Fosters or the Rays.
The patio continues to remain a major attraction for the visitors to this heritage resort. At the break of the dawn or after sunset, lounging on this place, which is rainbow arced gracefully over the garden right below, with a cup of tea is something special. Despite the roaring sea and the traffic on the road one can still steal the solitude and ecstasy of a holiday romance.
The rooms are wide and as soon one enters, a table of mahogany taste and a chair made of rose-wood welcome the visitor. There is a small ebony cabinet towards the end of the room which precedes the bathroom that combines modernity and tradition in its decor.
But there are some things that have changed. Till about five years back this majestic resort used to be graced by khansamas and service boys in outfits that combined Indian grace and English hospitality. Wearing milky-white pyjamas and white achkan-like gowns rimmed with brown strips down to the knees, they knew how to win over a guest; a Victorian courteousness coupled with endearing smiles which exude a kind of bonhomie. A majority the khansamas and service boys were middle-aged yet agile.
However, after BNR was partnered by a private hotel group from Bihar, changes have been made. The erstwhile attendants have been replaced by young blood. Dressed in blue shirts and dark pants they resemble the run-of-the-mill staff of any other hotel in the city. Bereft of that humble disposition and courtesy, which used to be one of the major assets of BNR, they seem little out of place in this hotel that still mirrors the past grandeur. Even the ones who play the host at the reception lack the quality worthy of the nostalgia this place still creates. A smile at least!