In 1984, Shimla’s Cecil Hotel closed for renovations. In the mid-1990s, just short of the hotel’s reopening, I was commissioned to assist in developing materials that would help market it. Stemming from Prithvi Raj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi, who passed away last week, the brief was clear: Shimla had slipped from its preeminent position. If a luxury hotel had to run successfully, the town also had to be repackaged and its unique position in history retold. This apart, there was a strong sentiment attached to the Cecil, as this was where his father, Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi, had started his life and extraordinary career. In the 1840s, on the site of today’s Oberoi Cecil was a nondescript single-storeyed structure named Tendrils Cottage. This was then converted into three flats which were let out. The most famous occupant of one of these apartments was the writer Rudyard Kipling.
Around the time Rudyard Kipling came to write the town into literature and greater fame, in 1878, Robert Hotz and his wife, FE Hotz, had come to Shimla to take charge of the Longwood Hotel — where the management seldom saw eye to eye and constantly issued conflicting orders. Disgusted with this, they resigned. Robert turned to his first passion and went into business as a photographer and Mrs Hotz decided to try her hand at both owning and running a hotel. While Robert seems to have been the ‘frontman’, it was Mrs Hotz who developed and managed what was to become a highly successful hotel business.
In 1902, the Tendrils estate was purchased by Robert and the old house was demolished to make way for the Tudor-framed structure of Mrs Hotz’s Cecil Hotel. Shortly after, this was sold to AH Pook and J Faletti, who built the mammoth structure which forms the core of the present-day building. In Shimla’s rarefied social and official circles, Faletti had already made his name in managing the elite United Service Club. Under Faletti’s watchful eye, with around a hundred rooms, the Cecil and its ‘annexe’ across, swiftly took shape. With Faletti as managing director, in 1916, the Associated Hotels of India Company was created. Shimla’s famed chronicler, Edward J. Buck, was appointed chairman.
Stories vary of how MS Oberoi came to be in Shimla in 1922. One version says that he had come to escape the ‘Spanish flu’ that had ravaged the world, including vast areas of India. Another version has it that he came to apply for a stenographer’s job in the government secretariat, which carried a level of security and a salary of Rs 30 a month; he failed the test. Call it luck, call it chance or put it down to destiny, Mohan Singh found himself outside the doors of the Cecil looking for a job.
The Cecil’s manager, DW Grove, gave him a typing test which Mohan Singh passed. He was now a guest clerk at the Cecil with a salary of Rs 50 (or Rs 60). Grove left shortly after and was replaced by Ernest Clarke. The new manager seems to have taken an instant liking to the young man and was impressed with his work. Then, Clarke took the lease of the 42-room Carlton Hotel that was at the other end of the fashionable Mall and asked Mohan Singh if he would like to join him. Oberoi accepted and pleasantly found a raise in salary.
Between the long shadows cast by the two World Wars, the world was changing and Oberoi, with his innate business acumen, seems to have seen that change coming. At the Carlton, now named the Clarke’s, with its elegant Tudor frame and window boxes full of geraniums, Ernest Clarke sprang a surprise on his protégé. He told Mohan Singh that he was returning to England for good and asked if he wanted the hotel. The young man did not have the Rs 25,000 that Clarke’s shares were worth, but managed a token advance. And for the remainder, his benefactor said, “Send it to me whenever you can.”
Oberoi steadily repaid Earnest Clarke and at another fortuitous moment, was able to acquire the lease of the Grand at Kolkata in 1938. Around this time, he also renamed the company as the East India Hotels Limited — and to this day, it remains the holding company of the Oberoi chain.
It was with a bag full of share certificates of the Associated Hotels of India that MS Oberoi was able to acquire the Cecil and other properties in 1943 and transfer them to his fledgling but rapidly growing empire.
The rest, as is said, is history.
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