The most disconcerting—and oddly delightful—scene at the stunning new Oberoi Gurgaon’s lobby is the sight of a blue-uniformed man with his mosquito-killer racket crouching down amid the stylish fuchsia furniture, clap-clapping his way through the fleas and bugs that dare enter this pristine white haven that the Oberois have created among the hazy high-rises of Gurgaon.
The hotel should make performance art out of this quaint character—dress him up as a man in the bowler hat dreamed up by René Magritte in his painting and later enacted by sexy Pierce Brosnan in the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. No other hotel, as far as I can tell, has incorporated performance art into its premises.
The Oberoi Gurgaon’s general manager, Kapil Chopra, is an art lover. He should know how to do this. Dress the mosquito-swatting men in outfits as distinctive as the paisley saris and fire-engine red bindis that smiling receptionists named Rebecca wear as they welcome guests who alight from the BMWs that the hotel has in its fleet.
I loved the bright red bindis, mostly because bindis—save for Bharti Kher’s artwork—are a dying icon in modern India. You watch actor Sharmila Tagore’s old movies and realize with a start that nobody in India wears bindis any more, not even Kher, who pastes serpentine bindis on elephants and canvases. I wear bindis, both straight and serpentine, more as a statement. But I am an anomaly, even in semi-traditional Bangalore.
Minimalist: The Oberoi Gurgaon’s all-day diner Threesixtyone buzzes even on weekdays. Photo: Divya Babu/Mint
There are no perfect hotels in the world. What differentiates the fabled ones from the merely luxurious—be it The Peninsula Tokyo; Mandarin Oriental New York, where Nita Ambani reportedly got the architectural inspiration for her Antilia; the Post Ranch Inn in California where Hollywood stars go to act normal; Villa D’Este in Lake Como, Italy, where actor George Clooney summers; Hotel du Cap in France, which takes payment in cash, not credit card; or the Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto—is that these hotels have figured out a way to embrace their shortcomings; to make their flaws seem part of their story. Sonu Shivdasani, who founded Six Senses Resorts & Spas, does this to masterful effect with his Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives, touting his resorts as paragons of sustainable tourism without mentioning the cost savings and favourable press that are collateral benefits.
The Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, has fabulous ocean views, but no more fabulous than R.N. Shetty’s RNS Residency hotel in Murudeshwar, Karnataka, built halfway into the ocean. The difference is that RNS Residency is kitschy and has nothing to distinguish it save the view from its rooms, and the Post Ranch Inn has taken the American notion of casual-but-anticipatory service to a fine art.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
The Peninsula Tokyo, like many other top Japanese hotels, has heated Japanese-style toilets. Western travel editors can’t stop gushing about them. Entire articles are written about these toilets. Few of our top hotels have adapted the Indian health faucet and taken it to the next level for customers who prefer water to paper in their toilets.
Great hotels co-opt their flaws into their brand identity. Building an Oberoi in Gurgaon was a brave act. Power is erratic; electricity is hit-or-miss. Delhi in the summer is damp and humid. Naturally, bugs thrive. Sentosa in Singapore, which has more bugs than we do in India, sets it spas outdoors and allows bugs to be part of the environment. So do most spa-hotels in Kerala. The best leg massage I have had was at Somatheeram in Kerala in an outdoor spa pavilion. It was damp and hot, but I could smell the flowers and hear the waves. Bugs and butterflies were all around but I felt part of nature.
Luxury is what you cannot have in your everyday life. For many Indians, luxury is not about the frou-frou stuff that hotels lay on. We want uninterrupted air conditioning, silence, and a good bed—things that we cannot guarantee in normal life. The Oberoi Gurgaon attempts to give its guests that. It hasn’t yet fully succeeded. There are power outages accompanied by explosion-like pops but that is not the hotel’s fault.
The property itself is quite stunning. The Rs14,000 online rack rate that I paid is not as low as the Rs8,000 per night that The Imperial charges but reasonable for an Oberoi. They have used sculptures and paintings throughout the hotel to good advantage. My standard, base-category room felt like a suite. The restaurant, Threesixtyone, has buzz, nice proportions and decent food. It was full, even on the Monday night that I was there. Housekeepers appear magically when you need them and do a fine job. My clothes that were stained by the dust of Kargil came back perfectly laundered and pressed. The corridors smell divine. The Forest Essentials saffron-based toiletries are packaged in distinctive royal blue containers. To drive around the back roads of Gurgaon in a BMW is a trip. Best of all, the staff are genuinely warm and want to make you comfortable.
The Oberoi Gurgaon’s intent is ambitious. It wants to be a minimalist haven that is more suited to Basel or Berlin. In attempting to rid its hotel of every vestige of Delhi, the Oberois are attempting to transport you to a place outside India; which is all well if you want to go there. Me, I like Dilli, with all its bugs and butterflies; with all its peacocks and screaming parakeets.
Biki Oberoi is a great hotelier. He just needs to figure out if he wants to embrace the flaws in his Gurgaon property and turn them into assets. To do that, he needs creativity and chutzpah. They had the acreage to make a spectacular garden hotel with cross-ventilation to alleviate the nearly constant power cuts. They chose instead to close it all in. Too late now.
What about Mr Mosquito fly-trap? As I see it, there are four choices. One, get rid of the small floral arrangements on the tables which is where the bugs congregate. Two, use neem, citronella or other natural bug repellents as part of your table floral arrangements and market the hell out of neem being an Indian air purifier, which, according to our ancestors, it is. Three, buy those funky square plant boxes and stick them on the high ceilings to attract these critters. Four, embrace your flaws. Realize that Gurgaon will never be Basel and welcome these flying creatures into your hotel. Give us butterflies, Mr Oberoi.
Shoba Narayan didn’t stay at The Oberoi Gurgaon to be insulated from Gurgaon; or for that matter, Dilli. Write to her at email@example.com