Why Tata built the Taj has always been something of a mystery. A popular story has it that he was once refused admission to either Watson’s Hotel or Pyrke’s Apollo Hotel, on the grounds that he was not a European, and that an indignant Jamsetji thereupon vowed to build a hotel far grander than any in Bombay wherein all races might enter. Such an act of discrimination may well have taken place but it seems far too petty a reason to fire a man of the calibre of J.N. Tata, who in the past had not hesitated to cross swords with governments and powerful commercial combines. A far more plausible reason was advanced by Lovat Fraser, for some years editor of The Times of India, a close friend of the Tatas and indeed one of the Indian Hotels Company’s early Directors:
“I once wrote an article in which I said that the man who built a hotel worthy of such a city would do more for Bombay than the donor of many museums. He (J.N. Tata) came to me and told me that the idea had long been simmering in his mind, and that he had made much study of the subject. He had not the slightest desire to own a hotel, however; his sole wish was to attract people to India, and incidentally to improve Bombay.”
Snapshots from the past: Apollo Bunder in the late 19th century. The picture postcard shows the Bunder before the Chinese Pavilion—afterwards replaced by the Gateway of India—was erected. Photo courtesy: The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai.
There is also one other factor that must surely have played its part in provoking Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata to stake his faith in the future prosperity of Bombay. Early in 1896 dead rats began to be discovered in increasing numbers in the grain godowns (warehouses) near Mandvi docks. Then the godown coolies who worked there began dying, followed closely by grain merchants who handled the corn. By February of that year the mortality figures had reached 1,900 per week, with two out of every ten persons infected dying of the disease. It was diagnosed by a Goan doctor, Acacio Gabriel Viegas, as the bubonic plague. ...
... J.N. Tata responded to the emergency with all his customary energy and intellectual curiosity. He made an exhaustive study of the subject of plagues and their causes and played a leading role in promoting the inoculation campaign within the Parsi community. Dorab Tata got married at this time and his future father-in-law, H.J. Bhabha (the grandfather of Dr. Homi Bhabha, dubbed the “father” of Indian atomic energy), once happened to call at Esplanade House shortly before the wedding and found himself placed at the head of a queue of persons waiting to be inoculated—in order, so he was told by Jamsetji, to set a good example.
After four terrible years, the ruthless measures being employed to combat the plague slowly began to take effect, even though two decades were to pass before the city was entirely free of the infection. But it was against this background of the terrible visitation upon his city that Jamsetji suddenly announced his decision to build a great hotel that would help restore the image of Bombay and attract visitors from abroad. The story goes that when he announced his decision to his sisters they were taken aback. “What?”one of them is said to have replied in Gujarati, “You are building an institute of science in Bangalore, a great iron and steel factory and a hydro-electric project—and now you tell us you are going to put up a bhatarkhana (eating house)!”
The Taj at Apollo Bunder: By Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi, Pictor Publishing, 336 pages, Rs5,495.