Tuesday, 25 August 2009
When did Mr RS start working on the swimming pool? Was it after he made the container hotel rooms or before? Or, was it done at around the same time? I cannot recollect for sure.
But I do remember this interesting conversation I had had with him while the pool was being dug out. Sivakasi has no public swimming pools, he said. This one was going to be the first. It will give a chance for the townsfolk to learn swimming. It will be a standard size pool with changing rooms, lockers, and showers. Experienced male and female coaches will be available throughout the day and separate timings will be allotted for men, women, and children. The fee will be nominal. As for the hotel guests, they could use the pool at no extra charge, of course.
Amazingly enough, during my next visit to Bell hotel, I could see Mr RS had delivered on his promise. The small-built, soft-spoken genius showed me round the swimming pool complex and its immaculately maintained lawns and was visibly embarrassed when I profusely congratulated him on the successful execution of yet another project.
It did not take him long to realise the container park hotel concept, at best, was a stop-gap arrangement. By this time, he had also learned the ropes of hoteliering and realised the sustained demand for his compact hotel rooms, augured well for the future. So his next step was to totally demolish the container park, and build a brand-new brick-and-mortar hotel in its place.
Today’s Bell Hotel is an imposing structure, boasting of 40 well-furnished rooms, two restaurants, and a conference hall that can seat 100 people. A few weeks ago, after a fairly long gap, I visited Sivakasi and had lunch in one of the restaurants of the hotel and felt deeply nostalgic, reminiscing about its humble origins.
But Mr RS was nowhere to be found. But then, I was not surprised. The hotel brochure tells me that they are now a chain of hotels and Bell hotels can be found in the towns of Madurai, Tuticorin, and Alleppy as well. No doubt, Mr RS must be overseeing some fine detail in one of these properties or he must be scouring new towns in South India to set up yet another Bell Hotel.
P.S. This, incidentally, is the 100th post at Stepping Sideways, a small but significant landmark!
Wednesday, 19 August 2009
The Bell Hotel in Sivakasi, when it opened its doors to the public more than fifteen years ago, was not a hotel at all. It was just a restaurant. Set in the middle of a huge grove of fruit trees, it was a long rectangular dining hall kept cool by noisy air-conditioners, where the itinerant business traveller could find safe haven during those languorous hours from 1 pm to 3 pm, when the heat was its worst and the whole town hunkered down in an uneasy siesta. The menu was madly eclectic, mixing and matching the South Indian-Tandoori-Chinese cuisines with reckless abandon. But the food was decent and that was all that we cared.
When I visited the restaurant the second time, there were already changes in the air. Mr RS, the enterprising businessman who owned the restaurant, had purchased two 40-feet containers, mounted them on iron girders at a height of two feet from the ground, cut out windows on the sides and had converted them into hotel rooms with air-conditioning, TV, attached bathrooms and room service from the restaurant.
As innovations go, this one was simply marvellous and became a big hit with the small traders and businessmen who came to Sivakasi from all over the country and who, hitherto, had to make do with dingy lodges with smelly toilets near the bus stand.
Within a year or so, the number of “hotel rooms” multiplied–one part of the grove began to look like a well-maintained container park, with fresh water and sewage lines discreetly laid underneath the sturdy, metal trellis. I stayed in one of those rooms once; it was a refreshing experience to wake up to sound of birdsong and sit on the narrow veranda outside (it was actually a narrow platform running on all four sides of the room) and have my cup of morning tea.
But all this was just the beginning. The tip of the iceberg, if you will.
The visionary Mr RS had a few more aces up his sleeve.
Photo Courtesy: http:// fusions.files.wordpress.com
Thursday, 13 August 2009
At ten in the night, Tirunelveli bus-stand is a beehive of activity.
Buses turn in from the main road in reckless abandon, scattering waiting passengers and stray dogs alike in all directions. The little shops that dot the perimeter of the holding bay are adorned with blinking, coloured lights as if in a fair ground. Tamil film music blares out loudly from unseen loudspeakers. The food stall owners hoarsely advertise their menu which runs the full gamut from “masala vadai” to “appam and chicken curry”. The smell of food is inviting and churns our stomachs.
But we have to find a hotel for the night before it gets too late.
Most of the hotels look decent and well-maintained, at least from the outside. Unfortunately, most of them are running almost full and can offer us only non-ac accommodation. Finally, my colleague and I end up at an establishment where he gets an air-conditioned single room and I get the suite.
“It’s the honeymoon suite, saar!” says the guy at the reception, grinning widely.
In my dirty, dishevelled state, I couldn’t care less even if it was the gallows suite. I quickly check-in, have a shower and meet my teetotaller colleague in the bar. Nothing like a bottle of chilled beer to raise one’s spirits. We have dinner and return to our rooms.
That is when I really notice the “honeymoon suite”. It is extravagantly furnished in shades of pink. There is a small drawing room area with sofas upholstered in pink satin. In the centre of the bedroom you have a large circular bed with a dark pink satin bedspread and matching dark pink pillows. The curtains are pink and so are the light fittings. On the walls, you have pink wallpaper with some flowery design. I sigh and get into my nightclothes thinking this is how the rooms in a French bordello may look like.
And finally when I lie down, I find myself staring at my own reflection on the ceiling.
There is a circular mirror, strategically placed on the ceiling, just above the bed.
Just before I fall asleep thinking of lovemaking couples and French bordellos, I notice the circular mirror is set in a pale pink, plastic frame.
God is in the details.
Photo Courtesy: The Hindu
Tuesday, 4 August 2009
Twenty years ago, when I first visited the industrial town of Sivakasi near Madurai, it was a smelly, fly-infested place known for fireworks, match boxes, and low-quality offset printing. The industries that dominate the town and give its folks their livelihood remain the same, but the town itself has undergone a subtle transformation now. True, it continues to be a hot, dusty place with mounds of garbage piled up on the roadsides, but now, at least, you have proper hotels to stay in and decent restaurants where you can have a meal without risking a massive stomach infection.
Reaching Sivakasi itself was an effort: you had to make an uncomfortable overnight train journey from Chennai by a metre gauge line to Madurai first, from where it was another two-and-a-half hours of bone-shattering ride along a national highway up to Virudhunagar, where you turned left and drove along a small, ill-maintained country road, all the way to Sivakasi. Air-conditioned taxis were unheard of those days, so invariably you got down from the taxi, caked in dust and with aches and pains all over your body.
I will never forget my first visit to Sivakasi.
The hotel itself looks well-maintained from the outside in the early morning light. But I step into a dark, unlit lobby that smell of decay and disrepair; a surly clerk pushes a thick register towards me and gestures that I fill in the details. The ritual completed, he presses a bell when an old man appears from the darkness and tries to take hold of my overnighter. The clerk hands over to the old man the key to the room, a cake of soap, a pillow cover, and a bed sheet. The old man trudges up the staircase and shows me to my room.
I look around the room and my spirits sink to my feet. It is a fairly large room but has not seen a broom or a mop for a long time. There is dust everywhere and while I cover my nose with the handkerchief and try to open the windows, the old man proceeds to put on the cover on the pillow and sheath the dirty and stained mattress with the none too clean bed sheet.
But it is the toilet that destroys me. I take one look at the “Indian” type commode, streaked liberally with shades of brown, yellow, and green and encrusted at the edges with dark matter of indistinguishable origin and I am out of there, screaming. But there are meetings to be held and appointments to be kept. I brush my teeth and take a shower with my eyes shut tight and am out of the place in less than half an hour.
The whole day I survive on a bottle of water (purchased from the station in Chennai), a packet of biscuits and several cups of sweet, milky tea and coffee offered by customers.
But I have chalked out a two-day programme in Sivakasi. What is to be done? Staying in that hell-hole of a hotel is definitely out of the question. A colleague, who has accompanied me on this trip, suggest we take a bus to the town of Tirunelveli, 140 kilometres away, where, he assures me, there are better hotels to spend the night.
And thus we board the evening bus to Tirunelveli, where another adventure awaits us.