By Sujata Pilinja Rao
There is nothing glamorous about a lodge. It’s stuck between being a hostel and a hotel. It isn’t considered a place for romance, foot massages or luxurious sheets you can roll under while enjoying a spectacular view. Rather, it’s the land of lost uncles – a place where your distant uncle probably retreats to once he has overstayed his welcome, joined by others who hang their thin south Indian towels and pants on anything they think resembles a hook. My father’s lodge, New Vasantashram, in the middle of Crawford Market in Mumbai was exactly like this. I loved it.
The lodge had already been running for 54 years when I took over in 2001. My father and his brother moved from a small village in Karnataka to start the lodge shortly before Independence. Since there was no social media, they would go to VT station and convince those who had just set foot in Bombay to make New Vasantashram a part of their journey.
Our guests were mostly men, except for the occasional family that would visit. Our staff was all male too. Most of them had seen me grow up. They remembered me as the little girl who was fidgety during endless poojas and who grumbled when even our so-called treats were Woodlands’ dosas. They were amused when I took over. I knew nothing about running a lodge and they were pretty sure that I’d sell the business or just stop coming to work and let them run the show.
I didn’t have a plan when I unofficially took charge in 1999, right after my father passed away. I was a homemaker, who used to occasionally sell Oriflame products. A little over a year later, I left my home in the suburbs, choosing to live with my mother and daughter in my childhood home instead of moving to Kuwait with my husband. I was only a partner in this business. My brother wasn’t interested in it. He signed the lodge off to my mother, sister and me. My sister lives in Bangalore and she and my mother entrusted me with the responsibility. They had this belief that I was capable of looking after the hotel. My mother looked after our home and my daughter in a vote of confidence in favour of what I was doing. The confidence kept me going.
Without a plan, I kept going to New Vasantashram every day. I’d go at different times of the day so my staff couldn’t guess when I was coming and I could find out what was actually going on. I learned about the business just by observing. We had fixed check-in and check-out times, but our guests didn’t adhere to that. The first change I made was adding another column to our register with the time they actually left. This simple change stirred things up. My staff realized that I was pushing for more accountability and that they would have to pick up the slack. I made it clear that I’m the boss.
The lodge wasn’t licensed to sell alcohol, but one of our long-time workers secretly sold it to our guests late in the night for some extra money. When I found out, he didn’t own up to it, so I nonchalantly emptied the bottles of alcohol in the sink. Let me be clear. I didn’t do this for a power trip. New Vasantashram has not been shut for even a day in its 54 years; not during terrorist attacks, floods or any kind of political upheaval. I was determined to not pull down the shutters now that I was in charge. Once they knew I meant business, the staff cooperated with me like they had done with my father.
It was still an uphill journey. One day, one of my staff members – an old man with a raspy voice and a piles problem, who was a respected figure in our community and had worked for the government before he became my father’s aide – advised me to stay at home to look after my mother and daughter. He went as far as to say that I wasn’t a good mother because I could have spent more time with my child, but I was at work instead. I’m known to have a temper that’s likened to hot black pepper sambar. I told him that I knew what I was doing and that only an AK-47 would put me down.
Then one of our managers, Vishnu, retired. Vishnu joined New Vasantashram when he was in his 20s and considered it home until he died a few years ago. When he quit, I told him he’d still get his salary every month. Sometimes I’d go personally to his house to visit him and his family and give him his pension. I also told him that the job was his if he ever wanted to return.
I respected him and made sure that the lodge was always there for him. As Vishnu became ill in his last days, I came to understand the vulnerability of my other staffers. It’s since then that I began to pay for their healthcare and make sure they schedule regular health check-ups.
I’ve made a lot of changes in the last 16 years that I’ve been in charge. It has always been a tricky balance between not alienating our guests, typically older South Indian and Gujarati men, who have been visiting for decades while simultaneously trying to appeal to a younger crowd. When I realized that the hotel was deteriorating, I dipped into my savings to make renovations. This was met with some opposition from people who suggested that I should let it slip into decay and then sell it.
Understandably, some people were confused when I introduced distressed doors to the hotel (“It needs a coat of paint”, one said). Then I brought in ship lights from a vessel that was being disbanded, got a local artist to paint our old, redundant water drums and Godrej cupboards with folk art, and replaced door knobs with blocks you use to make prints. By then, customers, staff, and family had begun to buy into my vision.
The hotel, thanks to pre-independence architecture, has high ceilings and long corridors. The corridors are adorned with old ship lights and offer a view of the chaotic Crawford market, and Victoria Terminus in the distance. Our rooms lack the frills of a typical hotel room. They come with the bare minimum – a bed, clean sheets, hooks to hang your clothes and in some rooms, a dresser, table, and chair.
One night in 2015, the police came knocking when they were “tipped off” about mixed dorms. They were shocked that we had allowed adult men and women who were traveling together to stay in the same dorm with their consent. When they wouldn’t listen to the voice of reason, I made a video (that went viral) about the hypocrisy of the whole deal.
Then I introduced female-only dorms. We usually gave women single rooms or double rooms if they were travelling alone, while single men could get away by paying less and staying in a dorm. Why should women pay more for travelling by themselves? Now, our female-only dorm is filled with Indian and foreign interns and travellers who make new friends at our lodge.
There are many unique women who stay in these dorms. One of them is Chhaya Kakde, a social activist from Lathur, who came with a group of women to protest against the tax on sanitary pads in 2017. She started her activism at the age of 18 as Baba Amte’s aide after the Lathur earthquake. She now has her own organisation, the Vichardhara Gramin Vikas Sanstha. Her demonstration at Azad Maidan was well documented by the media.
New Vasantashram turned 70 this year and running it is the best career choice that I have made. We recently opened up one of our dorms as a performance space, a break from Mumbai venues that charge a kidney for an evening of entertainment. Since then, we’ve been chosen as a location for film and photo shoots and could be in an upcoming web series as well.
Most recently, Dulquer Salmaan came here to shoot a scene from his movie Solo, directed by Bejoy Nambiar. Salmaan, a shy, charismatic man, took a nap in one of our third-floor rooms between shots. An impressive long shot of our main office, complete with a stained glass partition separating the God’s images from the front desk, made it to the 70mm screen.
Still, the struggle and the hustle never end. The local vendors who have stalls below the hotel look towards the lodge as some sort of messiah for our area, and there are constant small battles between me and the fire department, the police, sometimes with guests and with staff. There’s no “typical day” here. I keep my own hours and there’s always something new going on. Portals like Airbnb and Make My Trip bring us waves of new guests, an additional set of challenges for my staff members who are baffled by technology despite countless explanations.
But life is always exciting.
The staff, usually young adults, usually have pranks up their sleeves that they’re not hesitant to execute, particularly with seasoned guests. Once, I walked in to peals of laughter and witnessed a peculiar scene. One of our boys had dressed up as a woman and was teasing a rather inquisitive guest (who has been a regular fixture for the past forty years) by walking up and down – his face covered by a dupatta – giggling uncontrollably. The guest took this in in good spirit of course, and the boys didn’t stop laughing about this for days.
Running the hotel has given me a sense of pride, a sense of contentment, while still fuelling that hunger to keep the hotel alive and to do better to make sure it is always relevant. From a law student who worked half-heartedly as a copywriter, teacher, and housewife, I went to being a zany but respected businesswoman.
Pilinja, my maiden surname that is still a part of my name, means Tiger in Tulu. When the Hindi version of Singham released in 2011 among pomp and seetis, I was a bit underwhelmed. I walked home after the movie thinking to myself, there was nothing he did that I didn’t do, and I didn’t even have stunt doubles.