LAST DAMES OF THE RAJ
The Times, UK
June 16 2014
Violet Smith, the Duchess of Sudder Street, who has run the hotel
by Robin Pagnamenta, Calcutta
"I'm Armenian," says Violet Smith in a crisp English accent -- but
her hotel looks as British as they come.
Inside a grand old Georgian mansion on Calcutta's down-at-heel Sudder
Street, guests at the Fairlawn hotel eat, drink and sleep amid a
dazzling display of British memorabilia.
Beneath the whirring ceiling fans, union jack tea-towels and photos
of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge jostle for wall space with
commemorative plates of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and signed
letters of thanks from Felicity Kendal, a regular guest.
Mrs Smith, who at 94 has been running the 18-room Fairlawn since 1936,
is the last of a vanishing breed. "I'm the only one left," she says
wistfully, seated amid the pot plants on her apple-green porch.
"It was back in the 1970s that most of the last Europeans left
Calcutta. Sometimes I feel a bit lost - but sometimes I don't feel
lost at all. I've had a good life. I'm very happy."
Mrs Smith, who was born in 1920 in Dhaka, now the capital of
Bangladesh, moved as a child to Calcutta, where she grew up and
married an English army officer three years before India gained
independence. Today she presides over one of the last tiny shreds of
Britain's once mighty Indian empire.
"It was my mother who left me the hotel," she says. "She bought it
from two English ladies, but it was a rundown old shack. Back then,
Calcutta was a beautiful city - full of traditions. It was very social,
lots of parties, lots of clubs. Now it's completely different."
Back in its 19th and early 20th-century heyday, Sudder Street was
home to wealthy British, Armenian and Jewish families, merchants who
prospered trading tea, textiles and opium with China.
Today, their former mansions are crumbling and the lanes that surround
them are the domain of drug pushers and the homeless. The Fairlawn
battles on, in part a testament to Mrs Smith's dogged determination
and in part because its eccentricities have become an attraction in
their own right.
"I won't give up," she says, half smiling. "The staff look after me
like my own family." Over the years, plenty of influential people
have passed through the Fairlawn's grand portico and its chipped
marble floored rooms.
"Mother Teresa came to bless the hotel," she says. "She was a very
nice lady." Patrick Swayze and Michael Palin visited while shooting
films, she adds.
India's third biggest city, with more than 14 million people, Calcutta
has been in perpetual decline for more than a century, when Britain
shifted its imperial capital to Delhi in 1911. It suffered a further
blow at partition in 1947, when the creation of Eastern Pakistan
cleaved the city's hinterland of Bengal - robbing its once busy
factories of raw materials, such as jute, which were grown mainly
across the border.
Ever since, the city has become synonymous with poverty - a reputation
enhanced by millions of Bangladeshi refugees who streamed in during
the 1970s to escape a bloody civil war.
Mrs Smith's parents were Armenians who, like many of their countrymen,
fled their homeland to India to escape the Turkish genocide in 1915.
"They came all the way by land - through Kabul and Afghanistan,"
She became a British citizen through marriage in 1944. While most
of her family are now in England - including her daughter Jenny, who
lives in Somerset, the Duchess of Sudder Street, as Violet is known,
clearly has no plans to return. "England is a beautiful country but I
could never live that life - playing bridge with Mrs Brown one day and
tennis the next. That's not my life - it's too insipid, too plastic.
Here I get on with everyone on the street and I'm very respected. All
day long I'm surrounded by people . . . I love Calcutta."