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Traveling In Style : Correspondents' Choice : Where They Lingered

October 16, 1994| John-Thor Dahlburg | New Delhi bureau

Even the famous have to rest their feet sometimes. Five Times correspondents from around the world reveal the favorite rest-stops, loitering places and relaxing haunts of celebrities of an earlier time.

HOTEL IMPERIAL, New Delhi

To cross the threshold of the Hotel Imperial in the 1940s, wrote the late British journalist and author James Cameron, was to get a "crash-course in Indian affairs." The place, he said, "(w)as full to the doors with a fluctuating tide of politicians, princes, newspapermen, idealists, cynics, black marketeers, beards, turbans, uniforms, sweat, Australian whisky and obsessed fanatics of all persuasions."

New Delhi's Imperial Hotel opened in 1935. The British viceroy in India, Lord Willingdon, had encouraged its construction. In a delicious irony of history, though, this posh hostelry--today an opulent assemblage of 230 guest rooms set on eight green acres in the city's heart--became both drawing room and social center for the movement that brought India freedom.

India's moody and brilliant Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party colleagues held innumerable caucuses and strategy sessions here, sometimes in the huge chandelier-lighted and mirrored ballroom. On other occasions, they adjourned to individual suites with 14-foot-high ceilings or to the white-trellised veranda. Later, as independent India's prime minister, Nehru frequently dropped by for official receptions. He drank only fresh fruit juice and water--as a strict vegetarian and teetotaler Nehru wouldn't touch the hotel's famous baked Alaska because it contained eggs and brandy.

In yet another irony, the Imperial also played a part in the formation of another nation. As the Congress haggled and planned for India's future, a consumptively thin and dapper Muslim lawyer, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, strolled in and out of the Imperial, dreaming about the creation of Pakistan. One meeting held by Jinnah's Muslim League in the hotel ballroom erupted in fisticuffs when hostile Muslims who wanted to remain part of India brushed by police guards and crashed the event. But Jinnah got the country he wanted anyway.

Today only 5% to 10% of the hotel's guests are Indians. Europeans predominate, including plenty of descendants of the old colonial masters. What lures Britons to the Imperial is the Raj-era flavor that has been carefully preserved in the old wing. Take the narrow six-passenger elevator, said to be Delhi's oldest, up to the rooms, and you may feel as if you've been whisked back to the twilight of the British Empire. The lofty-ceilinged rooms, each with two narrow single beds, have whirring ceiling fans, wooden writing desks and wardrobes and Mogul prints decorating the walls.

The Imperial has added a new wing but, realizing that its history gives the building a character no other Delhi hotel can match, room rates have been revised so that guests pay more to stay in the old wing, along with the ghosts of Nehru and Jinnah.

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