When she asked, "So, what do you think of the new Four Seasons?" there was an archness in the tone of the question that led me to suspect the woman did not approve of the hotel, which had opened in Mumbai just a month earlier.
I chose the coward's way and replied, "What do you think of it?"
The woman, an Indian citizen, had a ready reply: "I don't care much for it. There's not much about it that's Indian."
By most measures, it's a terrific hotel; I stayed there three nights and came away impressed by its high levels of comfort and service. But I nonetheless understood what she meant.
In terms of architecture and design, the Four Seasons has a tasteful but nonspecific mien, housed in a modern glass tower that would blend seamlessly into large city skylines from Vancouver to Madrid to Singapore. Its general manager is Swiss, its autos German, its toiletries French. The tea above the minibar was from Darjeeling and Assam, but when you have to get that granular to find something regional, you're only discovering the exceptions that prove the rule.
Not "Indian" -- yet there were really very few places you could stand in the hotel and get away from India.
My room looked down on what appeared to be a large slum area, chockablock shanties with many roofs covered by blue tarps to keep the monsoon at bay. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the hotel's restaurant show off the property's small, walled garden, but only the very nearsighted -- Mr. Magoo, perhaps -- could miss the dirty white blocks of flats rising on the other sides of the wall.
The management of the Four Seasons, sensibly, takes its location in stride, making no apologies, and it doesn't appear to make efforts to control what lies beyond its lot lines. It is what it is: a Western-style hotel with exacting Western standards.
And it is where it is. While it appears more grafted-onto than integrated-into its neighborhood, it tries to be a good neighbor. It supports the Vatsalya Foundation, a shelter for Mumbai street boys that's a 15-minute walk away.
In addition to donating to the foundation, it has opened its apprentice program to the residents, and the first to join will be a 19-year-old named Shankar Lakhan. He told me that his mother was dead and his father "lives in the forest," and that he had been on the streets for two years before entering the shelter eight years ago.
As a Four Seasons apprentice, he'll have the opportunity to take a wide range of classes, from languages to wine appreciation.
Following that, he can apply to be an intern and, if accepted, will receive a stipend while learning various skills specific to the hospitality industry.
The Four Seasons has found its place in India, but to get back to my conversation with the Indian woman: Will guests at the Four Seasons find their place in India?
Looking down on that shantytown is depressing. But I discovered that the best cure for that depression was to cross the street and walk through the slum.
With feet on ground level, it is no longer a depressing place. The blue tarps mask what amounts to a small village within Mumbai. Its main street is lined with commerce, from bakeries, barbers and flower vendors to doctors' and lawyers' offices. (One of the nicest things about India is that you're never more than 10 feet from an English speaker, and strangers you approach seem eager to talk about anything that piques your curiosity.)
A walk through this neighborhood (officially, "Veer Jijamata Nagar Co-Op Housing Society") turned out to be a highlight of my week in the country.
Despite its understated Western decor, the mere fact that the Four Seasons opened in this neighborhood is a reflection of an exciting development in travel. The "discovery" of India by the West is accelerating, and the speed with which West meets East has created a new cultural compass. Shankar Lakhan used it to find his way into an apprenticeship at the Four Seasons, and Four Seasons guests can use it to make their way into Veer Jijamata Co-Op Housing Society.
What do I think of the new Four Seasons in Mumbai? There's not much about it that's "Indian," but it has proximity to a part of India that will make visitors feel lucky to have seen it.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].