A Personal Goodbye to Broadlands Lodge in Chennai
I must have stayed in over 140 hotels and guesthouses throughout India since first coming here in 1995, from big-city cockroach infested pits to stylishly appointed Rajasthani lodges: the good, the bad and the downright ugly. However, one place stands head and shoulders above the rest and is an institution among foreigners on the traveller circuit in India. The Broadlands Lodge in the chaotic Triplicane area of Chennai is a former Nawab’s residence, dating back to at least 1850.
Broadlands is a beautiful but crumbling place, and peeling paint and flaking plaster are its hallmarks. There is a fine line between “old world charm” and “crumbling dereliction”, but as far as Broadlands is concerned, the former definitely applies. It is an oasis of serenity in what must be one of the most hectic cities in the world. Someone once wrote that it looks like a heritage hotel that is having a bad day. I might further add that it is a lawsuit waiting to happen, given its rickety banisters and falling plaster. Its tree-shaded courtyards, decaying wooden blue-painted balconies and sunlit verandas hark back to more genteel times. Walk through the door and you no longer feel as though you are in Chennai. The squawking crows, squealing chipmunks and serene bats contrive to give the impression that you could be in a remote country retreat, rather than in a city-based lodge.
Outside, above the entrance, a sign says “Welcome, Namaste, pray stay at this worthy lodge…” but only if you are in possession of a foreign passport. Indians are not so welcome at Broadlands Lodge. An apparent “No Indian” policy seems to be quite strictly enforced, whereby only Indians in possession of a foreign passport may stay. Many rickshaw drivers in the city know it as the “firang place”. The Lonely Planet guidebook omitted it from its main edition a few years ago, partly in response to this.
Krishna Rao, owner and grandson of the founder, says that he “chooses” his guests carefully and denies that discrimination exists. However I have only ever seen a handful of Indian people ever make it through the door over the years. Here is another fine line: between being “selective” and outright discrimination. All forms of social exclusion are divisive, and arguably Broadlands’ policy of “selectivity” harks back to the colonial era, like the architecture itself. But this time again the rules are being made and enforced by Indians themselves.
The owner and staff reckon they are dubious about letting Indians in for a variety of reasons, of which I’ve heard many during the past nine years. According to Krishna, rowdy behaviour was a problem back in the 1970s before Broadlands became more “selective”. However, other hotels in the area readily accept both Indians and foreigners, and let’s face it, some foreign backpackers are experts in the art of excess by partying throughout the day and night. Another reason that has been given is that many residents stay long term, studying yoga, music or other aspects of Indian culture; if Indian people were allowed, guests would not be allowed sufficient personal space or privacy.
A further explanation for being “selective” is that the place has communal showers and toilets, and this can involve women walking to and from the facilities, perhaps dressed in the barest essentials. It is felt that as the norms and values surrounding gender and sexuality are different in India, this may cause problems.
Finally, the owners want to ensure that there are always places available for foreigners who travel large distances to come to India.
Foreigners who stay at Broadlands are often appalled by the owner’s “selectivity”. They do not feel inclined to boycott the place, however, as the ambience is so magnetic. They stay there despite the attitudes of those who run it, certainly not because of them. I have been no different.
However, Broadlands may take some comfort by knowing that elsewhere in India the same policy exists. In fact, there seems to be an unwritten law that particular hotels are for foreigners only. This applies to numerous hotels and guest houses throughout Goa and in the Paharganj area of New Delhi, where many foreigners rent rooms. The same policy of selection sometimes exists, but is never formally stated. The Anoop Hotel, Hare Krishna Hotel and the Ajay Hotel on the Main Bazaar in Delhi all seem to operate in this manner. The Evergreen Hotel in Jaipur is a huge, sprawling place with beautiful gardens, but they do not let “locals” in and have not done so in 25 years or so.
When questioned by myself about this, many owners cite problems about letting in “undesirables”, who stay simply because there are foreigners staying. Other hotels in India have official signs stating “No Israelis” because of the reputation for rowdiness or rudeness to both Indians and foreigners that certain Israelis develop as they travel through India. So in fact discrimination exists throughout the traveller circuit in India.
Before the advent of guidebooks and mass tourism, travellers stayed as guests in people’s homes or, if available, in basic lodges, eating local food and mingling with local people. These days, partly thanks to various guidebooks, traveller ghettos now exist: foreigners tend to stay in areas where restaurants serve “banana pancakes” and Western menus, where other foreigners congregate and where hotels and lodges accept only foreign tourists. This is a damning indictment of modern travel.
As far as Broadlands is concerned, would Indians be prepared to pay between 230 to 450 rupees per night anyhow for quite basic, often run-down and crumbling rooms, when better quality exists throughout the city? Some cynics would say that it is foreigners who are losing out and being taken for a ride when they stay at Broadlands!
I fell in love with Broadlands when I first visited Chennai in 1997, and over the years I have come across some of the most eccentric and wonderful people. For instance, Johannes from the Netherlands is one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered, with his intense quickfire philosophical ramblings about the meaning of life, death, God, Hinduismâ€¦ and God again. I love Jo. Jo is intervowen with the fabric of the building, as are indeed so many others. There is also lovely Lise from Copenhagen, who impressed me so deeply that I ended up dedicating my one and only book to her. Through them and people like them I have found so much beauty, humour and warmth with the walls of Broadlands. Unfortunately, due to the entrenched attitudes of the owners, no Indian person could ever say the same.
Broadlands is a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. I have bittersweet memories of the place. Like certain people, some places are destined to leave a deep imprint – even if that is only by virtue of being a foreigner!
Perhaps “unwritten laws” should be spelt out and made public. Just because they exist and are tacitly accepted by many, does not mean they are right. Hotels exist throughout India where both Indians and foreigners co-exist in harmony. There may be good reasons for excluding certain “types”, but wholescale social exclusion is divisive and is the thin end of a more sinister mindset. I think this kind of thing was tried somewhere else before. I know how I would feel if I approached a hotel in England only to encounter a “No British” policy.
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