The year was 1947. A young man, Pilinja Laxminarayan Rao waited intently at the VT (now CST) station in Mumbai with a board in his hand that read ‘New Vasantashram.’ Anticipating the arrival of passenger trains, Pilinja knew that the only way people would know and consider staying at his lodge was if he personally approached them. The New Vasantashram Lodge that he had built was a cosy and affordable place – a home away from home for tourists, bachelors and businessmen alike. It was also his way of fulfilling his dreams in the ‘maximum city’ that he had arrived in quite recently, leaving his hometown near Mangalore behind.
71 years later, I make my way from CST to the bustling Crawford market where Pilinja’s dream still stands strong in all its glory. Situated at the third and the fourth floor of the Narasinh mansion, at the heart of the bustling bazaars, is the New Vasantashram, now a quaint budget-category hotel. I walk in through a modest entrance (an old stationery shop), go up a rusty, broad wooden stairway. Each step I take feels like one taken back in time.
The Lodge has an unexpected stillness, a soothing calmness to it. In delightful shades of blue and green, the entire space is decked up with memories, artefacts, trunks, knick-knacks and documents that display the legacy of the lodge. High ceilings, heavy wooden doors and a chess wallpapered floor give the space an old-world charm. In the reception area, an old man sits making entries into a heavy, red register. Clad in a white vest and lungi, he introduces himself as Keshu Bhai, the supervisor, who has been working in the lodge for the last 47 years.
“We have 4 double-bed rooms (INR 950), 5 Single bedrooms (INR 450), 2 four-bed dormitories (350), 1 twelve-bed dormitory (INR 300), 2 ten-bed dormitories (INR 300) and 1 six-bed dormitory (INR 300),” he says nonchalantly, asking one of the staff members to show us around.
The dorms have a mixed crowd. A young foreigner is busy on his phone, a middle-aged man finishes working on his laptop while an older gentleman lies sound asleep. The single rooms are meant for guests staying long term. With heavy wooden interiors, they are tiny with a cot and a small study. The double bedrooms are usually allocated to families. Towards the end of the corridor is a huge common room with old decorated trunks and couches for people to chat, exchange travel notes, work with the free Wifi or just watch television.
The corridor and the balcony are lit with old iron ship lights from 1937. Late Pilinja’s daughter Sujata Rao, who now overlooks the operations at Vasantashram, states that she got these from an old warehouse. “Mumbai has been a bustling port for the last many centuries. These ship lights represent the city’s character,” she explains. An artist and a connoisseur of all things antique, Sujata has been constantly innovating with the designs, yet keeping the lodge’s old-fashioned spirit intact. Sleeper beds from trains, glass paintings, hanging ladders, hand-designed wooden blocks from Pydhonie – each individual piece is completely distinct from everything else but, by a stroke of magic, come together like a beautiful puzzle.
However, it’s not just the lodge’s decor that makes up the charm of New Vasanthashram. It is also the stories of the place, the events that these walls have witnessed and the people it has hosted over the last 71 years. Narrating one of the many tales, Sujata tells me how the ‘new’ in the name of ‘New Vasantashram’ takes after a trend that emerged soon after India’s independence. “Everyone was putting in this prefix before their ventures,” she says.
Speaking about the variety of people who’ve stayed at New Vasantashram, she says that the lodge has hosted many popular businessmen in their formative years – like the Zaveri brothers and Jairam Muthuswammy, to name a few. “It has also hosted traders from India and abroad on their way to Burma to trade diamonds, merchants on business, hippies in transit and families on vacation,” Sujata adds. Earlier, the lodge was dominated mostly by male guests. However, today many businesswomen and female tourists find their way here as well, and the Lodge has an interesting policy to ensure their safety. If a female guest wishes to take a bed in the dorm, no other male guests are allocated a bed in the same dorm. “Even if it means giving a single woman an entire 10-bed-dorm for the cost of just one bed,” Keshu Bhai narrates.
The Lodge’s affordability, style and strategic location still make it the right choice for most people. But more than that, it’s the homely feel and charm that keeps people coming back and its most loyal customers will vouch for that. In 1963, Jairam Muthuswammy, a businessman came to Bombay. Taking his father’s advice he stayed at the New Vasantashram. Today, almost 55 years later, when Jairam Bhai can afford the fanciest of hotels, he still chooses to stay at this lodge. Sujata’s father even had a big cupboard made for him. The four dorm bedroom where he usually stays is now called the ‘Jairam Bhai Special’.
Mr Francis, a businessman from Tripur, Tamil Nadu, has a similar story to narrate. A loyal customer for the last 15 years, he chooses to stay only here whenever he visits the city. “Vasant lodge treats every guest like family. Here, I feel at home,” he smiles. As he waits for Keshu Bhai to assign him to his usual room, he casually converses with Cristoph, a 25-year-old backpacker from Switzerland staying at the Vasantashram lodge for the night. “I chose New Vasantashram primarily for a more local experience that I wouldn’t get in other hostels,” he says.
Back in the day, New Vasantashram provided lodging as well as boarding, and on offer were sumptuous Udupi meals. The service was discontinued because of licensing issues. However, for an extra price, the guests can still relish an elaborate south Indian breakfast that the lodge gets every morning from Matunga.
Sujata, however, is putting in efforts to sort the licensing issue out to make the lodge into a nice ‘bed and breakfast’. She also plans to create a unique co-working space on the premises. “Just like my father, so many people come to Mumbai, every day to fulfil their dreams but find it difficult to get a head start. New Vasantashram will provide everything under one roof,” she explains. The lodge also holds a number of Art and Cultural events.
As I exit New Vasantashram that evening and back to the bustle of the city below, I realise how integral it is to the character of this city. Archaic architecture, rustic interiors, an evolving space, bitter-sweet memories and a sudden calmness within chaos – it reflects a home caught between a bygone era as well as constant change, emblematic of what the city itself is witnessing.
The New Vasantashram Lodge is listed on AirBnB, MakeMyTrip and Cleartrip. For direct bookings, you can visit the lodge’s website here.
All photographs by Samrat Nagar for Homegrown.
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