Guy Routledge, the last expat Chairman of J. Thomas, visited Cochin in October 1969, accompanied by Dipak Roy, who had taken over as Chairman from Vinod Parekh.
T. C. Satyanath (Sat), the South India boss laid out the red carpet and there were a series of lunches and dinners in their honour. Sat informed Guy and Dipak that I was getting married in December. Guy got to know me when I was training at Thomas, Cumberlege and Inskipp, London. He asked what my plans were and where I would stay after I got married. These thoughts had not entered my mind!
He asked whether any bungalow in Cochin was available for rent. It so happened that Chartered Bank was abolishing the post of Assistant Manager, and his bungalow was falling vacant, however they did not want to lease the house but wanted to sell it instead. Guy asked what Chartered Bank was asking for it and I said they would sell for Rs.1,50,000, which would have been US$ 85000 today on weighted terms.
However, this is still less than 10% of its intrinsic worth.
The property is priceless as it was built by the Portuguese in 1506, and was once the residence of St. Francis Xavier, who was the Vicar of Saint Francis Church next door. The present owners state that Vasco da Gama also lived in this house and have named a room after him. It is a historical fact that Da Gama was buried at St. Francis Church next to the house, in 1524.
Later his remains were interred in the Cathedral in Lisbon.
Guy, Dipak, and Sat went into a huddle and a few minutes later announced that JT would buy the bungalow for Philip and his bride! That was how corporate decisions were made.
The house was marvellous, with lovely teak wood floors, a grand teak wood staircase with banisters. The walls were mostly four feet thick. There were two large Bedrooms upstairs with a spacious Sitting Room, and a separate Dining Room. There was a massive kitchen downstairs, which was inconvenient for us as we did not have a retinue of servants and so we turned the pantry upstairs into a fully fitted kitchen. Xavier, who I had written about in an earlier blog was our cook cum butler, assisted by a couple of support staff.
JT later sold this bungalow to a French heritage hotel chain and the building is now called Le Colonial Hotel. I would suggest that the reader click on the link to take a look at this marvellous Bungalow. It is advertised as Asia’s Oldest & Historically Rich Colonial House!
The hotel owners have remodelled the interiors and changed the configuration upstairs and downstairs to add more bedrooms. They have also built a small swimming pool. This work was done by my architect friend Ramesh Tharakan who was able to add rooms, as well as, enhance the charm of the place.
With its ambience and history, Le Colonial charges between US$460 and US$305 a night for the following suites:
The Viceroy, Jan van Spall, and Major Petrie, Vasco da Gama, Mahé de La Bourdonais, Tipu Sultan, and Aide de Camp. The hotel even has a J. Thomas Luxury Heritage Room and I quote from the hotel’s website:
Named after the legendary tea trader whose home Le Colonial became under British rule, J. Thomas is located in the side wing of the property. The room, with its teak four poster bed and poplin canopy opens onto a private balcony with a garden view. The bathroom features an over-sized walk-in shower.
Of course they got their facts wrong. Little did they know that Mr. J. Thomas was an expatriate Indigo planter in Bihar, who started J. Thomas and Company in Calcutta. However, this was the first property that JT bought in South India and the first occupant from the company, of this amazing and historical bungalow, was a lowly Assistant and his bride – Philip and Premela John! When we arrived in Cochin on 31st December, 1969 this magical place became our first home!
The Cochin Club and the Cricket Maidan were next door. On the other side of our house was a large bungalow owned by Madura Company. Next to it was a similar sized bungalow which belonged to Volkart Brothers, a Swiss firm. These large properties changed hands a few years later. The Madura Company bungalow was bought by Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC), while the Volkart Bungalow was bought by J. Thomas & Co to be used as Satyanath’s residence.
On 3rd January we threw our first party at our new home, to which all the Burra Sahibs and seniors from the tea trade were invited. My parents got a sampling of the Fort Cochin crowd, as did my uncle P. Samuel Philip and wife, Anna. Samuel Philip and Oommen Thomas head of Forbes, Ewart & Figgis, were friends from their Madras Christian College days.
Satyanath was happy that his protégé was already putting the bungalow to good use! Premela’s prowess as a hostess was put to test and she came through with flying colours. Over the years she organised some great parties, and we entertained frequently!
Members of our family would frequently stop by and spend a day or two with us. Once my paternal (G1) and maternal (G2) grandmothers visited us at the same time. We put them up in one bedroom so they would have each other’s company. The next morning at breakfast both looked tired but neither of them made a comment or gave an explanation. I made enquiries with both separately and learned that when G1 was asleep, G2 would get up and close all the windows. When G1 thought G2 was asleep she would get up and open all the windows. G1 was claustrophobic and wanted fresh air, while G2 was mortally fearful of creepy crawlies that would come in through open windows. The opening and closing of windows went on the whole night with neither getting a wink of sleep!
We lived here for two wonderful years. However, the Bungalow’s real significance for us was the gift of our daughter Sandhya, who was born in March 1971. We enjoyed watching her turn, crawl, and sit up, but by the end of the year we moved to Coonoor. We did not return to Cochin till 1977.
Little did we know at the time that 50 years later we would be staying in a cottage Sandhya and her husband Ernie built for us in Santa Clara!
It is January 1st 2021 in California and I want to take this opportunity to wish my readers a happy and healthy year ahead!