The Sleeping Prince and the Dream Hotel

05/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bob Morris Frequent contributor to the New York Times and author of Assisted Loving.

The port city of Cochin, in the equatorial Kerala area of southwest India, has seen all kinds of foreign influences over the years. Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer was there, as were the Dutch, Jews and Chinese, all mixing into the spicy local curry of Hinduism and Islam. Still, the arrival of a brand new towering white Dream Hotel, the boutique property of Vikram Chatwal, the Manhattan-based hipster hotelier, seemed to be raising some questions when it opened to a lavish fanfare last Sunday.

First, would there be enough paying Indian guests during the recession, which has caused the nation's manufacturing for the American market to drop significantly? Would terrorist incidents like the one last November in Mumbai scare off tourists? Would guests who come to the area for its history enjoy such a trendy ambiance?

Beyond all this, however, one question loomed at the hotel's ribbon cutting with elephants bedecked in gold, shirtless drummers, and women in white saris holding trays of flower petals. Where was Vikram Chatwal? His father, Sant Chatwal, owner of many hotels and restaurants around the world, and backer of his son's boutique hotel empire, was there in his Nehru jacket and big red turban. With all eyes upon him, he proudly escorted T.K.A. Nair, Principal Secretary to India's Prime Minister, through the sleek lobby with sliver elephant statuary and revolving disco ball chandeliers. And in droves, 800 guests (local businessmen, government, fashion and media players) flocked inside for an inaugural ceremony. With TV cameras and paparazzi documenting everything, members of the Chatwal family stood on a stage and carefully lit a traditional towering oil lamp. "We light this lamp," said Sant Chatwal, a power player and Clinton supporter, "to bring good omen to our hotel."

If only he could have brought his son down from his room. The guests moved from inauguration ceremony into a rave-like cocktail hour in a ballroom, where local magazines with Vikram Chatwal on the cover were everywhere. Still, the young man (dubbed the Turban Cowboy in Manhattan, where he lives a boldfaced party boy life) was nowhere to be found. Could he be so disinterested? Was blowing everyone off a clever way of enhancing his mystique? Was the party just not good enough for him? Sure, his week-long 2006 celebration of a marriage to an Indian model (apparently now estranged) had a higher international celebrity guest quotient (Bill Clinton! Deepak Chopra!) and it had been covered by the Herald Tribune, New York Magazine and Discovery Channel. Still, this party wasn't nothing, and the hotel was part of a chain bearing his name. So why not make the effort to show up and be ceremonial?

"Where is Vikram?" his sari-clad mother, Daman Chatwal, was asking.

It was anybody's guess. He was definitely in the building, having arrived from his home in Manhattan via Mumbai's fashion week two nights before.

"He's a wild card because he's such a creative spirit," said Varsha Bedi, a friend.

"He's not an accountant," observed Parmesh Shahani of India's Verve magazine. "He's a playboy and that's the part of his job that he does really well."

"If he doesn't want to come out of his room, it's best to leave him alone," suggested Arjun Bhasin, the fashion editor of GQ India.

So the party went on for hours without its man of the hour.

But eventually, and finally, the young Mr. Chatwal made his appearance, and without apology. In a T-shirt and jeans that defied the ceremonial rigor of the occasion, he raised his hands on the hotel's rooftop and with a hired photographer to document it, jumped in the pool. Then, dripping as if he were a god rising from the River Ganges, he yelled "Come over here," and gestured for guests to join him on some cushions where he collapsed into a harem of beautiful young women in very high heels and very short skirts. Some sucked on hookahs. Others dipped pedicured toes in a pond of lotus flowers. Young Mr. Chatwal smoked a Cuban cigar and watched it all with the placid knowing eyes of a Boddhisatva bad boy. Then he obligingly posed for photos with his father (who once told the press that in his next life he'd like to come back as his own son) and didn't seem at all annoyed that his son had been a no-show earlier. Later, mother and son rode the elevator down together for dancing in a packed lounge. Just another day in the life.

"Vikram, you are just so spoiled," she said as he gave her a hug.

She might as well have been saying, "I love you."