The New York Times
October 18, 2009
MAYBE it was the patterned bedspread and white appliqué pillows on the double bed that made the simple room so inviting. Or perhaps it was the sun streaming through windows topped with blue batik shades. And then there were the small touches: a framed pencil sketch of a traditional Indian mansion above the television; a red gerbera daisy on the table; a thermos of hot water next to an assortment of teas.
If this guest room in Vasant Vihar, the diplomatic neighborhood of New Delhi, felt like someone’s home, that’s because it was. The marble-floored room was in one corner of a three-bedroom apartment that belonged to Dipmala Bindra, a baker and homemaker in her 50s. Furnished with a private bathroom and fresh towels, it was part of a novel hotel experiment taking place in India.
There is a major shortage of hotel beds in India; the entire country has only about 130,000 rooms in branded hotels — some 10,000 less than in Las Vegas, according to HVS, a global hospitality consultancy group. And with thousands of visitors expected to converge on greater Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the hotel shortage may become especially severe.
So in 2006, India’s tourism ministry began allowing homeowners like Mrs. Bindra to register their homes as bed-and-breakfasts.
Nearly 300 homeowners in Delhi have opened their homes to date, and the accommodations vary significantly. At the lower end are no-frill rooms for 1,500 rupees (about $30.60 at 49 rupees to the dollar), with little decoration except a wall calendar. At the high end are places like B Nineteen, a modern three-story private villa with a penthouse in the idyllic neighborhood of Nizamuddin East, which has six modern rooms carved out for guests for 6,700 rupees a night. Most places fall in between, like Mrs. Bindra’s apartment on the third floor of a boxy white building.
Besides being homier, an overnight stay at the B & Bs offers a side of India not seen from a full-service hotel: glimpses of cows lounging under a bougainvillea bush, men selling brooms from bicycles and other rhythms of daily life. And the B & Bs can also be affordable. One night at Mrs. Bindra’s costs 3,000 rupees for single occupancy, while the Taj Palace in New Delhi can be 15,500 rupees.
To book one, start at the Indian Ministry of Tourism Web site but don’t expect a slick booking system. The site offers little but a 35-page chart entitled “Incredible India Bed & Breakfast Establishments,” listing the owner’s name, address, telephone, the number of rooms and whether it is a “gold” or “silver” property — without explaining what those designations mean.
To get a description of the room, amenities or price, guests must contact the owner directly. Since most of the B & Bs are not run by professionals, patience is a must.
Leena Nandan, an official in India’s tourism ministry, said that B & B owners underwent police background checks and that their establishments had to meet standards for things like hot water and private bathrooms.
Still, picking a B & B is somewhat hit or miss. Mrs. Bindra’s place certainly qualified as a hit. The room she let out, which measured 200 square feet, was clean and quite comfortable. As it turned out, it belonged to her 21-year-old son, Kabir, who was at college in Dublin. (It is unavailable during holidays when he returns home.)
Mrs. Bindra even typed up and laminated a menu, which she tucked into a folder left for guests in the bedroom. For 500 rupees, a homemade six-course meal can be enjoyed in the dining room. Otherwise, the rest of the 2,700-square-foot apartment is reserved for Mrs. Bindra; her husband, Gurpreet; and their 22-year-old daughter, Nyamat.
In some ways, my stay felt very much like a visit home. Indeed, shortly after I arrived, the family’s slim brown dog, Lisa, plopped onto my bed for an afternoon nap. This wouldn’t suit travelers who want the anonymity of a hotel (or who have allergies), though the Bindras seemed respectful of privacy.
But guests can also learn a great deal from staying with an Indian family, especially at dinner. On a cool winter evening last January, a typical Indian meal of roti, lentils, vegetables and raita was served in the dining room with spirited conversation about relations between India and Pakistan and the state of Muslims in India.
The meal was prepared by the household help, a silent young man named Pappan. It is common for middle-class Indians to employ several household helpers. The bathroom, for instance, was cleaned in the afternoon by someone hired to do only that.
But don’t expect all B & Bs to be as endearing or comfortable as the Bindras’ home. For 1,500 rupees a day, half the cost of staying with the Bindras, visitors can have a more anonymous experience at a place run by Shanti Devi in Greater Kailash II, a pleasant middle-class neighborhood across town.
Greater Kailash II is not to be confused with Greater Kailash I, or III. Delhi has a number of similar-sounding neighborhoods — there are also Kailash Colony and East of Kailash — so first-time visitors should keep the owner’s cellphone number on hand in case they become lost.
This B & B is in a nondescript three-story house made of cement-covered brick on a cramped street in the M Block section of Greater Kailash II, just around the corner from a popular shopping and restaurant district.
A young attendant answered the door and opened one of four padlocked rooms, a bland box with hospital-blue walls, fluorescent lights and a tile floor. The furnishings were sparse: a double bed, a worn desk and a television. It was clean enough, though the bathroom tiles could have used a good scrubbing, and the shower was surprisingly hot. But there was nothing homey about it.
In the morning, the attendant, a young Nepalese man with halting English, served an omelet on white toast, cornflakes with hot milk and chai. Sounds of construction — ubiquitous in Delhi — and the rattling of cutlery from an upstairs kitchen drifted in through a nearby window. The apartment was spacious but had a desolate feel.
Only a cot tucked into a corner of the living room showed signs of life. This was where the attendant slept, evident by a rolled-up quilt and a mobile phone on the bed. Countless men and women like him migrate to Delhi for jobs as construction workers or domestic help.
The attendant and I could not communicate, but when I departed, he carried my bag to the street and hailed an autorickshaw — a three-wheeled buggy that serves as a low-budget taxi in India. He even bargained with the driver for a decent fare. In India, hospitality takes different forms.
IF YOU GO
A list of B & Bs in Delhi can be found on the Ministry of Tourism Web site (www.tourism.gov.in). It’s a good idea to call the owner to inquire about location, directions and landmarks nearby.
Dipmala Bindra has a cozy room in her three-bedroom apartment close to the Delhi airport (2 Palam Marg, Vasant Vihar; 91-98-11-039-894). The room starts at 3,000 rupees, or about $61 at 49 rupees to the dollar.
Rajiv Chaudhary and Janis McClinch, two architects trained in Boston, designed and renovated their spacious villa to create a six-room B & B called B Nineteen (B-19, Nizamuddin East; 91-98-1896-7438; www.bnineteen.com). Rooms start at 6,750 rupees.
Also in the Nizamuddin East neighborhood, P. C. Chopra has a comfortable two-room apartment on the top floor of a house(D-9, Nizamuddin East; 91-11- 2435-8574), starting at 7,000 rupees.
Shanti Devi has four plain but functional rooms on the ground floor of a modest white house in Greater Kailash II, a popular New Delhi neighborhood (M-99, Greater Kailash II; 91-98-6847-2210). Rooms start at 1,500 rupees.