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May 05, 2016

Meet The Woman Behind The Corner Courtyard In Kolkata

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Rishi Roy

See how Megha Agarwal, broke free from the routine of regular jobs to realise her dream and opened a charming boutique hotel in Kolkata

The bustling streets of the City of Joy are crowded with Ambassador taxis, honking vehicles and the humdrum chaos of everyday life. But in the interiors of The Corner Courtyard (so named because of its location on a corner of Sarat Bose Road in the Bhowanipore locality of South Kolkata), a small boutique hotel, I am suffused by its contrasting sense of quiet. I soak in its unique ambience — antique keys are mounted on one wall in the ground-floor French restaurant, mirrors adorn another, while a fire hose is mounted on the floor above. And, when I meet and interact with its owner and founder Megha Agarwal, I soon realise that her creation draws immensely from her personality and passion.

The Mumbai-born and now Kolkata-based Agarwal always dreamt of owning a hotel and a restaurant. After working in several jobs across varied cities, she realised her desire in the capital of West Bengal. Searching for properties to develop her ‘baby’, she chanced upon a zamindar’s bungalow that dated back to 1904 when, a few years ago, her uncle drew her attention to a property he had acquired — and she realised the time was right to fulfil her cherished vision. Undettered by contrary advice that urged her to raze the quite-in-ruins structure to the ground, Agarwal stuck to her guns. She explains, “It was serendipity. This old romantic bungalow was hiding in plain sight on high-street Kolkata, and when I saw it, something just clicked. The space had an undeniable appeal and great vibes. And with its inherent old-world charm and character it felt like the right place to house all our future guests and stories. We decided to restore the structure to its original glory and reinstate it with modern comforts and a world-cuisine menu. We have remembered the past, but not recreated it.”

On her freewheeling thoughts, she states, “My mind is unanchored by conventions and social expectations. I have always been whimsical and footloose. I have a super vivid imagination and am fascinated by stories of faraway, idyllic lands, the kinds spun by Enid Blyton, or J K Rowling.

I grew up with parents who gave me the freedom to become my own person, make and learn from my mistakes, travel and live independently since I was very young, explore my passions and dreams. And I have the confidence to accept failure.”

Though the Kolkata property is Agarwal’s first business venture in hospitality, it surely hasn’t been her only attempt at entrepreneurship. When she was growing up, she showed her business instincts when she turned a spare room at home into a library for friends who could borrow books at a nominal fee; she also sold home-cooked food, and set up an activity centre where one could barter, say, teaching how to play the guitar for sketching lessons. The MBA graduate, who walked away from her job as a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers India to explore her obsession, says, “I love trying out different ideas. I am restless, a dreamer and an insomniac. Imagine containing all that in a cubicle every day.” She moved a few steps closer to her dream when she did some stints with boutique hotels in the North-East.

Agarwal always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur. The ways — and the highs and lows — of business were not new to the then 28-year-old newly-minted hotelier as her parents were first-generation settlers in Kolkata and she had seen her dad build his venture. She drew a lot of inspiration from his ‘unshaken confidence’. Emphasising that her journeys underscore her life choices, she points out that she is particularly motivated by people who have successfully transitioned into becoming ‘digital nomads’. She states, “My brother, who is the sensible and sorted one, is also obsessed with start-ups. His lifestyle experiments and productivity hacks make him my very own Tim Ferriss. Having uprooted his life several times around the world in the past decade he has made his world view very tolerant, updated and inspiring. He is often my sounding board.”

The palette of her life has been coloured by many hues — and the interiors of The Corner Courtyard (TCC) are infused by vibrant shades as seen in its bright yellows, intense reds and exuberant blues. Agarwal says, “I absolutely love how colours complete a work of architecture or design. From Kolkata’s classic ivory-white architecture to the turquoise-tinted memories of the Caribbean. The liberal, uninhibited creativity bursting from murals and mixed media in the streets of San Francisco and Berlin to the pink snowfall of the sakura cherry blossoms in Japan. Colour leaves a lasting impression. It is very important to the TCC concept, design and story.”

The hospitality entrepreneur admits that the challenges of setting up the hotel were many and, at times, daunting, quite a few embedded in the task of realising her architectural vision. But nowhere did the young girl feel inhibited by her gender. Agarwal emphasises, “I look up to so many successful women entrepreneurs in the food industry. They share this immense passion and obsessive pursuit to do a great job. I really do believe in equality and disregard gender, age, background and other biases or preconceived notions.”

Agarwal is aware that life as an entrepreneur is one that is not predictable and mundane. When faced with a roadblock, she states that she believes in the following pointer that she once came across: ‘“Take care of the people, the products, and the profits — in that order.’ And if we are so lucky so as to do work that we love and care about, then trying to keep getting better at it becomes a way of life. Self-development and learning to me are absolutely crucial. I want to keep becoming a better version of myself.”

Referring to herself as an adventurer by fate — in the words of Vincent Van Gogh, she says she is stressed out by the idea of getting stagnated. Always in search of something new, she launched a restaurant (called Fireplace by The Corner Courtyard at Urban Eatery) in Nairobi. As we wind up an afternoon chai and sandwich session — this time at the iconic eatery Flurys — I ask her to describe herself in a few words. “I am optimistic, loyal, passionate and resilient, which I would call my strengths. And, if you asked me what my weaknesses are, I would say my habits of wearing my heart on my sleeve, avoiding confrontations and uncomfortable conversations, aloofness and restlessness.”

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