The French connection

The French connection

The French connection

Benjamine Oberoi describes herself as “a link in a chain”, whether she’s talking about ‘Casa Cottage’, her family’s  guesthouse, or her numerous social projects.

Since immigrating to India over 30 years ago, the tall French woman, who now dresses in colourful ‘churidars’, sees herself as one part of a large social chain, receiving and passing on experiences and knowledge to the next ‘link’.

Along with her Indian husband, Bhushan, and their children, she is committed to enjoying these cultural experiences and passing them on to others.

A love for experiencing other cultures developed early in Benjamine, when her family hosted foreign exchange students in their southern France home.

After graduating, she earned a scholarship to complete a PhD in educational psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru, and was one of the only foreign students in India at the time.

She quickly made herself at home. “The City has always welcomed me. I’ve never had a problem fitting in here,” she says.

She spent long hours getting to know people in the City, including a clever and kind hotelier.

As she grew to love the country, she fell in love with him as well. When Bhushan proposed, India was practically considered another planet by most Westerners because of the distance and lack of tourism.

These factors concerned Benjamine’s parents when she married, but all fears were put to rest when they visited her later.

At first, Benjamine faced a language barrier since she could not speak fluent English, let alone a local language.

 “And my dear husband hired a maid who could only speak Hindi,” she reminisces. But after 30 years, she speaks both English and Hindi.

 “She adapted brilliantly, like a fish takes to water,” Bhushan says. She also threw herself into social work, aiding rural development and educational NGOs. She started Objectif France-Inde in 1998, an NGO that works for rural development.

In 1979, the Oberoi’s opened ‘Casa Piccola’, the first European-style cafe in the City.
 “We had an urge to do something different,” Bhushan explains, “to incorporate our experiences and bring them to others.” The cafe was certainly different. “That was when crepes were ‘French Dosas’” Benjamine chuckles. “We were like a link between foreign culture and India.”

This same attitude led to the beginning of ‘Casa Cottage’. While ‘Casa Piccola’ brought European culture to Bengaluru, the Oberois wanted the exchange to be mutual. In 2004, they discovered a charming yet dilapidated house in Richmond Town that they decided to restore to its former old-world glory.

Today, ‘Casa Cottage’ is a heritage hotel, rated one of Bengaluru’s best guesthouses by TripAdvisor. Benjamine attributes their success to the recapturing of the social and cultural atmosphere that was an integral part of the City in times past.

Both she and her husband fear this environment is rapidly becoming a casualty of development plans.

“In the past, we had more time with neighbours. And people would spontaneously get together. The City has lost a little of that cultural enthusiasm,” says Benjamine.

‘Casa Cottage’ attempts to “keep some of what is Bengaluru”, as she puts it, by maintaining a social atmosphere. She and her family are frequently found talking with guests at the cottage’s lush garden or helping them plan trips throughout the country.

Here, they have met many interesting people and expanded their horizons.
After years of watching the City change, the Oberoi’s wish that maintaining Bengaluru’s heritage and environment was a greater priority.

“It’s said that people now do not have much appreciation to preserve this heritage,” Benjamine says. However, she is still glad to call India home.

“Bengaluru is not just one community. I’m still very French, but I have integrated here while retaining my identity.” She even takes Indians out to rural areas to show them the projects she has done with various groups. “I can interact with different stratas of Indian society better than some Indians,” she jokes.

She sees the same themes of social exchange and partnership everywhere. “I want to help people not only improve themselves but see how they can then aid their communities,” she explains.

After her time here, Benjamine advises foreigners to the City to approach their experiences with an open mind. “Be ready to have any experience and get involved. Oh, and don’t be scared,” she adds, with a smile.

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