Elephants and castles

A silver tiger is prowling along Captain Krishnan Nair’s dining table. “People say I am a tiger but I say I am an elephant – slow, steady and strong,” says the 89-year-old chairman of India’s high-end Leela group of hotels, still known as “Captain” from his pre-independence freedom-fighting days. I wonder, silently, if elephants are as charming, or as stubborn.

These are both handy qualities on the journey from relative poverty to the helm of this prestigious hotel group, but right now the stubborn bit is causing me concern. It is taking a lot of persuasion to lure Nair from his office on the top floor of his Mumbai hotel for an interview at his home, just a few hundred metres away.

There is tension in the air about work matters – hardly surprising, given the imminent launch of the Rs1,600 crore (£220m) Leela Palace Kempinski New Delhi. But the mood lifts suddenly and Nair changes from a loose-fitting white tunic into a suit. We are driven to his bungalow through the lush landscape of the hotel and his own garden, where fountains play over pools shaded by a monumental banyan tree.

In Britain, the word “bungalow” has associations with mean, single-story suburban buildings. Nair’s bungalow is a four-storey confection of 25,000 sq ft which he shares with his wife, Leela (source of the name and concept of the hotel group), and three generations of their family. The staff quarters (he claims to have a staff of five, although I would guess more) are, literally, below stairs in the basement.

A gilded dome curves over the entrance hall. The place is light and airy: marble floors and muted silk drapes create a foil for contemporary and antique works of art and deities, from a diamond-studded statue of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, to portraits of Lord Krishna. But why the porcelain bust of Napoleon beside a small statue of Shiva? “For power and strength,” says Nair, ordering some lemonade.

He must need a lot of both. He became a hotelier aged 65, having made his first fortune in the textile industry. Nair has, to date, opened hotels in Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, Kerala, Gurgaon and Udaipur. New Delhi launches next month, Chennai in October and there are plans for more in Agra, Hyderabad and Lake Ashtamudi – not bad for someone who helped to start the first students’ union in Kerala as a young man of communist tendencies.

Nair’s life story is extraordinary and he tells it well, weaving the narrative into an epic cleansed of the hardships he must have encountered along the way. His education was funded by the local maharaja, Valia Raja of Chirakkal, after the seven-year-old Nair read aloud a poem comparing the maharaja to the brilliance of the sun. When he married, he says, it was the result of love at first sight. Leela is nowhere to be found but her pictures and presence are everywhere. He shows me a small kitchen linked to another, industrial-scale kitchen. “Leela is a great cook,” he says. “All the food in our hotels is to her recipes.”

Food is one of the lesser worries at the ambitious Leela Palace Kempinski New Delhi, where the cheapest room will cost US$500 (£307). Competitors reckon the market will never accept that room rate.

“Without Delhi, Leela cannot be a hotel chain in India,” declares Nair, undaunted. “I saw the site and said we must have it. Dinesh [his younger son, joint managing director with his first son Vivek] agreed that we must bid and get it.

“My first attempt failed,” he says of the bidding process. “We won it on the written bids. Mine was highest at Rs700 crores. It was a high bid – a daring act.”

I suggest that this is hardly the act of the humble man he claims to be. “You have to aim for the sun, not the moon,” he says. “Human might can reach anywhere. How can I imagine having a Rolls-Royce? And yet I have a Phantom in Delhi and a Ghost here. Success comes to those who take risks.”

I had been warned that our interview would go beyond the allotted hour, and sure enough Nair is still talking a couple of hours on. How does he keep up this relentless pace? He outlines the daily two-hour exercise regime which kicks off his eight-hour working day and adds: “I have oil [he indicates oil being dropped onto his head]. It gets into the marrow of my bones. It lubricates my mind.”

It must lubricate his body, too. He springs up to show me the bedroom suites, which afford both privacy and family connection. The decor is a conventional muted livery of cream and beige, with artwork defining each family member’s area. Granddaughter Samyukta (Dinesh’s daughter) has framed pictures with words such as “Prada” and “Love Is Possible” and a monumental mosaic of Marilyn Monroe.

Nair and Leela’s room has clouds of white pillows, a flat-screen television (they are soap fans) and, above the bed, two paintings of women from Kerala, Nair’s birthplace and somewhere he talks about a lot. Why don’t they live there, given that they already have a house in the state? “Leela likes Mumbai,” he says.

We walk on to the terrace, where stone elephants from Rajasthan gaze across the garden. “Leela brought clematis from Kerala, and planted this banyan. Buddha found enlightenment under the banyan tree,” says Nair, perching on an elephant.

The couple also planted thousands of trees in the barren 250 acres around the airport, which is now the verdant plot for their hotel and a park. A similar tree-planting campaign is under way in Delhi.

“Part of the land I bought in Delhi will become a public park dedicated to Rajiv Ghandi,” he says. “I was born in a forest area because my grandfather was a priest in the temple there. When I was born, baby elephants used to come and play with me. My mother had no servants and so I was left outside while she worked. The elephants would look after me.”

These extraordinary stories alternate with chat about the Dalai Lama, Gregory Peck and assorted American presidents.

“I told Obama: ‘Mr President, you’ve conquered India; I mean you have conquered the minds of Indians by talking about Mahatma Gandhi.’ Gandhi taught that tilling and spinning were important to make your own food and clothes. What more do you want?”

Nair has rather more than that, so there is a great deal of interest about the future of his empire. He may have persuaded his sons to ensure that the family retains a controlling interest in the company, but isn’t he tempted to retire now that his latest project is almost up and running?

“I would love to but my wife and my children will not let me. One day I would like to go to the Himalayas to meditate and pray. Or maybe to Kerala, to watch the sea and pray,” he says.

Jane Owen was a guest of the Leela Palace Kempinski New Delhi (www.theleela.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.