The founder of the Leela group, CP Krishnan Nair, fondly called Captain Nair or just ‘Captain’ to those who knew him, was a man on a mission. From a humble background in Kerala, to go on to liaison with the likes of freedom fighters such as Frontier Gandhi. From being a communist to a businessman who built these lavish hotels that looked like palaces, to a bleeding fabric that won the entire world over, his life was full of twists and turns. Captain Nair was part of the industry leaders who have their rightful place in the annals of Modern India’s history. The charismatic man from Kannur behind the Leela Empire passed away in his sleep in 2014. He left behind countless stories, people who’s lives he had touched in the best way possible, the most hilarious stories from a life that had twists worthy of a blockbuster film, and a mountain of debt. Veteran journalist Bachi Karkaria traced down his life journey in a recent book published by Juggernaut titled Capturing The Dream. LuxeBook spoke to her about her experience tracking down the colourful life of the eccentric industrialist who captured many a heart through his flamboyant yet generous ways.
Tell me the reason you chose the subject?
The Nairs came to me because they wanted to publish the biography. A previous writer had bailed on them. They got along an AV done by Vijay Amritraj as a recoo. I had already written a book about Mr Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi by then. When you’ve written about the Oberois everyone else seems to pale, or so you think. However, when I heard about the fabulous life Captain Nair had led, I knew I had to take it on!
What was so unusual about Captain Nair?
The greatest aspect of doing a biography is to understand how wheels turn within wheels in someone’s life. How one contact made years ago, reappears and saves the day decades later. This is what kept happening in Captain Nair’s life. Captain Nair only came into the hospitality business in 1970, when he himself was 70. That’s why it was so remarkable that this man made a mark at an age where most look to retire. More than that, I was intrigued by what Vijay Amritraj spoke about him. He ventured into textiles upon his wife’s wishes. She belonged to a family which owned a mill business. However, he got into it because his wife was sort of his guiding spirit, guardian angel, to the point he named all his ventures after her. He became a sales agent for her father’s mill but he got into the big league very quickly.
How did Captain Nair rise from a humble background to become one of the most successful businessmen of his time?
It’s fascinating to see how Captain Nair as a little boy from this backward caste managed to even get his education. The meat and potatoes of this book is how this boy managed to make his connections in the early years with the likes of Gopalan, who was one of the giants of the communist movement. Then when he was in Abbottabad, he met Frontier Gandhi, and was absolutely fascinated by him. Another memorable event is when his mother, when he was posted in Delhi, thought her son must be homesick. She was a modest woman who used to sell copra for a living. But in that Coonoor network, she managed to get Mrs VP Menon, to carry back this jar of prawn pickle. This brought Captain Nair in the ambit of powerful men such as VP Menon who assisted Sardar Patel. Captain Nair used his contacts very resourcefully and credited them for his meteoric rise. For instance, in the early exporting days there was a man called Al Sandler, who was a shop assistant when he would be supplying large bulk orders to the US market. Several years later, when he knew that Lehman was looking for supplies, he went to her office and said, “You don’t have to worry about “Liz Claiborne” because she buys everything from me, and he got this massive order.
Tell us more about Captain Nair’s rise to fame?
Captain Nair promoted a fabric that soon became a big hit. It was called the Bleeding Madras, because it would bleed with every wash. He managed to convince Brooks Brothers who bought a huge consignment of it, and then every label came on board. Not just that, he promoted another fabric which was cheesecloth which also became a rage. He got in touch with several textile importers abroad. After the initial American ones, he operated through the whole Sindhi diaspora network. All the big labels such as Tommy Hilfiger and Brooks Brothers gave him orders. He became the biggest supplier of readymade garments to US markets.
Give an example of how his wife Leela influenced his life?
When Leela had a will, Captain Nair had to find a way. When he decided to buy the Scottish looms, because Leela took a fancy to lace, he contacted Lord Mountbatten to make it happen. When the Scottish guy was reticent to sell the looms to an unknown Indian guy, he called Mountbatten, handed the prospective seller the phone and said, “Well, maybe this gentleman can convince you of my bonafide intentions. This fellow almost fell off his chair. Then of course, even in the hotels, he was this man with great ambition who named the entire hotel group after his wife.
Would you say he ventured into hotels as his passion project?
Once again, he got along a politician who backed him, Basant Dada Patil, former CM of Maharashtra, who was the king of Maharashtra, so to speak. He was very keen that Captain Nair see the potential of Sahar. Nair had already thought of building hotels, as he stayed at the Hilton, saw how grand it was, and wanted to bring back some of that luxury. Basant Dada Patil removed all the hurdles in his way. AR Antulay, then the CM, was his biggest challenge. He wanted to show what India was about. That is why all his hotels are designed on the local heritage. The Bangalore one has the sense of the Mysore palace, where he was taken during Dussehra festivities by his uncle in his childhood, and he was stunned by the crowds and the palace. When he built Bangalore and Goa, he took the most massive risks, and ultimately the flagship had to be sold off to Brookefield, an asset management company. So hotels were definitely his passion project. The Delhi Leela is made of sandstone, under the influence of the edifices of Lutyens. Everywhere he echoed the local spirit into his properties.
Tell us about your sources?
I was lucky, that Cap Nair had written his own autobiography which has an English translation. So, autobiographies usually have flourishes about oneself, and are a little economical when it comes to facts. I had to re-check all timelines, every single person who was mentioned, the Nair culture, what it meant to be a low-caste person in Kerala in such a strictly hierarchical place such as Kerala. That is where my challenge came in. Of course, information about the hotels, came from my extensive interviews. We were in the middle of Covid so I couldn’t travel across the country to see them in person.
Apart from the autobiography what were your other sources?
All the key figures in the hotel, in the latter part of the book where we talk about the man in full, stories from the war room and trenches, are from my interviews. They pieced together bits about this man who has this massive generosity of spirit, as well as an unmistakable flamboyance. I regrect the fact that I didn’t get to meet him. Madhavan, who heads Disney/Hotstar, along with Mohanlal, the filmstar, a lady called Anna George, later called Anna Malhotra, one of the first women IAS officers, were some of his closest buddies.
How did his childhood shape him?
Even though he mixed with hoteliers, designers and politicians, yet he was this Kerala boy at heart. He was very comfortable in these two skins of his. He hadn’t thought that he would be sitting in the darbar hall at Mysore one day, and the Chief Minister would be telling him, why don’t you bring one of your hotels to Karnataka.
How did the hotels plunge him deeper into debt?
The Udaipur hotel especially was like a jewel, from the inside and the outside. Each of the hotels is a story. Because there’s triumph and tragedy in equal measure. Each time he ran into more debt and money that was expected to come in but didn’t. During the construction of the Bengaluru hotel, 200 cr was locked up in some land dispute with HUDCO. But he still wanted to build this monolith of a hotel. He never wanted to downsize. The debt continued to mount, and yet the banks continued giving him the money because they had faith in him. When the Lehman Brothers collapse happened, it had a domino effect throughout the world. He was hoping to pay back by launching these Foreign Currency Convertible Bonds (FCCP). But when the 2008 collapse happened, no one wanted to take them and wanted to cash out instead. And then finally he had to borrow from Indian banks where interest rates had spiked, driving the ultimate nail into financial ruin.
Tell us more about his personality.
Everything about him was this passion, and hotels were his ultimate passion. In his textile phase, he was the one who got it all going. He was this flamboyant person, he could persuade everyone, including the banks. Because he had this hotel dream and knew that he would have to backbone himself and not find a partner, he told his son Dinesh to gather the funds. At that point Dinesh didn’t have a factory at all. He renewed all his contacts to do so.