Bachi Karkaria: ‘Rai Bahadur built with a mission and Biki built with a passion’

Veteran journalist and author Bachi Karkaria speaks about the Oberoi legacy; the father, the sons, and the holy grail of hospitality that they have seeked to attain.

Author of two biographies of two of India’s foremost hospitality legends, Bachi Karkaria is one of the few who has a unique insight into their mindset. With Dare to Dream: A Life of MS Oberoi published in 2009 and Capture the Dream: The Many Lives of Captain CP Krishnan Nair earlier this year, she has not only delved deep into the success stories of these doyens of India’s hotel industry, but also dissected their modus operandi.

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Author and acclaimed columnist Bachi Karkaria has the inside scoop on India’s top hoteliers. Image: Yash Shinde.

While researching the book on the late Rai Bahadur, she got to know his son PRS more closely. She recalls her meeting with him in London, and how particular he was about each line that went into it. She admires his rigour in everything he has done and attributes it to the fact that he was not the heir apparent.

“His elder brother, (the late) Tiki was the heir apparent, and he really was his father’s favourite. But when we know we’re number two, we try harder, and I think that is why Biki went so all out to prove that he could do it. I really believe that TRS, that is Tiki Oberoi, was such a playboy, he would never have had the rigour that Biki brought to the hotels. Whatever you may say with all the superficial gloss and all that, there has to be a great rigour behind the building of these hotels,” she asserts.

She narrates how the Oberoi Mumbai in Nariman Point was conceptualised and created by Rai Bahadur, outbidding the competition for the land, being steadfast and downright stubborn about getting it done a certain way, and then once that was done, deciding to build another hotel right next to it!

“Biki staggered and asked his father, ‘Aren’t you overdoing things?’ And Rai Bahadur told his son, ‘If you want something really bad, you should never let money come in the way of your getting it.’ I think Biki followed that to the T because he also never looked at the cost!” Karkaria exclaims.

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The late Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi and his son Prithvi Raj Singh. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Their backgrounds defined them. “Biki grew up in hotels while Rai Bahadur came out of nowhere. He was from an obscure town in what is now Pakistan. He hadn’t even seen an Englishman until he was 15 years old, he hadn’t even seen a bicycle. And yet, he created these splendiferous edifices. Rai Bahadur built with a mission and Biki built with a passion. You know Biki’s passion is something that is really difficult to understand and difficult to match,” she says.

She recalls how he didn’t mind tearing down something in a hotel and getting it redone from scratch to get it right. “I remember I said to him, ‘Biki, you know you are such a control freak, if I may say so, that everybody else probably gives up!’ And he said, ‘Well, let them give up because they’ll get it wrong anyway!’”

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The distinguished doyen of India’s hotel industry PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi in recent times. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Karkaria admits she came to appreciate Biki that much more when she was doing her next book, which was on Captain Nair, who had this same kind of passion. She shares, “I remember the Executive Chef of the Leela, Angshuman, saying that there are only two people who understand the food business in this country. One was Captain Nair, and the other is Biki Oberoi and both of them never, never cut corners, they never cut costs.”

She describes how, with Biki, the carpets had to be hand knotted, the curtain rails had to be solid brass, the silver had to be sterling silver. Speaking of his contribution to Indian hospitality, she says, “He really built the first business class hotel and that was the Oberoi hotel in Mumbai. I think, overall, it really set the standard of a world-class business hotel. He raised the bar for the entire profession.”

Read more.

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