Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi, the founder of The Oberoi Group of Hotels, considered one of India’s greatest hoteliers, once said, “It is a strange coincidence that nearly every turn in my life has been associated with an epidemic of some sort.”
Where the world saw adversity, he saw opportunities despite the prevailing sadness. His story of grit and glory is beautifully chronicled in the book Dare to Dream: The Life of M.S. Oberoi. His first brush with a virulent plague epidemic was as a young man. In 1922, he and his wife Ishran Devi were forced to leave their ancestral village Bhaun (now in the Punjab province of Pakistan) on the insistence of his mother. “My mother told me that since I could not do anything to help in such a situation, I should leave for Sargodha and not risk my life. Plague, in those days, was a terrible killer and people naturally dreaded an epidemic, which often wiped out villages. Sadly, I left full of apprehension about my future. In this mood of depression, I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for the post of a junior clerk in a government office, for which I had to travel to Simla to write an exam. With Rs 25 in my pocket, which my mother had given me, I left for Simla,” he wrote.
Though he moved to the pretty hill town a reluctant man, it proved beneficial. It was while exploring Simla that he came across Hotel Cecil. Fascinated by its opulence, Mr Oberoi sought a job there and began working as a clerk for a princely salary of Rs 50. He would go on to buy Hotel Cecil when its owner Mr Clarke decided to retire and sell it a few years later, thanks to help from a generous uncle.
Often monikered the Conrad Hilton of India, Mr Oberoi specialised in refurbishing run-down and undervalued properties. It was another epidemic that became the foundation of the second in the many chapters in the life of this iconic hotelier.
In 1933, a cholera epidemic of vast proportions in Calcutta (now Kolkata) ensured that The Grand Hotel closed down. The city had witnessed the death of over a hundred foreign visitors and several Indians. People were afraid to visit Calcutta.
Five years later, in 1937, Mr Oberoi took over the once-elegant The Grand Hotel. He mortgaged his Simla property to raise the money and began a painstaking renovation programme. He also launched a campaign to convince his potential guests that the hotel was ready to open safely. He promised his first guest soda water to drink and food that was cooked outside the hotel.
“I happened to see an advertisement placed by the liquidators and immediately decided to take over the hotel if I could get it on low leasehold,” he has written in an autobiographical note. “The price asked was Rs 10,000 rent a month, plus compensation for the goodwill. In return, I demanded compensation for the ill-will generated by the hotel.”
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Calcutta was full of troops and the British Army was frantically trying to find accommodation. He improvised 1,500 beds for the troops at Rs 10 per head for boarding and lodging.
“Taking over a cholera-ridden hotel had been a landmark in my career. The fact that I converted it and helped the army in the time of stress and difficulty had come to the notice of the government. In 1941, I was awarded the title of Rai Bahadur in recognition of the services to the Indian hotel industry,” he wrote.
Thus was laid the foundation of one of India’s greatest hotel company, The Oberoi Group of Hotels.
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