PRLog - May 22, 2014 - MUMBAI, India -- Indian hospitality feels orphaned with your passing away, Honorable Chairman. You have impacted too many lives in overwhelming ways. Twelve years ago, same month was when I first met you. I remember the interview. Three hours at The Great Wall, an elaborate Chinese meal and you relating your life journey through fascinating stories. Enraptured, I realized, besides a few sounds of exclamations I hadn’t uttered a word and the job was mine! You later once said “I saw in you what you didn’t see in yourself”. That was one of your sharp acumen and today so many stalwarts of the hospitality industry owe their discovery to you.
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Not a man guided by the letters, you could instinctively smell a good idea and back it. Or vice versa deem a person stupid to have thought of an idea that didn’t meet your mind. Bouquets and brickbats would fly in with same speed. Those who didn’t buckle absorbed your mantra “think big, think fast and get into action”. If ever there was a rating of corporate roller coaster life, The Leela under your stewardship would top the list. One could be hero to zero and back to hero all in a day. This mercurial challenge kept us on our toes. What always inspired me to look beyond your words was the gnawing hunger within you to demand only perfection.
The Leela brand of hospitality can never be found in books, but books can be written about it. I remember the cine veteran Dilip Saab and Saira Banu were at our restaurant, you called to say ‘go and meet them’ I was uncomfortable, wouldn’t I be intruding on their privacy? But went all the same and we are till date friends for life and there are so many such acquaintances that bloomed because you first pushed. Your joy to meet people and give them your undivided attention is legendary. Your hospitable generosity is history. I remember a guest in our Leela Bangalore once got his breakfast of hot steaming idlis submerged in Sambar, without his asking, surprised he asked how? You had seen his name in the corporate VIP list of guests staying with us and remembered that he loved his idli’s served in this style and had left this specific instruction. Your small but stunning touches taught us that god is in the small details.
Every hotelier plans great welcomes, but you would say see your guest to the door and wave him goodbye, there is warmth in it and leaves lingering memories of a great stay. You always believed that hospitality has got to come naturally, there is no formula. If it gives you unadulterated joy, and makes you forget the ticking clock you were cut out for it. The gems of insights I received can go on to fill books. But most precious to me was when you stood on your toes while introducing me to a gathering of Management students and said don’t be fooled by her petite size, she is truly tall within. Once and for all I threw my grievance of being short and experienced seeing the world from a height. You empowered me with earned height that day.
You always endorsed ‘think on your feet’ rather than know all the rules, because no two situations are the same. That learning came alive in the middle of the Kerala backwaters, I was with a boat full of seven German journalists and the motor suddenly stopped. Panic gripped all for a flash of a second. Emulating the ostrich that digs its head into the sand to think that calamity does not exist. I got them to shut their eyes, saying I have stopped the motor to let them experience yogic silence. Chanting the Gayatri mantra I asked them to stay in meditation until I would chant a countdown and bring them back to open their eyes once again. Meditation under control I signaled the motor boy ‘we are out of oil will take me 10 more minutes to replenish.’ He soon gave me the thumps up, and I got the group back to wakefulness. They felt rejuvenated, I too felt the same but for reasons not the same. A month later our German President walked in saying Honorable Chairman we are in the leading German business paper ‘Die Welt’ for the yogic silence experienced through Leela hospitality. Your wah! when you heard my story, was a 'aha' moment I cherish until this day.
The lingering memory I want to hold is the clap of your hands and joy you expressed when I visited you recently unannounced at the hospital. Amid failing memory you remembered my Santiniketan stint and surprised all. You held my hand and said come home, I will be going home soon. You have comeback home today but forgive me, I could not bring myself to go home and see you 'still'
As I write, you are being consumed by the last rites. The flames believe that now you are with them, but the truth is the trees, gardens, the hearts of the people whose lives you have touched, family, friends, The Leela hotels every nook and corner hold you, your persona, your values and all that you taught by walking the talk.
Footprints get washed by the sand, memories may blur but legends move on from being present to omnipresent and live on forever. Honorable Chairman, sleep well.
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