Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair’s story, Capture the Dream, by Bachi Karkaria, reminds me of superstar Rajnikanth’s 1992 blockbuster Annamalai. The hero starts life as a milkman and after several sequences of upward mobility, he ends up as a leading hotelier overtaking his rivals. Captain Nair’s real life does one better. He turned a hotelier when he was 65 years old, founding the Leela chain of hotels, a byword in luxury. At every stage of his life, he managed to achieve what he wanted to, turning disadvantages into advantages.
Captain, as he was called, did not quite start as a milkman nor is his a rags-to-riches story although his beginnings were humble. He was born in Kunnavil, a village in north Kerala, in 1922. His father was a “cog in the revenue machinery, accompanying the headman to collect taxes,” and the job “cushioned the harshness of his lowly Vaniya caste...”; his mother sold copra products.
The women in Captain Nair’s life were strong and influenced him a great deal, instilling in him a love for nature. His mother Madhavi Amma’s village was Kootali, in a place surrounded by perfumed trees, where elephants from Coorg often landed up in the forests surrounding their home. As a young boy, his mother would let him stroke their trunks and play with the calves. Eight decades later, when he was approaching 90 and ever the Kerala (and Kannur boy), he would gaze at a faded photograph of his mother and whisper, “Amma, I would still love to go back to our old home and see the elephant that lost its way. But those elephant tracks, those forests and the trees that exuded fragrance have all gone far, far away!”
His mother made sure he got to high school. There he attracted the attention of royalty who gave him the “gift of education”. Captain Nair made friends with kings and commoners and retained life-long friendships; most of all, his Malayali network was always as strong as it was wide.
Marriage to Leela
He was a bit of a “rolling stone” in his early days. He joined the army, resigned, ventured into supervising ration distribution in Kerala, joined politics for a while and then went back to the army. The smart armyman impressed a local industrialist in Kannur who got his daughter Leela married to him. It was a very happy marriage with a true meeting of minds. Every project of the captain was named after Leela, his “guiding force”. It was Leela who wanted Captain Nair to build a hotel.
But first, Captain Nair joined his father-in-law’s handloom business as a sales agent. Thus began his foray into handlooms and exports. Success came when he introduced the ‘Bleeding Madras’, a humble homespun fabric, to the U.S. His entrepreneurial brain was always ticking. When he was 65 years old, Captain Nair entered the competitive hotel industry. By this time, he was a global traveller and had stayed at the best of hotels. He wanted to prove to international visitors that India can build world class hotels and even outdo them. He was not fazed by the existing top class competition, Taj, Oberoi and the ITC groups. They were not going to make the entrance of a newcomer easy of course.
His dream came true in 1986, after facing a lot of challenges (in the pre-liberalisation era getting any permission was a nightmare). Leela Bombay became an instant success. In the next 30 years, the group expanded to 11 luxury hotels, palaces and resorts. Finally, debts mounted and Captain Nair’s sons had to sell the properties and are left with Leela Mumbai. To his friends, family and employees, he was someone who dreamt big, and built bigger, says Karkaria, “never overthinking; walking with kings and being kind to ordinary people.”
Karkaria’s racy, entertaining and very readable book, brings alive his many lives.
Capture the Dream: The Many Lives of Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair; Bachi Karkaria, Juggernaut, ₹799.
The reviewer is a journalist and writer based in Chennai.