Home/ Specials / Obituaries/  An appreciation: Capt. C. P. Krishnan Nair

I am going to miss him terribly. There was a gift that I had planned to give him soon – a biography of his extraordinary life – but now I will not get the chance to show him my book. He was very excited that I was writing about him, and that enthusiasm was so infectious that I could scarcely wait to complete the big book.

But books like this take time, and in the end the clock ran out on both subject and biographer. I so wanted to see the expression on his face when he would take a look at the first copy published by HarperCollins. I so wanted him to read my interpretation of his long years of enterprise, philanthropy and humanitarianism. Maybe he will get to read the book wherever he is, after all, but it may not be in my presence.

Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair, who died Saturday of natural causes at Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai at the age of 92, always looked and acted every bit the army captain he once was. He dressed neatly and fastidiously, paying attention to every item and accouterment of his attire. He looked you directly in the eye. He spoke firmly and fluently, sometimes interjecting his native Malayalam into English to emphasize a point.

Everybody called him “Captain." Some called him “Chairman." Very few would venture to call him by his first name. The name, he said, always brought to his mind the way his parents addressed him when he was growing up in the small town of Kannur in northern Kerala. However, as an author writing his biography who’d spent a year following him around India, I never took the liberty of calling him by his first name – nor did he invite me to. As business titans sometimes are wont to do, Captain Nair would raise an invisible barrier around himself that one could circumambulate but not break through.

Among other things, I will miss Captain Nair because Aquarius-born folks love to make people laugh as it made them feel good about themselves. Like most people who were privileged to spend time with the Captain, I felt nourished by a session with him.

He was an enormously curious man who, like many Aquarians, constantly searched for intellectual stimulation. You could run through each letter of the alphabet and come up with a subject with which Captain Nair was well acquainted. The man read exhaustively; but even more importantly for him, he engaged everyone who met him in lively conversation. There were great yields for him in such encounters – he absorbed new information, he obtained tidbits of knowledge, and – yes – he soaked up gossip.

Of course, he could be a tough man to deal with, and not a man to be crossed. He was willing to forgive – or even overlook – a transgression or two on the part of his executives. But there was in his mind a line that simply couldn’t be crossed. He was also not easy to please. He micromanaged. He scanned every line of a ledger sheet. He scrutinized every publicity document. And, with his command of the English language, Captain Nair invariably improved the end product.

So who was this Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair?

He was born into a rural family of modest means in the village of Alavil Kunnavil. He was the fifth son of Appu Nair and Madhavi Amma; he had eight siblings, but two died soon after birth. After winning a life scholarship at the age of 10 from the Maharaja of Chirakkal in north Kerala, Nair obtained his education in Madras. He then became an aide — at the age of 14 — of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and came into close contact with Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and other leaders of India’s Freedom Movement. As a teenager, he was even put in jail by the British. These early experiences made Nair determined to make a contribution to the development of a free India.

After enlisting in the army’s Maratha Light Regiment, Nair rose to rank of captain, and was later befriended by giants such as Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British Viceroy and later the first Governor General of Independent India; and by V. P. Menon, the civil servant who was responsible for corralling various princely states into the Indian polity. At the insistence of his wife, Leela, Nair left the army in order to promote his father-in-law’s textile business. He transformed that Kerala-based business into a successful national handloom enterprise.

His success in reviving India’s handloom industry emboldened Nair to launch an export business. He invented “Bleeding Madras" textiles – which became the rage in the United States – and also sparked what would become a multi-billion-dollar garment export industry. His textile company, Leela Scottish Lace, became one of the most prosperous enterprises of its kind in India.

Nair himself is credited with being the “father" of globalization of India’s garment and textiles industries. He overcame thickets of bureaucratic and governmental regulations through a canny mix of intuition, charm, guile and foresight. His friendships with stars such as Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and the Rajmata of Gwalior made him a celebrity – and attracted more business for his fabrics.

Acting on an idea that his “uncle" V. P. Menon had once planted in his mind, Nair started The Leela Group of Palaces, Hotels and Resorts. Bankers were unwilling to lend him money at first. But Nair persisted. Today, his eight super-luxury properties are considered among the world’s finest. More hotels are being built across India and abroad. But these are uncertain days for the hospitality industry in India, and The Leela hotels have huge debt that is being currently restructured.

Did that mountain of debt – Rs4,000 crore – worry him?

“I didn’t necessarily enter this business only for profit," Captain Nair once told me. “I wanted to put India on the world map in the hotel business. That has happened, I think."

It may have happened, but his successors – sons Vivek and Dinesh – are unlikely to retain such a sanguine view. Capital markets are not easy to tap, and the luxury-hotel business in India – as in most developing countries – is often dependent on circumstances beyond its control, which is to say that global economic forces dictate how much disposable income travelers will spend on pricey vacations. The Leela has suffered as much as anyone else in the industry from the decline in high-end tourism from Europe and the United States.

He was 65 years old when he launched The Leela hotels in Mumbai. Captain Nair often recalled that when his family had asked for the hand of his wife-to-be, Leela, in their native Kannur, an astrologer had predicted that the young man would multiply by thousands the kind of wealth Leela’s family already enjoyed.

It was in late June 2013 that I flew from my base in Dubai to Captain Nair’s native town of Kannur. We wound up spending more than a month there, enjoying the balmy breezes of the Arabian Sea, and driving through what remained of the old town where he’d grown up. “Kannur was a town of maidans – fields – which lay spread like the skies," Nair said to me. “Large assemblies and protests to do with India’s freedom struggle took place in these venues. If one were to put one’s ears to the ground here today, one might hear the old rumbles again."

Our conversational sessions weren’t continuous. There were many seafood meals to be had, interspersed with collations of savories. Most of all, there were many visits by townspeople who’d heard that Captain Nair was in town and wanted to pay their respects.

Paying respects to him did not mean merely exchanging greetings in Malayalam. Each encounter was long – at least half an hour – and so I waited patiently as these old friends chatted happily and reminisced. Occasionally they acknowledged my presence and helpfully translated the gist of their conversations. There was general agreement that, beyond its beautiful coastline, Kannur was no longer what it used to be; it had become a noisy town of electronic shops and malls, and traffic had become hazardous. Even the grand old buildings of Nair’s childhood were being torn down to make way for commercial and residential developments. If Kannur had once been pretty, it was certainly no longer so.

As we drove around town in his high-end BMW, Captain Nair himself lamented that the town had been allowed to deteriorate by the local authorities. Pointing to a large pond that was clearly host to swarms of mosquitos, he spoke about his hopes to get it drained and make it attractive for locals to swim in. But he also admitted that these were long-held hopes and that the authorities were the least bit interested in the biology of that pond. “When our development plans take form, there shouldn’t be mutilation of natural resources," Nair said more than once.

He also referred to himself as his hotel group’s “Chief Gardener" on many occasions. Nair was a dedicated environmentalist, and his mornings didn’t feel right to him if he hadn’t strolled a garden wherever he might be. “I’m an environmentalist who actually communes with the environment," he said, and then told me about receiving a major award from the United Nations Environment Programme that was presented by the Emperor of Japan in Tokyo.

When he talked about his numerous awards, Nair didn’t sound boastful. But it was obvious that he enjoyed accolades and appreciation, especially because he viewed himself as entirely a self-made man.

He’s gone now, a fulfilling life richly lived. There will be memorials to him, and there may be a statue or two, and new scholarships for poor students in his name. I will surely attend some of the events celebrating his life. But I will miss not being able to give Captain Nair the story of his life.

Pranay Gupte is an author and veteran international journalist. His biography, “The Captain: C. P. Krishnan Nair and the Globalization of India," will be published by HarperCollins this year.

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Updated: 17 May 2014, 04:47 PM IST
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