Pursuit of Happiness

Soldiering on

CP Krishnan Nair has worn several hats in his 90 years: soldier, businessman, hotelier and always, patriot

There should be a viable business in selling Captain CP Krishnan Nair’s diet. Or the philosophy by which he lives his life. Because even at 90, the chairman of Leela Hotels, not only has the energy of a man less than half his age, but also the cheerful enthusiasm and optimism that most people forget by the time they are nine. We meet at the Royal Club, New Delhi, the Leela’s new property. Nair extricates himself from a meeting of the top brass of the hotel including Dinesh Nair, his son, and Rajiv Kaul, vice chairman, the more public face of the group. We sit down to tea and with the murmur of hospitality industry strategy, including how to attract the 1.5 million Russian tourists, buzzing behind us, get talking. 

Though the Leela Group, which Nair started at 66, is the most visible of his enterprises, he spent most of his working life building a garment and textile business. Amid the gloom of slowing growth and corrupt governments, Nair is still optimistic. “We have some problems. We haven’t grown at the pace we should have. But the future is bright. Even in my business, we have 100% occupancy in most of our hotels  and 60-70% occupancy in this new property,” he says.

What the otherwise calm and ebullient Nair bristles at, however, is the extensive cynicism his countrymen are spouting. The morning’s papers quote the head of a large Indian conglomerate saying he is forced to look outside India to invest in new businesses. “How can you say that? You may be a businessman, but shouldn’t you be a patriot first?” he asks.

This is a running theme of Nair-think, an unquestioning loyalty to his nation. Perhaps this is because he was a military man until he got married and his wife Leela suggested he quit a job that largely involved saluting people. His father-in-law was a large textile manufacturer and Nair began marketing textiles. He set up his own manufacturing units later. The first hotel came out of a casual conversation about the potential of land he had acquired in Andheri before Mumbai’s international airport came up.

Once Nair finishes working on the next property in Chennai [his eighth], he will move to the new business of managing hotels. “We have six hotels that are interested. I will get busy with that,” he says. 

Talk of retirement is clearly redundant. Will he even slow down now that he is a nonagenarian? “I have a job to do,” he exclaims. But adds, “Age has its own inflictions. I eat simple meals and exercise for an hour a day.” His sons insist that he take it easy. And tell him that when he is travelling, he should make sure he goes with the company president. “But I tell them no. I can do this by myself. I am a soldier.”