I woke up to the sad news that Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi (popularly known as Biki) had passed away aged 94. He had stepped down as executive chairman of the group that runs 32 hotels, with a presence in seven countries, after an astonishing career that had successfully redefined the very meaning of hospitality in India. The word ‘prithvi’ in his name is significant―Oberoi was known as the ultimate hotelier across the world, respected by peers and admired by those in the trade who wanted to be more like the diminutive legend, impeccably dressed at all times in well-cut Savile Row style suits, perfectly set off with elegant ties and pocket squares. Dashing and dynamic, alert and forward–thinking, he was a true bon vivant who recognised the best life had to offer―and was always striving to make that available to his guests at any of the Oberoi Hotels across continents.
Yes, there will be multiple tributes and heartfelt prayers as mourners pay their respects to a lovely man, who had inherited a hotel empire from his father, and had grown it to its very impressive present. Among all the Oberoi hotels I have stayed in over decades, it is the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata that remains special. The 500-room property in the heart of Kolkata―shrewdly acquired by Biki’s father (Rai Bahadur Oberoi) as a distress sale during the cholera epidemic―remains the grandest of all the Oberoi properties, with its old world charm and discreet opulence. I also adore The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla (built in 1884) for much the same reasons―it spells distinction and history in every corner and clearly held sentimental value for Biki, given the wonderful reopening of the heritage hotel in 1997 to which we were invited, along with a few of Biki’s friends from Delhi and overseas. Over a relaxed weekend, we saw the supremely considerate host in Biki, looking after his special mehmaan as only a generous, thoughtful lord of the manor does.
Each time we met Biki, the spontaneous warmth and signature style were on full display. Charming, courteous, sometimes chomping on a cigar, at other times instructing staff to pick up a piece of paper from the vast grounds, here was a man whose attention to detail was mind-boggling. Since the hotels were―and remain―personality-driven, these high standards were non-negotiable and diligently followed by well-trained teams, most of them from the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development (OCLD). Our daughter Anandita had made it to the last round of this highly coveted, strictly merit-driven and frighteningly competitive pan-India programme. It was time for the toughest part of the interview―the walk! This is where nervous aspirants enter a large hall and have to walk its entire length to meet the bossman himself. Biki was known to ask strange questions that had little to do with hospitality. My daughter had mugged up every conceivable response to questions about hotel management, food, service… what she hadn’t factored in was the curve ball Biki threw: “Hello! How are your parents? Do give my regards to your mother.” Anandita candidly replied, “My parents are well… and my mother is waiting for me in the coffee shop downstairs.’’ Biki chuckled and said, “l will come and say hello to her.” Which he did. He also told me how well Anandita had done and I should be proud of her. But she wasn’t selected! Later, we were informed it could have been because Biki felt she was too privileged to take the heat in the kitchen!
I wish I had had the chance to tell him so many years later that Anandita has worked exceedingly hard to strike out on her own―privileges be damned. And, yes, had she made the cut that morning, she would have made him and the group very proud, too.