C. P. Krishnan Nair looks and acts every bit the army captain he once was. He walks ramrod straight. He dresses neatly and fastidiously, paying attention to every item and accouterment of his attire, choosing carefully from gaily colored and well tailored suits from Italy, the United States and Britain. He invariably wears what Britons call braces and the more sartorially plebian Americans refer to as suspenders. He looks you directly in the eye. He speaks firmly and fluently.
Everybody calls him "Captain." Some call him "Chairman." Very few would venture to call him by his first name, even though he's tickled pink when close friends say "Krishnan." The name, he says, always bring to mind the way his parents addressed him. However, as an author writing his biography who's spent a year following him around, I have never taken the liberty of calling him by his first name -- nor has he invited me to.
Most people think he's of uncertain age, and it's easy to assume that the yoga and rigorous exercise he undertakes daily explain his unlined face and vigorous handshake. Very few people are able to ascertain that Captain Nair, in fact, marked his 93rd birthday this past February 9.
If you believe in astrology, Captain Nair's February birthday makes him an Aquarius, according to the Western zodiac.
According to the literature, such people are always in pursuit of excitement; Aquarius-born folks love to make people laugh as it makes them feel good about themselves. Most people feel nourished by a session with him. In their conversations with him, most people get the impression that, like Aquarius-born folks, Captain Nair would love to do whatever he could to make the world a better place. He is, in a manner of speaking, a natural philanthropist and humanitarian.
He's also, in a definite manner of speaking, an enormously curious man who, like many Aquarians, constantly searches for intellectual stimulation. You could run through each letter of the alphabet and come up with a subject with which Captain Nair is well acquainted. The man has read exhaustively; but even more importantly for him, he engages everyone who meets him in lively conversation. There are great yields for him in such encounters -- he absorbs new information, he obtains tidbits of knowledge, and, yes, he soaks up gossip.
As the literature also suggests about Aquarians, routine bores Captain Nair. Not only does he come up with inventive ideas in his business, his body language suggests a certain impatience with the status quo. If an Aquarius gives his word, he will stick to it. Captain Nair's loyalty to his colleagues and associates gains him an enduring place in people's hearts and minds.
He can be stubborn, of course, and sometimes he can be downright obstinate. It's not easy to convince an Aquarius to change his points of view, and this certainly applies to Captain Nair, as his subordinates will tell you -- although not within his earshot.
And he can show flashes of temper -- as his subordinates will also tell you, and this, too, not within his earshot.
So who is this C. P. Krishnan Nair?
He was born into a rural family of modest means. 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 into 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, and V. P. Menon. At the insistence of his wife, Leela, he 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 multibillion-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 -- who'd been the mastermind of the consolidation of princely states into the modern Indian polity -- 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 a huge debt that is being currently restructured.
Does that worry him?
"I didn't necessarily enter this business only for profit," Captain Nair says. "I wanted to put India on the world map in the hotel business. That has happened, I think."
He was 65 years old when he launched The Leela hotels in Mumbai. Captain Nair often remembers that when his family had asked for the hand of his wife-to-be, Leela, in their native town of Kannur in Kerala, an astrologer had predicted that the young man would multiply by thousands the kind of wealth Leela's family already enjoyed.
More predictions, anyone? Captain Nair, the Aquarian, is always game to make good things happen.