I FIRST MET PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi in 2000—23 years ago, at the Amar Vilas in Agra. He was on the board of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and I was their strategic adviser. I was asked by Jean-Claude Baumgarten, then secretary of the WTTC, to meet Biki and I was ushered into his suite where his partner, Reena Barooah, and he were sipping some fine Bloody Marys. I had never met the man before, but of course heard legendary tales of his attention to detail, and so on. It was almost as if we were destined to meet. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship replete with anecdotes and life lessons that are unimaginable. We travelled quite often to hotel openings and to weddings; we sat for hours at his farmhouse in Kapashera; we gorged on simple Punjabi fare such as bhindi and dal (he was essentially a simple Punjabi at heart) at his home; we exchanged notes on how things needed to be done, going to the extent of measuring the height of the vase that was placed on tables so as not to interrupt the cross-gaze of the diners; I remember writing a piece entitled ‘Will someone please kill my Butler’ for Condé Nast Traveller: weeks after it was published, I started getting calls from some folks working at The Oberoi saying that Biki had got the article circulated for all his staff to read. I can’t even begin to count the number of ideas we exchanged and if there was anything he saw merit in, it was implemented with a nice letter to me expressing his thanks.
Biki was not the easiest person to be with. Reena handled him with affection and aplomb. She was a companion, nurse and raconteur all rolled into one, which is why Biki became half the man when Reena died two years ago. The level of fastidiousness in Biki is something that books should be written about. We often chatted about how the hotel industry was becoming a cookie-cutter— people with no idea of luxury were now the mandarins at many such chains. Biki’s past is what made him into the man he was. He started working only when he was about 50 years old. And prior to that, he was a man of the world. Travelling the globe, being the wild bachelor, and savouring life as it should be. We referred odd things to each other. I remember telling him about Huntsman & Sons, the tailor at Savile Row to which his response was “Did you tell them which side your jewels rest?” Now, if you didn’t go to Huntsman, you would never know. He referred me to The Carlyle in New York—in those days, you couldn’t book a room at The Carlyle unless someone who stayed there referred you. It was at The Carlyle that I rediscovered the world of Dirty Martinis and Woody Allen.
Biki was also over-anal about everything. I still remember the night of 26/11 when he left The Oberoi Nariman Point to go to Taj Lands End to receive the ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ award from EY. And as the Mumbai terror attack unfolded that night, so did the trauma surrounding Biki. Many months later, when The Oberoi reopened, few knew how many times it was ripped apart and redone. But then, this was the mettle of the man who made The Oberoi Group what it is.
In many ways, Jamsetji Tata was the luxury pioneer in the hotel industry. At the same time, Biki Oberoi converted a family enterprise into a valuable chain, thus doing so much more for Brand India.
I still remember attending an industry award function where he was being honoured and when asked to speak about himself, he began by saying he was, and shall remain, a humble innkeeper.
His feel for the extraordinary was special. His love for technology grew over the years and his ability to predict guest evolution was bang-on. He prided himself on being someone whose life was devoted to the chain he had inherited but turned into the epitome of elegance
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What is little known is the pain he went through to establish the concept of Indian luxury. The Vilas’ (unlike the real palaces of the Taj) were created from scratch—they were the epitome of luxury then, and people hadn’t savoured this kind of luxury in India. Many mistakenly thought that it would be unaffordable—it was, but only for the average Indian. The foreigner loved it. And was willing to pay top-dollar only because Biki didn’t create hotels. He created (and curated) experiences. When the first luxury-tented accommodation came up in Raj Vilas, people baulked but then got used to the unrivalled desert-luxury experience. With a great eye comes a great sense of execution and Biki, to the very end, was disdainful of hosting weddings and the proverbial band, baaja, baraat. He was the ultimate believer in the adage that a hotel first belongs to those who live there and is not merely a banqueting space. This helped pitch the brand even higher. When India was barely able to spell truffles, Biki introduced truffle menus. He was always ahead of the game and his dictum was that in order to please the guest, we must invent desire.
His quirks were many, and his micro-management legendary. In many ways, he was that giant banyan tree in whose shade very little grew. But then people respected him for that. To the very end, he worked long hours—answering every call and replying to every letter himself. For many, the Oberoi School was not just a training ground for those who would ultimately work at The Oberoi Group, it was an alumni of excellence bound by their common love and passion for fine innkeeping.
He will always be remembered as India’s finest hotelier. His feel for the extraordinary was special. His love for technology grew over the years and his ability to predict guest evolution was bang-on. I can’t for the life of me remember another hotelier who stood like a colossus as Biki did. Sure, there were people like Ajit Kerkar, but none to match the grace and style of Biki Oberoi.
He prided himself on being someone whose life was devoted to the chain he had inherited from his legendary father MS Oberoi, but one which he turned into the epitome of elegance.
For the many who worked for him, the memories of this exacting boss will live with them forever as will with us who were lucky to have him as a friend. His empathy was remarkable as was his short fuse. But then geniuses have their own sets of flaws from which they can only impart the good and the memorable. Biki was one such genius.
I will miss his late-night calls, his wise counsel, and above all, his friendship.