Über-hotelier, debonair and dog lover, Habib Rehman in his own words is a mandatory read for managers and adventurers
Those who know Habib Rehman, the iconic visionary of India’s cuisine and hospitality industry, will not be surprised that Chapter 9 of his memoir, Borders to Boardroom, is headlined ‘Genghis Khan and the Leadership Capacity’. Don’t be alarmed, by either Habib or Genghis.
The Great Khan’s reputation was mutilated by the vanquished, who sought petty comfort in destroying the image of a warrior they could not defeat. It will probably surprise you to learn that Genghis was a passionate environmentalist, whose adoration of nature was religious in intensity. Or that a key to his management of vast armies was innovative internal communication.
Habib Rehman’s reputation, however, is safe, for three good reasons. His gentle, incisive sense of humour offers glimpses of a brilliant mind and teasing temperament, rather than ferocity. Second: those who have suffered the occasional whiplash of his discipline know that there is nothing personal. He believes justice is the lifeblood of command; and that collective, or corporate, interest must always take precedence over sentiment.
Third, Habib Rehman has had the good sense to do something which Genghis Khan never did: write an autobiography. His candour disarms a foe and strengthens a friend. The apposite word perhaps is not ‘candour’, but the Urdu term ‘khuloos’. Candour is a decision made by the mind; khuloos is a decision made from the heart.
Habib’s heart was shaped by the genes of Hyderabad, as he proclaims, proudly. Born into an aristocratic family (12 bedrooms and many living spaces in a home designed by Hashmat Raza, the first Hyderabadi to qualify from the Royal Institute of British Architecture), Habib has replanted the city wherever he has lived, whether in a jungle on the Assam-China border as a young Army officer, or in the beautiful haveli he has built in the heart of Delhi as a gift to himself.
Fine cuisine and mellifluous poetry are the stable bookends of that stellar collection of nuances that comprise the culture of old Hyderabad. Both, food for the body and for the soul, required high artistry. As Habib recalls, the destiny of the state’s rulers, the Nizams, originated in food. The first, Asaf Jah (to use a convenient abbreviation for a much more muscular name), was on his way from Delhi to the Deccan, to take charge as governor, when he stopped to pay his respects to Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi, and ate seven pieces of kulcha during the meal he was offered. The saint blessed him with a prediction: Asaf Jah would become an independent ruler, and his dynasty would last for seven generations. And so it did. The sixth Nizam, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, was a connoisseur of whiskies, and the seventh, Osman Ali Khan, a hard-boiled miser who decided the menu for his palace each morning; but it takes all sorts to make a dynasty.
What was common were enduring social principles, tameez, tehzeeb and tamaddun (manners, culture and civilisation).
His life as a child is brilliantly described. For me, this is the best part of the book: the subtle tensions within an extended family; the creative energy of the kitchen juiced out by children in droll verse (Khichdi ke chaar yaar; Kheema, ghee, papad, achaar); the excitement of living through sudden and rapid change, and watching, without always being fully conscious of the transition, the past evaporate from his father Fidabhai’s life. One paragraph of very dry wit says more than many a book might do: ‘When my father bought a new wristwatch on an impulse, we could not fathom why, because he never cared to wear it, but he made sure he passed the old one on to me. It turned out to be a liability for me. People would keep asking me for the time.’
Habib Rehman started his own phase as an adult with a rich bank of memories, but, thanks to the abolition of zamindari and indolent management, not much of a bank account. And local nobs considered work a bit below their dignity. Habib left his family half-aghast and half-distraught when at 18 he opted to join the Indian Army. His abiding affection for the Army shines through the book, and the lessons he learnt shaped his management approach: honesty, dedication, innovation, and loyalty to comrades.
Always and ever a gentleman, he joined the Mahar Regiment as an officer, and was soon posted to a spot called Hanker north of Dibrugarh in Assam, on the frontier with China, still warm after the scalding war of 1962. It took four days by train from Hyderabad to Tinsukia; then another two and half by Army convoy; ending with a ten-day march to the forward post. Food, often, was a matter of luck, ingenuity and hunting. He caught fish with mosquito nets; sucked blood from a guide to draw out the venom of a viper bite and then roasted the snake. It was a good meal. When you were with your men, there were no distinctions in food, sleep and prayer.
Health did not permit a longer stay in the Army; and chance brought him to hotels. Most of the book, understandably, is about an astonishing series of achievements in the hospitality business, which matured from uncertainty to triumph through a fine blend of imagination and respect for the balance sheet. This is a book for both managers and adventurers.
It is obligatory to declare an interest: Habib Rehman is a close friend, but puff is not on any menu that we would appreciate. I would not exaggerate about either Habib Rehman or Genghis Khan.
What evidence do I have that Genghis Khan was a wizard in communications? He divided his army into 60 divisions of 1,000 each when he went on his epic march to China. The great problem was that the simplest order could get totally distorted in transmission by the time it reached the 60th unit through word-of-mouth if even a syllable shifted at each stage. Genghis Khan decided to send his orders in simple rhymes, because we remember poetry far more accurately than prose. This might be a good anecdote for Habib to include in his next book.
(MJ Akbar is the author of several books and a pioneer of modern English journalism in India)
MY EFFORTS to uplift Indian cuisine and give our hotels an Indian personality in the shadow of ITC’s resurgence under Yogi after a series of setbacks, were seen in certain important quarters as worthy of a Padma award. The then cabinet secretary, T.R. Prasad, even announced at a dinner function that the year’s list of Padma awardees had been finalised and my name was on it. The announcement, he said, was a mere formality. In 2000, Padma awards for industry, much less the hospitality sector, were hard to come by. Several powerful lobbies, unable to stomach the fact that I was going to be the first hospitality professional and among the early few top business executives to be given a Padma award, got active to keep me out of the list. On being tipped off, I made resolute efforts to reinstate my award, but I was up against a combination of powerful lobbies acting in concert.
In August 2006, the Ministry of Tourism very kindly approached me to seek my consent to be nominated for the second time for the Padma award. I thanked the ministry and declined the privilege for reasons best known to myself. I am happy, though, that subsequently, the hospitality sector has finally got its due and hoteliers of the eminence of Sushil Gupta, P.R.S. Oberoi, late Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair and Priya Paul have been honoured with the Padma award. My setback did not stop me from continuing to remain a votary of giving Indian cuisine its place in the sun, nor did it prevent me from developing hotels that have become landmarks in their respective cities. These have been my biggest award.