The Legacy of the Luxury Hotelier

Khushwant Singh


The Birth of Bikki

When Prithvi Raj aka Bikki was born in 1929 in Delhi, the making of the Oberoi story, which he would later stamp with his own distinctive imprimatur, had already started taking shape. Within a span of seven years of arriving in Simla, his father had not only had two more children (sons Tikki and Bikki) but also left a strong impression on the hoteliers in the town. One of them was the Englishman, Ernest Clarke. 

The year was 1927. Clarke, who had taken over as manager of Cecil in place of Grove asked Mohan if he was keen on joining him in a project, which entailed a year’s contract to run the Delhi Club. 

‘With pleasure,’ Mohan had said while adding a ‘sir’ at the end, the power of which he had realized over the last few years. Clarke made a killing on the project, but soon headed back to Shimla to invest in a hotel, which was at the other end of the Mall from Cecil. Mohan followed him back. Though nowhere near the grandeur of the Cecil, Carlton was what Clarkes leased for rupees nine thousand a year and renamed it after himself.  

In 1929, Clarkes Hotel started as a one-man show, but on 17 March 1930 Clarkes made the talented Mohan Singh Oberoi a partner and turned it into a two-man show. Over the years, Mohan had understood (and imbibed) the power of discipline and detail from his British bosses, and was the perfect partner that Clarkes was looking for. That Mohan was very worthy too was proven sooner than later. He not only took Clarkes to higher profits with his hard work, shrewdness and due diligence, he also convinced Clarkes to buy the hotel rather than keep it on lease for which he organized the requisite finances from his mother Bhagwanti’s wealthy associates. Interestingly, this entire saga of organizing funds would also sow the seeds of the Oberoi and the Imperial Hotel (in Delhi) duel in the coming years.

Clarkes Hotel Shimla Clarkes Hotel Shimla

Even though the entire tale of the clash of the two prominent Sikh hoteliers is well chronicled in Mohan Singh Oberoi’s biography Dare to Dream: A Life of M.S. Oberoi written by senior journalist Bachi J. Karkaria, the foundation was made when Sardar Bahadur Narain Singh, who had built Delhi’s majestic Imperial Hotel loaned Rs. 1,35,000 to Mohan Singh under the condition that Clarkes be mortgaged in the name of his son Jagjit. He had underestimated the ability of Mohan Singh Oberoi to make a success of it, as he had advanced the loan with the thought that this would ultimately fall into his son’s kitty. 

While all this was unfolding, Bikki along with his four other siblings (two sisters, Swaraj and Prem) in his growing up days would spend a considerable amount of time between Shimla, Lahore, Bhaun and Delhi. In Shimla, his father ensured that he and his wife Ishran Devi took the children out for a regular stroll on the Mall, and in Bhaun the children would run amok in the wheat fields, running around like free birds. Their grandmother, Bhagwanti would pamper the children who would gorge on bunches of juicy pink loquat and shahtut (mulberry) that grew in plenty in their granduncle’s orchard. 

New opportunity soon took the family to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bikki was sent to St. Paul’s, Darjeeling, an exclusive and expensive school patterned on English lines. Here he would complete his matriculation and prepare the foundation to handle the empire his father was building hotel by hotel, the first coming his way in 1934 in Shimla.


Clarkes, Shimla: 14 August 1934

Gertie Clark, wife of Ernest Clarke had started developing health issues. Because of this she soon convinced her husband to return home for good, which meant an opportunity presented itself for Mohan to seize. He needed no handholding as he was ready to take over the show, which had primarily been his from day one. However, for the takeover he had to raise rupees twenty thousand to buy Ernest Clarke’s share. Obviously, a monumental amount in those days, this was the sum that stood as an impediment between Mohan Singh’s ambition and failure. Ishran Devi, who well recognized her husband’s potential, contributed her bit and forced Mohan to sell her jewellery to fulfill it. Rupees five hundred were what they got of the entire trove and it was clear that the money had to come from elsewhere. They would have to knock the doors of Rai Bahadur Kanchand Kapur of Nahan (in Himachal Pradesh) again. He had helped them earlier when Clarkes, Shimla was bought, and the gentleman, a close associate of his mother would not disappoint them this time too. 

Bundled in Rai Bahadur’s Ford, Mohan Singh Oberoi along with Rai Bahadur’s wife and son Hari Kapur reached Shimla after a grueling night journey with the requisite cash, packed in a cloth bag. 

Under the deed of dissolution dated 14 August 1934, Mohan Singh Oberoi became the sole, absolute and exclusive owner of the business known as Clarkes Hotel, Simla and Delhi. The deed, signed a day before his birthday was the best gift Mohan could present himself with. The gift also set in motion the wheel of the Oberoi juggernaut, for when his daughter had kissed him on his forehead on his birthday, he had made his intentions clear. ‘Just wait bitti, when you grow up, wherever you go, there will be an Oberoi Hotel.’


Bikki’s Talent on Display

Mohan Singh Oberoi knew all along that if there was anyone who could implement his dream, and take it to greater heights, it was his younger son, Bikki. And he was not wrong. His elder son, Tilak Raj Singh aka Tikki had taken to good times way too early in life, which eventually took a toll on him in 1984, when he breathed his last. 

Even though Mohan was way more indulgent with his elder son, he always put more faith in Bikki’s business acumen and abilities, even when Bikki was barely a teenager. And there are enough anecdotes and instances to establish that Bikki showed a keen interest in taking up the same profession his father was building. ‘We didn’t have a place we could call home as we lived in hotels throughout our early life. I didn’t know any other life. In Shimla it used to be either Cecil or Clarkes, in Calcutta it was the Grand, in Delhi, the Imperial and in Lahore, the Falleti,’ says Bikki Oberoi as our conversation soon veers to his education after school and Kolkata where the next Oberoi annexation would happen. And what was annexed was none other than Kolkata’s most plush hotel, the magnificent ‘The Grand’ that his father along with two others, including D.W. Grove, who had first employed Mohan at Cecil, acquired in December of 1938. 

The Grand is perhaps from where Bikki got his first lessons and developed a natural instinct for hoteliering and hospitality. Five times the capacity of Clarkes, the acquisition of The Grand (five hundred rooms) on Chowringhee Road is an epic story in itself. Shut down by the previous owner due to faulty plumbing, which led to an outbreak of cholera in the hotel, the refurbishing, rebuilding of the brand Grand is a case study for any university, and Bikki Baba, which was what the staff called him fondly, was witness to it first-hand. 

This is also the time when the Oberoi philosophy of valuing the staff, the customer, cutting costs but not corners, started taking shape. Though Bikki has rephrased it ‘to cut the waste’, which is always plenty, this philosophy would be soon visible in M.S. Oberoi’s next annexation too. 

Mohan Singh Oberoi, who in 1943 had been bestowed with the coveted title of Rai Bahadur by the British, would capture a territory that would not only catapult him into the big league of hoteliering, but take him on a sentimental journey too. Interestingly, when I ask Bikki as to how his father was bestowed with the title of ‘Rai Bahadur’ and not Sardar Bahadur, he replies with the logic that it was because his father did not sport a turban. 

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘This was the reason that I always thought the Oberois were not Sikhs,’ I add further.

 ‘No, No! We are all very proud Sikhs and I would love to be part of the Global Sikh Trail,’ he remarks, reinforcing his earlier comment, as we move forward with the immensely inspirational Oberoi story.

Khushwant Singh