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Mohan Singh Oberoi: From Homeless to Hotelier

Gita Piramal, managing editor, The Smart Manager, was researching India's industrialists when she met Mohan Singh Oberoi (1900-2002) for the first time. It was 1982 and he was no longer a young man. Courtly as always, he offered to make her job easier. He would write a note on himself, which she could use as background material. The note arrived a week later, lay among her notes for the next twenty years, and is reproduced here as a tribute to India's greatest hotelier. The Oberoi Group, founded in 1934, owns and manages thirty hotels and five luxury cruisers across six countries under the Oberoi and Trident brands. The activities of the Group include airline catering, management of restaurants and airport bars, travel and tour services, car rentals, project management and corporate air charters. Oberoi passed away on May 3, 2002.

Rediff, Oct. 21, 2005

Photo: Mohan Singh Oberoi

I was born on August 15, 1900 in a small village, Bhaun, in district Jhelum, which now forms a part of Pakistan. The story of my life has been, in many ways, a dramatic one - full of difficulties and hardships in earlier days and later a spectacular rise to the position I now hold.

But this was not achieved without incessant toil and a daily fight against tremendous odds. Yet it was a challenge to prove myself. When I look back to those days, as I sometimes do in moments of leisure, I am thankful that I was able to accept this challenge and make good.

These reflections also make me feel humble for I realise that it was with God's help that I achieved what the world calls 'success.'

My father, Shri A.S. [Attar Singh] Oberoi was a contractor in Peshawar. He died when I was only six months old. The family consisted of my mother [Bhagwanti, the daughter of a moneylender] and myself. My earlier days were spent in the little village of my birth. I began my education at the village school. Later, I was sent to the nearby town of Rawalpindi and enrolled in the D.A.V. school from where I matriculated.

After this I went to Lahore to join college and passed my intermediate examination. My studies were cut short as our already meagre finances began to dwindle. This was a moment of anxiety in my life as I realised that my qualifications would not get me a job.

However, at the suggestion of a friend, I went to Amritsar, stayed with him, and took a course in shorthand and typing.

There was still no job for me on the horizon and I decided to get back to my village, where it would be easier to live than in a big city. There followed a point of waiting and frustration. My uncle helped me to get a job in the Lahore Shoe Factory. My work was to supervise the manufacture and sale of shoes.

For a while things looked brighter but the star of ill-luck was still in the ascendant and soon the factory was closed down for lack of finances and I was compelled to return to my village.

In India the importance attached to marriage is beyond all reason. Here I was: penniless, jobless and almost friendless. But in spite of these very real disadvantages, my marriage was arranged with [Ishran Devi] the daughter of Shri Ushnak Rai, who belonged to my village. I think my bright looks may have influenced my father-in-law. [By this point Oberoi, a Sikh, had cut his hair and shaved off his beard, creating a minor scandal in his family.]

I like to think that in spite of other shortcomings I was a smart lad and he probably assessed that I would make good. The days immediately following my marriage were spent with my in-laws in Sargodha.

On my return to Bhaun a virulent plague epidemic had broken out. My mother told me that since I could not do anything to help in such a situation I should go back to Sargodha and not risk my life.

Plague in those days was a terrible killer and people naturally dreaded an epidemic, which often wiped out villages. Sadly, I left full of apprehension about my future.

In this mood of depression, I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for the post of a junior clerk in a government office. With Rs. 25 in my pocket, which my mother had given me, I left for Simla to appear for the examination.

Unprepared as I was, I was unable to pass. This did not lessen my depression. My time was now spent walking around Simla and rambling in the countryside. Being the summer seat of the government of India, the town itself was full of high-ranking officers and members of the Viceroy's Council.

But the hillsides, beyond officialdom, were beautiful and there were many walks where one could be alone with one's thoughts.

One day, as I was passing the Hotel Cecil, I suddenly had the urge to go in and try my luck. Those were the days when this hotel was one of India's leading hotels, high class and elegant. It was owned by the line of Associated Hotels of India.

As I entered, I found the manager himself in the foyer. I did not know who he was but one becomes bold in the face of difficulties. I had nothing to lose, so I went up and asked if I could have a job at the hotel.

The manager was a kindly English gentleman named D.W. Grove. I was given the post of billing clerk at Rs. 40 a month. Soon, my salary was raised to Rs. 50.

At my request, on the plea of being married, I was also given living quarters. These were situated on the outer periphery of the hotel and were very humble indeed. When my wife joined me in Simla, we started to settle down in our modest home.

Here we were faced with the necessity of cleaning the place ourselves. The quarters were in bad shape and far from clean. But we were thankful to have a roof over our heads.

We had to whitewash the walls ourselves, causing blisters on my hands and consequent discomfort and embarrassment for me in the hotel work.

Soon after I joined the Cecil there was a change of management. Mr. Clarke succeeded Mr. Grove as manager. For the first time a small piece of luck came my way.

My knowledge of stenography helped me take over the post of cashier and stenographer to Mr. Clarke, and thus began my grounding on how hotels run. I worked and maintained an interest in my job. The fact that I knew my efforts were noted encouraged me.

It was while I was working in this capacity that Pandit Motilal Nehru came to stay at the Cecil, which was his usual place of residence when he came to Simla. He was then leader of the newly formed Swaraj Party but known throughout the country for having renounced a princely law practice to participate in the freedom movement with Mahatma Gandhi.

Panditji had an important report, which needed to by typed speedily and with care. I sat up all night to complete the report and when I delivered it to him the next morning he took out a hundred rupee note and handed it to me with a word of thanks.

I am an emotional person and had received little kindness in my short life. This gesture of Panditji's brought tears to my eyes and I quickly left the room.

I could not have guessed then that I had met the father of the future prime minister of India, and that I myself would one day be a member of parliament during his leadership. One hundred rupees, which the wealthy throw away, was for me a fortune and made a big difference in my salary.

So high was the purchasing power of the rupee that I was able to buy a wristwatch for my wife, clothes for our baby, and a much needed raincoat for myself.

In 1924, Mr. Clarke decided to go into the hotel business for himself. His contract with the Associated Hotels of India had just ended. He obtained a catering contract for the Delhi Club and asked me if I could join him. I readily accepted the offer. My salary was now Rs. 100.

The Delhi Club contract was only for a year and Mr. Clarke soon began looking around for new business. The Carlton Hotel in Simla was in liquidation. Mr. Clarke was eager to lease it but guarantors were required.

Here I was able to help and thus discharge a part of the moral debt, which his kindness and consideration in the past had placed upon me.

I approached some of my relatives and friends who had means to assist with their cooperation. The Clarkes Hotel in Simla was opened. After five years, Mr. Clarke decided to retire and sell out the hotel. He made me an offer saying he would prefer someone who could maintain the tradition and efficiency of the hotel to run it.

Acceptance meant that I would have to mortgage my few assets and my wife's jewellery in order to raise the necessary funds. However, I did not hesitate long.

The opportunity seemed almost a godsend, as we Indians are a superstitious people. I took over the proprietorship of Clarkes Hotel with the help of a kind uncle who had stood by me in the past. I was now established in the hotel business.

It is a strange coincidence that nearly every turn in my life has been associated with an epidemic of some sort. In 1933 there had been a cholera epidemic of vast proportions in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The Grand Hotel had been closed ever since, as more than a hundred foreign guests had died. People were afraid to visit Calcutta.

I happened to see the advertisement placed by the liquidators and immediately decided to take over the hotel if I could get in on low leasehold.

The price asked was Rs. 10,000 rent a month plus compensation for the goodwill. In return I demanded compensation for the ill-will generated by the hotel.

The rent was then dropped to Rs. 7,000 a month. I agreed to this figure and had the place cleaned up and refurnished. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Calcutta was full of troops. The British Army was frantically trying to find accommodation.

I immediately improvised 1,500 beds for the troops at Rs. 10 per head for board and lodging. I also appointed Mr. Grove, who had been my first employer at the Cecil Hotel where he had engaged me on Rs. 50 a month, on a monthly salary of Rs. 1,500.

Taking over a cholera-ridden hotel had been a landmark in my career. The fact that I converted it and helped the Army in a time of stress and difficulty had come to the notice of the government. In 1941, I was awarded the title of Rai Bahadur by the government of India in recognition of the services to the Indian hotel industry.

From now on my good luck was assured and gradually I went on increasing the scope of my activities with, I hope, benefit to many and much fulfilment to myself. Everything I did prospered.

In 1943, I bought out the controlling shareholdings of Associated Hotels of India Limited from Spencer & Company borrowing capital against the security of shares of the same company. In this way, I gained control over a big chain of hotels with establishments in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Lahore, Muree and Delhi.

I employed as one of my general managers, the son of my former boss in Simla, Mr. Falleti. The wheel had turned full circle. I gradually added more hotels to my chain in Darjeeling, Chandigarh and Kashmir. I began to think of building my own hotels, and the first attempt was a small hotel in Gopalpur-on-Sea, in Orissa.

India was now independent. Horizons had widened. I began to feel the world was my oyster - that I could succeed in anything I attempted. Fortunately, I also realised that it was not good enough to keep launching new ventures if old ones were allowed to suffer. Too often efficiency and high standards once established are taken for granted.

This is a great mistake and my constant aim has been to preserve the reputation of my hotels at the highest possible level. This pays many kinds of dividends. I was elected president of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India in April 1955, and in 1960. I was made president of honour of the Federation for life.

My thoughts turned to politics. India was forging ahead. By the grace of God and my own continuous efforts, I had established myself in the profession of my choice. I felt I must enlarge the scope of my activities.

My main interest was building India amongst the top most countries in hotel expertise, also providing employment for improving the quality of life and helping the young.

I contested the Rajya Sabha election in 1962 and was successful. In 1967, I stood for election to the Lok Sabha and won with a majority of over 46,000 votes - not a bad record for a newcomer in politics.

I was able to open the Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel in 1965 - a joint venture with Intercontinental Hotels Corporation and Pan American. Before this event could take place there were years of work and what sometimes seemed innumerable difficulties. The reward for my labour comes through the fact that this hotel has become one of the most prestigious establishments in India.

My hotels continued to expand. Some people refer to them as my empire. A hotel is a small nation in itself and a chain does perhaps merit the name of empire. This empire is not an imperialistic one, but rather based on the idea of rendering service. This has always been my wish and my endeavour.

The latest additions are in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Gulf area, Egypt, and Africa. I must not forget to mention the 550-room Oberoi Sheraton in Bombay, going up to 30 floors - the tallest building in India.

This has been no mean achievement for a village boy who left his plague-infested village in search of a job.