The insider with an outsider's perspective: Habib Rehman's autobiography documents a fascinating life

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 15, 2014 15:39 IST

For much of its early history, ITC Hotels was no more than India's also-ran hotel chain. Bombay had the Taj and Delhi had the Oberoi. Both these chains so completely dominated the hospitality business, that ITC never really found its place in the top rank. Of its properties, the Chola in Madras was never in the same league as the Taj Coromandel. And though the Maurya opened in Delhi at roughly the same time as the Taj, it never had anything like the same impact.

Habib Rehman was never a hotelier. He joined ITC Hotels from the army so, even when he became an insider, he retained an outsider's perspective and detachment. His autobiography is important not just because it documents a fascinating life but because it explains why a collection of mainly Punjabi managers stolen from ITDC and the Oberoi could never match the flair of Bikki Oberoi and Ajit Kerkar and create a world-class chain.

Though he does not specifically say so, Rehman suggests that part of the problem was Ajit Haksar ITC's legendary chairman. In Rehman's retelling, Haksar never quite got it. When the Oberoi-ITDC managers failed he stole Ramesh Johar from the Taj along with two dozen chefs and managers, creating further chaos within ITC. Because hotels were Haksar's baby, his successors, such as JN Sapru took little interest in the hotels division.

Things only began to change in the second half of the 1980s, when Yogi Deveshwar took charge of the hotels division and with Rehman by his side turned the hotels around to the extent that the hotels division is now one of ITC's flagships.

This is an honest book. Rehman recalls how demoralised everyone at the Maurya felt when the new Taj Palace seemed to zoom ahead and how difficult it was to restore the spirit of the hotels division and push ITC Hotels into the big league. He does not skimp on the unflattering stories (such as the man who found insects in the food at Bukhara) and actively plays down many of his own achievements giving the bulk of the credit to Deveshwar.

But it is a story with a happy ending. By the time Rehman stepped down in 2009, he had achieved what he set out to do and the Maurya was the haunt of such celebrities as Bill Clinton. And yes, Clinton did walk into Bukhara unannounced, Rehman confirms. He did order every single item on the menu. And then he ordered every dish again!

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