It’s easy to be disconcerted by Dhiraj Arora. The guy is obsessed with self-help books. In the 90 minutes that we speak, he glides from Brian Tracy to Jack Canfield to Robin Sharma with ease and quotes liberally from each. On the table between us sits a brand new copy of Robin Sharma’s Leadership Wisdom: The 8 Rituals of Visionary Leaders. He claims he doesn’t read much else. Apart from management books, of course, because hey, running restaurants is a tough business and you’ve got to keep up.
For the first quarter of an hour, I keep trying to steer the interview to his weight. My brief is straightforward: Dhiraj Arora, the 36-year-old owner of Delhi’s Shalom bar, is a guy who has dropped 16 kilos because of certain lifestyle changes he made. I want to know his secrets: the crazy diets he’s been on; the mind-boggling workout routines he’s been through; a mention of lauki juice, at the very least."Listen, it’s not just about losing weight," he suddenly says, a tad impatient. "It was a part of a larger exercise of getting everything – my physical, mental and spiritual fitness – back in order." In the dim coolness of Shalom, Dhiraj Arora tells me his story. He speaks with the quiet confidence of a man who has been through hell and emerged stronger on the other side. I listen.
crunch point In 2004, Dhiraj was living the high life in more ways than one. Shalom had just been opened to great acclaim (“I wanted to do a place where you could just sit and unwind with a drink, you know. I was sick of rowdy places; back then, going to a bar meant getting drunk”). The Mediterranean fare it dished out was a hit; business was going through the roof; and in the next two years, Dhiraj opened ten restaurants all over Delhi (and two in Goa to boot).
It was also when he weighed a modest 75 kg, ideal for his 5-foot 9-inch frame. “That was the best year of my life!” he recalls. “I sampled everything at all the restaurants I owned: pizzas and pastas at our Italian joints, dal makhni at our Indian ones…” Of course it was all too good to be true. Two years later, he was down with tuberculosis. And that was only the beginning. Internal partner issues, leases running out and restaurants not performing well – tuberculosis wasn’t the only thing bleeding Dhiraj. “Shalom, fortunately, was still doing well,” he says. “But everyone around me had given up. Restaurants that had opened with great fanfare had to be shut down. My family life was a mess and my kids (now 11 and 8) were really small. It was a time of turmoil.”
By the end of 2009, he had shut down 80 per cent of his businesses across the country. Then, the pounds piled up. In a matter of months, Dhiraj shot up from 75 kg to 91. “Eating healthy and exercising was the last thing on my mind,” he says. It’s human nature: when you hit a crunch point like that, sorting out the mess comes first. Family and health come a distant second. “I was incredibly lethargic and severely depressed,” says Dhiraj. “I was just… you know, pulling myself through each day.” Later that year came a moment of epiphany.
The awakening Two, actually. The first happened at a cousin’s wedding. “I was talking to people about twice my age,” recalls Dhiraj. “After a few minutes, I realised I had to sit. I was overweight and lethargic and just not… fit. It was very disturbing. I kept telling myself ‘I can’t even stand with my family members. What have I done to myself?’”The second one was when he chanced upon a copy of Brian Tracy’s bestselling tome, Crunch Point, in which the motivational speaker and self-help guru talks about bouncing back from the lowest point in your life. "It was an eye-opener," says Dhiraj. "That was the first self-help book I’d ever read and I actually tried to apply everything I read to my real life. There was a point when I realised that Tracy made so much sense that if I didn’t follow his book, I would bleed to death in every aspect of my life, starting with my finances."
This is the philosophy Dhiraj came up with: your emotional health, your physical health and your spiritual health are what make up 99 per cent of your financial health. As long as you keep the first three in good shape, the last should take care of itself. “I think of self-help more like self-realisation. Drastic transformations like these rarely come through someone else’s guidance alone.” It was time to bounce back.
How he got his life got back on track
He got back in shape: This was the first thing on the agenda. “What good was my business wisdom going to be at 50 if I wasn’t going to be in shape to run it anyway?” asks Dhiraj. “I started walking every morning for 20 minutes, nothing more than two or three kilometers at a go.” An enterprising neighbour pushed him to 30 (minutes, not kilometers). A year and a half later, he says he can’t walk, only run, seven kilometers a day, seven days a week. “There’s a clear funda ki Shalom mein aag bhi lag jaaye toh bhi Dhiraj pehele bhaagne jayega, phir aag bujhane aayega,” he says (“Even if Shalom catches fire, Dhiraj will first jog, then come back and douse it”). A little more than a year later, his weight dropped back to 75, a fact that most people find unbelievable.
He cut his losses: All restaurants except Shalom were shut down. “Stemming the bleeding really helped. I got a lot of time for myself. I started staying at home, reading, spending time with my wife and children and reflecting on my life,” he says.
He introspected: He still does. Every single day. “I wake up and go over what exactly I said to my wife, my kids and my staff the previous day. If I realise I’ve said something I shouldn’t have, I immediately meet the person and apologise. This is irrespective of whether that person realises I’ve slipped up or not. It just makes things clearer in my head.”
He ate right: Notice we said ‘right’, not just healthy. “I tell people it’s not what you eat, it’s what you don’t eat that makes the difference,” says Dhiraj who believes that you should include everything in your diet because your body needs it. “Also, the more good things you add, you automatically end up cutting out the bad ones.”
He lived for himself: “I sorted out my priorities. I decided to do what I wanted to do. Too often, we don’t realise that we are actually living out the wishes of other people… our friends, family, relatives, colleagues. Even today, I tell my wife: I live my life and I live our life. I will do what is good for me. I need my space. You cannot forget your own life completely.”
He took responsibility for himself: “I read a book by Jack Canfield called From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be, which said don’t blame others for your condition. Whatever happens to you is either your own doing or you are just letting it happen to you. So I stopped blaming people for my misfortune. And I realised how right Canfield was. All the people I kept blaming were only reacting to my actions.”He embraced simplicity: Twenty T-shirts in four different colours, Rs133 each. Chappals. A few pairs of denims. These are the entire contents of Dhiraj’s wardrobe. "For an awards function, recently, I had to borrow a formal shirt," he says.
He became flexible: Don’t be too rigid about these things, advises Dhiraj. Do them at your own pace and in your own style. “I’m not exactly an early bird,” he says. “I wake up by nine, get done with breakfast by 11, by the time I start, it’s noon. It doesn’t make a shred of a difference as long as I stick to it.”
He had fun! “There’s not been a week when I’ve had less than three meals of paranthas!” smiles Dhiraj. “I dine out often, keep room for dessert and never miss any party I don’t want to. And I always – always – have at least two glasses of beer every day. Hell, I deserve it, man!”
But doesn’t this all start in the mind? How do the rest of us lazy slobs who think nothing of bunking our gyms train our minds to be so consistent? “You start by sorting out your priorities, deciding exactly what you want to do and living life for yourself,” says Dhiraj. So you just need strong willpower? “Willpower is only a tool that helps you execute your plans. But ultimately, you need to have the wisdom to understand what you have to do.”
Today, he doesn’t know the meaning of the word stress, he says. “A friend once told me: stress is a combination of fear, frustration and anger. You fear failure; then you are frustrated because you can’t overcome that fear; finally, the helplessness of the situation makes you angry.”
I ask if there’s a book on the cards. Definitely. He grins. “But it’ll probably be about how to run a restaurant. Self help? Nah, I’m still a student.”
Dhiraj’s Daily Diet
I eat fruit twice a day. At least. I love papaya, it’s great for digestion. I also love pineapples. The only fruits I avoid are those that are too sweet. Things like mangoes and chikoos.
I gorge on salads n Breakfast is toast with honey, a light cucumber sandwich or South Indian food.
I don’t take tea or coffee. Strictly. Caffeine and sugar are slow poisons. Also, no cold drinks.
I love green tea! I have about four cups daily.
I ask my cook to prepare my meal separately. It has to be very light. If it’s too tasty, I always make him eat it!
I never drink before I eat. Never.
I pig out once in a while Being rigid doesn’t get you anywhere.
Self-help books that really helped
Crunch Point by Brian Tracy. “It gave me tremendous courage to get back on my feet and pull through the tough times,” he says.
From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be by Jack Canfield. “I got a lot of insight into myself. I learnt to stop blaming others for my mistakes.”
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma. “I finally realised my own potential.”
- From HT Brunch, June 19
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