Leela’s Chairman Emeritus and Founder, Padma Bhushan Capt CP Krishnan Nair, may be celebrating his 92nd birthday on February 7th, 2014, but he is as lively as a sparkling puppy. It must be difficult for his sons, Vivek and Dinesh, to keep up with him. The Hon Chairman, as he is still known to many of his close friends, had summoned the gal to tea at his bungalow, in the grounds of The Leela Palace, a couple of minutes as the crow flies from Mumbai airport. And to show even more hospitality, he and Dinesh Nair had actually come to meet her, and escort her across. This was such a rare honour.
The walk to the bungalow should take three minutes – that was the length of time it took me, returning. But the Hon Chairman, who for years has walked his grounds at 5.30 a.m. to study how his trees and bushes are doing, gave me a nature lesson on the way. Following on my increased knowledge of wild life thanks to my stay at Madikeri a couple of days ago, I was able to utter a few quasi-intelligent comments on jackfruit trees, and the variety of palms. The Hon Chairman reminded me that his Leela Palace in Bangalore has no fewer than 47 types of palm tree. Here, in is garden, was a tree Nelson Mandela had give him. When Hugo Chavez came to visit he did not bring a tree, but a shipload of crude oil for a friend of the Hon Chairman.
The word ‘bungalow’ is a misnomer here. I think of a bungalow as single storey and detached (the word comes from the Hindi ‘bengali’, meaning a house in Bengal style). This bungalow is a three-floor palace. The parents, the Hon Chairman and his wife, Madame Leela – after whom his palaces are named – live on the main, ground floor. One son and his family have one upper floor, the other son and his family have the other upper floor. Madame Leela was an extremely gracious host, and insisted on showing me the two ground floor dining rooms, which would each seat 12, but if they are dining in the outside courtyard, with lots of palms around, they could easily seat 20 in one place.
The bungalow was built for Madame Leela, who married the Hon Chairman, ten years her senior, when she was only 18. In those days he was into textiles in a big way but now the family is completely out of that, even the machine lace that I thought they still produced, and exported. We are in the hospitality business, says the Hon Chairman with a glint in his eye. Madame Leela could, perhaps, says she is in the sari business. Today she is wearing marvellous orange, and apparently she has over 200. A maid brings out a selection, showing the carefully hand-stitched blouse that goes with the sari wrap, which is a minimum six yards in length. I am amazed at the colours and wonder how they are maintained. No problem. Madame Leela points out that Leela has its own laundry. Of course.
Living right next to the first of the hotels you own certainly has its advantages. An immaculate young butler, in black morning suit and white gloves, comes to offer tea. The Hon Chairman and I go for camomile, which comes in a glass teapot. He wants honey with his, and he tries one, and then another, of the home-made cookies. Madame Leela refrains, and invites me to come back, with My Man, for a meal. And please take a sari… I point out that I would not know how to wear it, I would not have any occasion to wear it, and there anyway is not even the slightest space in the Porsche Design Rimowa (I remind myself the poor thing is still sick, its handle is still broken but the lovely people at Rimowa’s head office in Cologne have arranged an emergency handle transplant as I rush through London in a couple of days’ time).
We have progressed from orange to pink in the sari rainbow but there is no time for the other colours. The Hon Chairman is flying to Udaipur, for the wedding of the Prince of Mewar and his royal bride, and I am off next door, back to the lovely Leela Palace hotel, to try out the month-old Le Cirque Signature by Siro Maccioni…