by Kiran Jhamb
(Nagpur, Maharashtra, India)
On my frequent business trips, I have to make short stays in different cities big and small, even towns proudly masquerading as cities in the world of nomenclature. So I am pretty well used to making do with what is available. And if I get a good experience, you guessed it, I tend to repeat it.
‘N’ is a small town and you don’t have grand expectations of hospitality industry there. I noticed a new hotel, which of course had flags of different colors furling and fluttering in its driveway. ‘Trying to be different! Hmm, must be some young chap with grandiose ideas. Let’s try it this time.’ I decided to stay there.
Next day at breakfast I noticed a sixtyish Sardarji mingling with the staff and guests. His olde-worlde charm caught my attention. I began to notice that Sardarji came in the morning on his white Activa always wearing a white crisp Pathani suit. A very neatly turned out person he was - not a white hair peeping out of his tightly wound beard or turban. And the typical Punjabi paunch was surprisingly missing from his tall frame.
He would go to each guest’s table and offer ‘Have you tried our scrambled eggs, our Rainbow Sandwiches?’ and then holler to staff ‘Bring sandwiches for Saheb. Sir, please try these - it’s on the house!’ The ease with which he anticipated the guests’ needs was remarkable. I too came in for my share of his charm.
‘Why fruits only today? Have some cereals, a parantha maybe,’ he asked me.
‘No, thank you. I’m on fast today.’
‘Have some curd then’ and the sabudanna wadas which he got ready and packed for my lunch before I left, were a very pleasant surprise. He talked to you like a senior member of your family - your father, your grandfather – it depended on your age group. The Punjabi touch of cajoling the guests to eat turned his different cuisines all the tastier. According to the local rates, he was charging almost double, yet the flow of guests was uninterrupted. The place was a mixture of all that is best in old and new.
During my next stay, my eyes searched for him and there he was at nine o’clock sharp. He greeted me like a long-lost relative and asked about my family too and I found he accurately remembered the information which he had ferreted out of me during my last visit. ‘Hmm, personal touch, I like it!’ I thought silently and smiled at him. My morning business appointment had been canceled, so I had plenty of time. Curiously I asked him, “Bhapaji, how come hotel business?”
‘O Sirje, we are rab dey bande (god’s people). From my childhood, I used to serve in the langer (free meal) in the gurudwara. That seva bhav (urge to serve) has stayed with me. We aim to feed whosoever comes here.”
“Bhapaji langar at gurudwara is free of cost. Here you are charging for your seva.”
He smiled, ‘Putterji (sonny), it’s a long story. One thing leads to another, that’s life. Now I think of all my guests as my family. Someday I’ll tell you about it’, he patted my shoulder and moved on to next table.
During my visits, I gleaned hat Sardarji was an established transporter and had fleets of trucks running from Central India into all the directions. “Putterji, I was from a poor family background. I did not get much education - only basic primary schooling came my way. I was determined I was going to send my son for higher education and I won’t force him to join my business. I will let him choose.” I was reminded of the engineering degree which my father had in his wisdom forced me to go through though I wanted to write, opt for journalism. His middle-class aim was ‘son of an engineer should be an engineer.’ A decade and a half later here I was selling/marketing tyres, no doubt that ‘B.E.'on my
visiting card opened many doors for me which otherwise might have remained shut, but the point was my engineering skills remained dormant. Or were non-existent? I often mull over it. ‘Bhapji, that is very good, very impressive. So what did he study?’
“He wanted to study hotel management.” There was pride in his voice. ‘I sent him to London for what, what is it called, oh yes, MBA. Meri atma (my soul) tripet ho gayi (became contented). He is a really good son; he came back to his roots. He didn’t want to run away to Delhi, Mumbai to work, he wanted to live in his native place with his family, his old mother and father. He wanted to bring changes.” This was getting richer. An idealist-returning-to swadesh-angle! ‘Then what happened?”
Proud Papa expanded, ‘He opened this hotel. Everyone told us we were wasting our money. I had to run scissors through my transport business, divert funds here. He got computers, new type of staff, he kept a G.M. also. The place was launched with much fanfare. But in the next six month sales didn’t pick up.’ During the next two years the prodigal son and his G.M buddy realized the profound truth, ‘Our choice was wrong!’
Bhapaji was breathing down their necks, continuously nagging, ‘What are you doing to fix the business?’ They wailed, “We have sent e-mails to different offices. We are also inviting people to hold their seminars, conferences here. We have been in touch with the local tourism industry also. We have received many positive replies.” Now Bhapaji decided to butt into their newfangled notions with his practical acumen. He realized a big dose of common sense was needed to be injected into that shiny degree of MBA. He took hard copies of their e-mails and started going to the customer base giving it, now what in my mind has come to be known as his personal touch. Soon his efforts bore fruits and the trickle turned into a regular stream.
A family of guests was departing and they were asking for the old Sardarji who had attended them. The matriarch of the family, a commanding lady praised Sardarji when he came to see them off and tipped him a hundred rupee note for his services. The hotel staff looked embarrassed. Sardarji accepted the tip with due deference and accompanied them to the car park telling the bell boy to carry their luggage carefully. Now since I knew the identity of the Sardarji, I was hugely amused. Didn’t it hurt his dignity? The owner being tipped by a guest – wow! I waited for him to come back; I was curious how he would handle this situation in his infinite wisdom because a very wise man indeed he was. And I wasn’t disappointed.
He came back and called all the waiters and the staff who had public dealing and proudly displayed the hundred rupee note. ‘See, this you get when you serve wholeheartedly. Pleasing the customers is our aim. And what pleases them? Good service! Vow today, we will give such good service that the customers will be compelled to open their purses” and he furled the currency note once again before them as if hypnotizing them, and gave to a young waiter whose birthday it was that day.
He didn’t know, but he had acquired a new fan that day - me. So during our next chat, I enquired about what happened to his son since he was supervising the hotel along with his transport business. ‘My son? Oh, Putterji he is doing very well. I have opened a college for him. He is teaching hotel management courses. It’s running well. Wahe Guru di Kripa hai. (God’s mercy is on us)”
I couldn’t stop myself from getting a flash; the image of this old gentleman teaching with aplomb in the hotel management classroom, if the need arose, flashed in my mind and I smothered a laugh, what the heck English will pose a problem as always. ***