Forbes India: Karambir Singh Kang, saviour of Taj Hotel on 26/11

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    Elizabeth Flock / Forbes India

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    Karambir wasn’t supposed to be his name.

    At 22, Kanwaljit Kang was married and pregnant. One night, she had a dream. A saint opened the Sikh holy book and said, “Name your baby, a son, Dusht Daman.” Kanwaljit only laughed. Such a hard name for a child, she thought. The name meant “Destroyer of demons”.

    The saint was right. A boy was born. For eight months, he went without a name. Finally, Kanwaljit and her husband Jagtar went to a nearby saint to ask for another name. A name not so rough. But the saint said the name should stay. Still, Kanwaljit resisted it. No, we must give him something more modern, she thought. A softer name. They settled on Karambir. It meant, “A person who does brave deeds”.

    Now, Kanwaljit, 61, cries when she talks about her son’s name. She wipes her eyes with her dupatta continuously. Her makeup smears into little rain clouds around her eyes. “If I had given him the name I was supposed to, maybe he could have killed those terrorists that day,” she says. She cries harder.

    On November 26, 2008, her son did not kill terrorists. But, true to his name, Karambir Kang did brave deeds.

    On that day, he was extraordinary. Through a 60-hour siege on the hotel whose company he’d served for 19 years, he worked. On and on, without tiring. Helping to save a thousand guests. But he couldn’t save his wife. He couldn’t save his children. Karambir called his parents at midnight that night. “I don’t think they’ve made it,” he said, his voice splitting.

    “Be a brave Sikh,” his father, a retired Major General told him sternly over the phone from Bahrain. He knew this was the only way to save his son. “You are an army general’s son. Stay afloat with your ship or go down with it.”

    There was silence, and then, “How can you think I can leave?” Karambir asked his father. “If it goes down, I will be the last man there.”

    Karambir Kang was born as normal as a parent could hope for. Blue eyes. Pale skin. And pulled out of his mother’s stomach, Caesarean style, at a strong 11 pounds. “What a big, healthy boy,” Kanwaljit had said.

    Others said his skin and eye colour looked like a bunny’s. Bunny soon became ‘Binny’. The nickname stuck for life.

    Binny was the first child born to the Kang family. And so he was the darling of his relatives: His mother and father, his aunts, maternal and paternal. They called him a lovely, simple boy. Nothing too complicated. Because Binny didn’t fight with other kids. Sometimes, he teased his sister to tears. But nothing past the normal brother-sister banter. He always had friends in the house. “A galaxy of friends,” his father Jagtar says, eyes twinkling. They are his son’s eyes.

    Binny grew up on the war stories of his father, a Major General who was in action in 1965 and 1971. Jagtar moved the family from Shimla to Wellington (in Tamil Nadu) to Himachal to Delhi to Pune. But Karambir never complained. He made friends everywhere he went. They all called him, affectionately, ‘Binny’.

    In Class 12 in Chandigarh, Binny met a boy with a mop of curly hair named Puneet Vatsayan. They pulled a prank and became instant partners in crime.

    One day Binny, with Puneet’s help, dressed in all white and hid in some high grass, holding a candle. Binny was a convincing ghost. He waited in eager anticipation for one of his little cousins to find him and get scared. Instead, his uncle, who was on a walk, saw the apparition. In fear, his uncle began whacking the ghost as hard as he could. “Uncle, it’s me!” Binny yelled, collapsing in laughter with Puneet.

    The two boys stayed friends despite Binny’s move to Pune. “We were only together for a year, but we lived a lifetime in that year,” says Puneet. It was like that with many of Binny’s friends. Meet once, and there always. In the weeks that followed 26/11, almost every friend Binny had ever made reappeared to help him.

    Binny made friends being funny. But he could be serious, too. He made his parents proud when he represented the school in quizzes. He acted in plays, some professional. In George Bernard Shaw’s, Arms and the Man, he played Major Petkoff, the guy who gave comic relief. The play was a satire on the foolishness of war. Of violence.

    In college, Binny got up every morning and listened to the radio. BBC and Voice of America were his favourite. Then he’d narrate the day’s world events to his father. When his friends were drinking, he’d be the one making sure everyone got home. His parents knew when he got home at night by the sounds of classic rock coming softly from his bedroom.

    Soon it was time for Binny, for Karambir, to pick an occupation. His father wanted him to join the army. Or the civil services. His mother would constantly be asked why her son wasn’t in medical school or law school.

    “Leave me alone, I’ll do something,” he told his mother.

    “We spent innumerable hours talking about how we wanted to do something,” says Puneet. Their friendship wasn’t just pranks anymore. “We wanted to do something, and something successful. You see, Binny just got more serious over time.”

    There’s a running joke at the Indian Hotels Group. If Karambir Kang was in a plane and saw a corporate conference below, he’d say “Jump!” It’s an inside joke. The kind you only get well after you’ve spent years with a person. They all crack up.

    But it’s a joke that fits the guy. He is a bulldog. You can see it in his face. His eyes the crayon box colour steel blue. The thinking creases in his forehead. A set jaw. He is the guy who would sniff a deal and be there. Who talked only of market share, and making it bigger. The guy who made the hotel profitable.

    “He was always picked out to do the tough jobs,” says a colleague at the Taj. “He could get work out of a team like no one else could,” says another. Karambir was always a seller. A fixer. He got to run international conferences, which everyone knew was the “cash cow”. He was sent to Lucknow to launch a new Taj hotel. And as an aside, he also had to make the city a tourist destination. He was sent to Delhi to fix the struggling Taj properties there. More than once, he was called to take the morning flight to a city, and when he got there, told he was taking over. “Have your wife courier your clothes. We need you here now,” senior management told him.

    Did he like it? His mouth goes from a line to a V when talking about it. The alert Karambir smile. “No day is the same in hotels. The challenges are always different. You know, from my batch at college, only two of us have stayed in the same job? I’ve stayed here so long because I love this place.”

    And Karambir was the kind of boss you wanted to have. Who let you do your thing. Who made the long hours in a hotel compress. His employees said they looked forward to going to work when Karambir was there.

    Karambir also had to travel. Most often, with Partho Chatterjee, then his boss at the Taj. Partho was deathly afraid of flying. When Partho told Karambir, he only laughed. “I’ll make you fearless,” he said. Instead, the entire flight, Karambir tried to scare Partho. “Isn’t that lightning outside?” Karambir asked, pointing to the airplane lights in mock fear. “Some joker just threw something out of the plane,” he added, pointing elsewhere.

    “But the windows don’t open!” replied a petrified Partho. “Must be a UFO then,” said Karambir, pretending to be serious. By the end of the flight, Partho was laughing so hard he wasn’t afraid.

    “That was how Karambir was,” says Partho.

    Like his role in Arms and the Man, Karambir was comic relief for everyone. It made him perfect for the long, sometimes crazy hours of hoteliering. He also loved good food, good wine, and good cigars. The hospitality trifecta. His mother says he’s so hospitable she often joked he should be a housewife.

    The boyish Binny didn’t disappear, however. When Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits came to play in Mumbai two years ago, Karambir was beside himself. Knopfler stayed at the Taj, but it was the idea of seeing his idol in concert that brought out the boyish excitement. Sometimes, employees would forget the bulldog for a second. But he was always there. When Karambir was in Delhi in 1998, he brought the hotel from number five to number one in just a year. When he took over Taj Lands End in Mumbai, he took occupancy from 30 to 80 percent in three months.

    Few people in hotels move from sales to running the ship. But in 2006, Director of Tata Sons, R K Krishna Kumar, took a chance on the man. “They asked me to be GM. It was kind of like putting me in the deep end,” says Karambir.

    Of course, there would probably be cracks. How could a bulldog know cutlery? How could a salesman understand ergonomics? But when the next team came to take over at Taj Lands End, they were floored. “He was running a perfectly smooth sailing ship.”

    Kang’s next captainship: the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in Colaba, Mumbai.

    Even before the attacks, there was something about the Taj. People just didn’t leave. Portly old waiters didn’t get replaced by young, better looking ones. Women went on maternal leave and came back. Employees got offered better jobs and chose to stay. Kang has been there for 19 years.

    And every year he worked harder, often going home just to sleep. There probably wasn’t much time for girls. In the early 1990s, when Kang was still in sales, the women he talked to mostly consisted of the other girls in the department.

    1994. A sales conference in Jaipur. He met a woman he’d only known from the phone. “This is Neeti Mathur,” a colleague said, introducing them.

    She was a North Indian girl with wild black hair and a face that always laughed. Her father had died years ago, so she was supporting her mother and younger brother. She was a strong woman. Like Kang’s own mother. And he could be himself around her. Neeti would be his first, and only, serious love.

    “You are going to meet a girl. And I’m going to marry her,” he told his father.

    “What if we don’t like her?”

    “I will marry her anyway.”

    They were married in Delhi and Neeti left the Taj. It wasn’t professional to be in the same company, they thought. Not in the same department. So Neeti went to work at Grindlay’s. “She was so intelligent. Smarter than me,” he says.

    But two years later, Uday, a baby boy who’d soon sprout up like a bean stalk, was born. So Neeti quit Grindlay’s too. A mother should be with her children, she thought. “She was the perfect mother,” Kanwaljit says. “You should have seen the way those children were brought up.”

    Neeti was always part of things with Karambir, too. She attended the Taj parties with him. She was by his side at hotel dinners. She knew and understood his ambitions. She often told his colleagues, “Karambir should stay in hotels, he really belongs here.” And stay he did. It worked, because they were a team.

    “She was not a woman who said, ‘Come home, you’re not spending enough time with me’,” says a colleague who knew them then. “She was this driving force, all the time.”

    Most of the time. Occasionally Neeti got upset that Karambir couldn’t see them enough. They were so close, right up there on the sixth floor. But when other fathers came home at 8 p.m., Karambir’s day was just beginning. Big parties. Conferences. The restaurants packed. “I took them for granted because they were in the same building. You know you just get so busy,” he says, speaking clearly, but his eyes turning cloudy.

    It’s his greatest regret. The thought that as Karambir the man became bigger at the Taj, his family got smaller. But it was a hotelier’s life. It hurt, because Karambir was a family man.

    Last November, Uday had turned 12 and Samar 5. Uday, also given an early nickname, “Doogie”, already had the quiet sense of responsibility like his father. As a little kid, his favourite thing to do was sit in his grandfather’s official car. He liked watching the majestic-looking flag on the major general’s car fly.

    Samar was more like Neeti, a bundle of talkative, chirpy energy. His face was round, with the kind of angelic, stop-in-your-tracks charm only present at that age. Samar had so much of it that strangers would often stop on the street just to play with him. Just before the attacks, he had talked to his grandparents on the phone in Bahrain. His grandfather asked him, “Samar, I’m coming to Bombay soon. Will you let me sleep in your bedroom with you?” “Of course, you sleep with me,” he replied promptly in a voice that said nothing else was ever an option.

    When Uday or Samar had a dentist appointment, Karambir was there. At school functions, Karamabir was there at the back, even if he had to be late. He knew the music they listened to. The video games they liked. Not as a checker, but a participant.

    But it doesn’t seem enough to him. Not now.

    Neeti, Uday, and Samar Kang were in their sixth floor apartment in the Taj. The kids had just gotten their photographs taken for a school project. Kang’s old boss Partho was almost a stone’s throw from the hotel. Kang was further, at the Taj Lands End in Bandra in the middle of a conference.

    Kang’s childhood friend, Puneet, was in France with his wife watching television. The television flashed: Gang warfare in Mumbai?

    No, it was more.

    Kang rushed back from Bandra. His image flashed across the television, the stout bulldog walking into the hotel, terrorist gunfire inside. They will be safest in their room, thought Kang. The security forces will come and neutralise the terrorists before they get upstairs. It is a huge hotel and they are very remote.

    He didn’t know how bad it would get. No one did.

    “Stay there,” Kang told Neeti on the phone. “Don’t panic.” “Don’t panic,” she told him back.

    After his wife, everyone started calling Kang. Scared employees. Trapped guests. Puneet: “Is everything alright?” “Yes,” Kang told him, “but I have to go.” Partho’s wife called Neeti. Neeti didn’t want to talk. “I have to go call Karambir,” she said.

    Then it was Neeti’s last call to him. When Kang realised the terrorists had gotten upstairs, he tried to go up there. The sixth floor, where his wife and kids huddled in the bathroom. Commandos stopped him. Terrorists, too, stood between him and the upper floors, shooting and lobbing grenades. There was no way up.

    Kang called his mother in Bahrain. She told him to save the others. His father reminded him who he was. Karambir Kang, son of a major general. Doer of brave deeds. Courageous Sikh.

    “Everyone needed help and I went,” Kang says simply. It was his duty. And Kang, grown up on his father’s war stories and the tradition of Sikhism (the guru Gobind Singh lost two sons himself, reminded his mother), knew exactly what duty meant.

    While Neeti and the children were being asphyxiated, Kang kept directing staff. He kept saving guests. He told his friend Partho, “Please forget everything. Just pray for my family,” and continued to work. His colleagues say the way he acted was like what you would witness a doctor do in an emergency. Not a hotelier.

    Later that night, his friends didn’t dare ask what they thought they knew. Finally, when Puneet called him, he said, “I’m finished. Neeti and the children are no more. If you can come, come.”

    When Karambir Kang enters the Sea Lounge a year later, he takes stock of the place. The restaurant on the sea is just one of many parts of the hotel that were ravaged in the attacks. It’s open now, back to normal. As much as it can be.

    When Kang talks to you, he looks right at you. An intent look with the crayon box steel blue eyes. At the same time, he looks around at the place, out of the corner of his eye. Appraising it. Making sure the details are right. Making sure it’s whole.

    Taj gave him the option to leave. Do something else. Go to another city. No, he said. It wasn’t in the nature of the man to run from a thing. If there was a battle, he wanted to meet it head on.

    The battle, now, was to make sure things got back to right. Make the hotel whole again. This is the task he’s set for himself.

    “It is important to stay here. This is the place where I lost everything. I need to see it get back. It’s healing to see it.”

    When Kang walks around the hotel, he feels them. He doesn’t go to the sixth floor but their names are even there in the lobby. It’s a battle of the mind, he says. He says that like he doesn’t quite believe it, but that’s what’s working, at least for now. There are other battles. At the cremation, everyone else broke down. Kang didn’t. He used to crack up and start crying during work. He doesn’t anymore. He’s conquered that. Only in private.

    Kang doesn’t go out much, now, either. He’s quieter. Less quick to laugh. His friends say the childish Karambir is missing. But his mother insists she still looks into his eyes and sees it.

    On that day in the Sea Lounge, Kang looks at his colleague’s tight pants as they walk out to the lobby, and jokes, “Couldn’t get the girls, so now you’re going for the guys?”

    The man operates at multiple levels. Maybe two. The responsible guy, who manages world-famous five-star properties. And the jokester, the child inside a man, the one who adores life. Sometimes, they came together. Not so much, now.

    His friends say his salvation is rebuilding the place. But they worry about April, when the job is done. “One step at a time,” Kang says, quietly.

    Some say in April Kang will leave. Others think he will be given a much greater role in the Indian Hotels Group, which he has served for 19 years. When you ask Kang what he wants to do, he merely says he wants to help children. To honour Uday and Samar. His parents adopted a child, Jeevan, whose education Kang will soon pay for.

    Kang’s childhood partner in crime, Puneet, hesitates before talking about Kang’s future, “You could ask me, will he ever be the same? And I can say, no. Will he pick up the threads of life and keep going? He enjoys life, he loves it, and so he will.”

    Then, Puneet stammers. Waits. And says, finally, “They just don’t make people like him anymore.”

    FORBES PERSON OF THE YEAR 2009

    :tup:

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    Kang brothers Samar, 5, and Uday, 11, died with their mother (pictured below) during the attacks in Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel.

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    Last edited: Jan 2, 2010
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