Nadir Rashid recalled by doting daughter

Months after the tragic demise of the proprietor of a prominent heritage hotel in Bhopal, who had been undergoing treatment for depression, his daughter fondly reminisces about the remarkable qualities of her beloved father

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Aliya Rashid
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Nadir Rashid recalled by daughter
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Nadir Bhai, Nadir Sir, Nadir Mian, Chacha, Kayu, Dada, Abba, my father — it’s now, after his passing, that I realise my father meant many different things to many people. I was but a small part of the long and rich life that he lived. His quiet demeanour and gentle mannerism made some people see him as a person who preferred to stay in the background. But for those who knew him well and worked with him, they saw his quietness as his strength and the core of his character. One that, when paired with the attributes and strengths of his brother Yawar, made an incredible team for a life-long partnership that took an old family office in a small town called Bhopal and steered it to evolve into the Jehan Numa Group, comprising a Palace hotel, an eco-retreat, two world-class safari lodges and a chain of gourmet bakeries. But before all of these things, we begin at the beginning — like all stories do.

Born on 29 November 1950, the third of four siblings, my father grew up in Bhopal, the capital city of the erstwhile State of Bhopal — home to the storied Begums of Bhopal. My father’s grandfather, General Obaidullah Khan was the middle son of the last Begum, Sultan Jehan. Setting up his home in Shamla Hills, he created Shamla Kothi. This neighbourhood would eventually be a place to call home for generations of our family and a sanctuary for all of us and our kids to grow up carefree and safe, in the lap of nature. My father was ten years old when his father Rashid-uz-zafar Khan suddenly passed away of a heart attack. Abba spent most of his youth in boarding school at Sherwood, in Nainital, where some of his antics nearly got him suspended. He loved to break bounds and go watch the latest Hindi movies in the local cinema. He was caught once and his mother had to rush to school to plead his case. A fond memory of his as a young teenager was seeing the shooting of ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ in Nainital. I could never have imagined my prim-and-proper father as someone who could be naughty and bunk school — it’s always difficult for a child to imagine one’s parents as unruly kids or irresponsible youth.

Nadir formative years

Formative years of Nadir Rashid

After school, my father went on to college and trained in stud-farm management. His passion was always horses — his family business since the early 1900s was horse breeding and racing, under the banner of ‘The Bhopal Stud’. He spent a year in New Market in England, attending a stud-farm management course. In early 1972, he returned to Bhopal to take over the management of their stud farm from his mother, Begum Suraiya Rashid. Under the leadership of Nadir and Yawar, The Bhopal Stud produced top performers of the period, thoroughbreds like Own Opinion, Au Panache, Mr Mauritius and more.

As someone once told me, my father-uncle duo was fondly known as ‘the handsome brothers’ in the Bombay racing circuit, with their gentle and ever-smiling nature winning many life-long friends. My father loved horses, the energy around the racing and sales season, and the intimate community of race-horse owners and breeders, of which he was a large part back then. His box at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse was his happy place, where we spent many memorable Derby and Million race — days surrounded by friends.

Stud farm

I distinctly remember finding it very endearing how our Jehan Numa Hotel barber, who now lived in Bombay, would always reach out just before the Derby weekend demanding to be signed in for the big race Day. Gently grumbling but always obliging, Abba and Chacha would take him along and give him tips for laying small bets on the winning horses, often raising the excitement levels that afternoon to a fever pitch! My father continued to stay connected with this community even after our stud farm closed, marking the Derby weekend each February as a highlight of his year.

 

My father married my mother, Sonia, in 1981, breaking more than a few hearts along the way, I’m sure. A marriage born of familial connections, it was a relationship that spanned over four decades and brought into this world me and my two younger brothers. I always saw my parents as a unit — a committed partnership formed to take care of each other and our family. My mother would be the decision-maker, charting the course of our lives and future, while my father would be the quiet, strong supporter, firmly standing in the wings, doing everything to fulfil our needs and making sure we didn’t lack anything.

Family time

Our childhood memories were full of endless adventures during the summer vacations, consisting of activities planned to perfection by our mother. Abba would drive us to countless picnics, at times even at midnight! Those were our favourites — we could stay awake all night while being driven to the most beautiful spots in the forests and along the rivers outside Bhopal. Moonlit fishing expeditions or a trip to the prehistoric Bhimbetka rock shelters (this was before they became a world heritage site!) were some highlights of those lovely times. Before the days of swimming pools, Abba would have horse exercise troughs at the stud farm cleaned and filled with water — a perfect place for the whole family to cool off by taking a dip during those hot and balmy summer days. Family vacations would mostly be road trips to national parks and jungle lodges. We would brave freezing mornings to learn how to be quiet and unobtrusive to spot animals. Threats of being left behind as a yummy snack for hungry tigers worked like magic in keeping us, the impatient and very mischievous trio of kids, quiet and obedient. Our youth was idyllic and vibrant, filled with happy times and youthful adventures. Abba, along with our mother, ensured that they provided us with a sound foundation that gave all three of us the strength and confidence to believe that we could do and achieve anything we wanted and that no matter what, they would always have our back.Nadir and wife

With evolving times, and the world slowly changing, big corporate money inevitably entered the racing circuit. It was then that both, my father and Chacha, realised that the horse-breeding business was becoming increasingly unpredictable, and would not sustain a small family farm like ours for much longer. As a result, even without any prior experience to speak of in the hospitality business, they decided to convert their grandfather's jagir office building into a hotel. Many friends questioned this decision: ‘Who will ever come to stay in a hotel in a one-horse town like Bhopal?’ etc. When the Jehan Numa Palace opened its doors to guests on 17 September 1983, (just two days before I was born!), it was a modest 15-room hotel with a single restaurant. Those were the early days of intense involvement and hard work: every morning, Chacha would be waiting outside in his Gypsy to drive with Abba to the farm and hotel. I’ve also heard stories of my mother and aunt personally overseeing the housekeeping before new guests were to check in.

As time progressed and the hotel grew in strength, a swimming pool and a ‘for members’ only’ health club were added sometime in the late 90s, and these quickly went on to become the talk of the town! I remember us kids — siblings, cousins and friends — spending countless joy-filled summer afternoons and evenings at the pool. We’d mostly have to make do with the shallow end of the pool, with serious swimmers doing lap after lap across the length of the pool. We were always up to some mischief — I can recall, once an angry F&B manager at the hotel called up my father to complain that this boisterous bunch had ordered over a dozen portions of grilled chicken sandwiches and countless chocolate milkshakes from the hotel, driving the service staff up the wall with their demands. After a gentle reprimand, we promised to be more mindful in the future — a reprimand that I don’t believe was heeded for too long!  

These are some enduring images and memories of my childhood. The two brothers, Abba and Chacha, go to and return from work together, year after year. Those evening meals, eating hot kebabs, with a sigdi to warm you up in the winters, in the gardens at Under the Mango Tree. The lazy afternoons and lively evenings my father and his friends spent at the poolside every day of the summer.

Legacy

The Jehan Numa Hotel has grown from strength to strength, evolving and multiplying into new hospitality spaces for everyone from the city to discover and experience. The group’s incredible success is a testament to both their determined efforts and teamwork. Both the brothers would travel around India to look at hotels for inspiration and to see how they could improve different aspects of our business. Later in life, Abba would proudly say that Jehan Numa’s standards were as high as many of the 5-star hotels and resorts we’d stay in. Over the last four decades, the group’s hotels have come to become a huge source of pride for not just Bhopal, but all of Madhya Pradesh. They demonstrate how personal attention, commitment, consistency pushing for the highest standard of service, and utilising the experience from every member at every level of the team, can create a legacy brand within the course of one’s lifetime. This work ethic and high standard has been instilled in the next generation, as my brothers and cousins continue to take this incredible story on to its next chapter.

Nadir years before his death

When speaking about a person, it is the things they enjoy outside of their work life which are what shape them and give them joy and satisfaction. Although he stopped riding many years ago, golf was a passion my father discovered and took to, later on in his life. Memories from the boarding school in Ooty that I went to, of the long weekend holidays and leisurely mornings spent walking the golf course, while my entire family was busy navigating the roughs and greens. There was a time when I was the only member of my family not at the practice range, hitting balls. Abba was a fixture at the army golf course in Bhopal, playing there several times a week. One year, he was the one to sink a 10ft plus putt to net a win for the ‘civilians’ team by half a point! He also probably holds the unofficial record for the most hole-in-ones on the course. His love for the game was such that while building the Jehan Numa Retreat hotel, one of the first things to be completed was a ‘chip and putt’ practice green which he used to play at while overseeing the building of the property. It is now a wonderful part of the hotel landscape, where guests can play and enjoy practising their putting skills in a beautiful environment.

Writing these lines, I sense that my words fall short in describing the long and large expanse of a life of seventy-four years. Perhaps words will always feel inadequate to capture a life intensely lived. Even I — as his eldest child — was but a late entrant in his long and eventful life. He was present quietly in the background for every single moment of my life until he passed. These are just some of the broad strokes about the times and people he left his mark on. We, at home, would lovingly call him the last Nawab — the joke was that no one had a ‘kit’ and changed their clothes more than our Abba — a minimum of five times a day, depending on his evening social engagements. Always perfectly dressed, our evening 7:30 pm drink with roasted makhanas (way before they became popular) was a daily ritual, mandatory for the whole family to attend. During this time, everyone would share how their day was spent. The mischievous glint in his eye when he would lean over to the ten-year-old me, and tell me a silly joke about one of our neighbours at the hotel swimming pool. Or when, as an amateur artist with no formal training, he would spend hours setting up a still life in our veranda, and paint the most exquisite watercolours. He loved poring over coffee table books of art deco furniture (this was before the days of Instagram and Pinterest) and replicating the perfect side table or a house entrance gate with his local carpenter. Or testing the patience of our family jeweller with constant designs and ideas for new cufflinks and rings for himself. Catching him at home, in such quiet moments, is how I like to remember him. These are all just memories now, whose gentle glow may perhaps provide us succour, or sometimes, a smile.

— Aliya Rashid

Bhopal hotel