The Writing Life: Riding With Captain Nair of Kerala

My long pending biography of the late Capt. C. P. Krishnan Nair, "The Captain's Journey," will be published in May 2017 by HarperCollins to commemorate the third anniversary of his death.

Captain Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair, born in Kannur, an agrarian region of northern Kerala, was the founder of The Leela Resorts, Palaces and Hotels, which he initiated at the age of 65 after a long career in the Indian Army's Maratha Light Infantry, and in pioneering exports of textiles made in rural India. His other endeavors included participating in the Indian Freedom Movement against the British Raj.

The following unedited excerpt is from the book-in-progress:

To ride inside a top-of-the line BMW is always a luxurious experience, and on this day that experience is enhanced by the fact that The Captain is showing me around his native Kannur.

It is a small town in northern Kerala, lined with trees. The streets are narrow, and bustling with traffic. The Captain is pointing to various temples and schools, places where he'd spent his early years. He's clearly enthusiastic about his reminiscences. He says that the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama came here, landing at Kappad beach in 1498.

In those days, the place was known as Cannanore; it was an important seaport under the 15th century rulers of North Malabar, the Kolathiris, and the Arakkal Kingdom. The port later had maritime links with the ports of Madras, Colombo, Tuticorin, Alleppey, Mangalore, Bombay and Karachi.

The Portuguese built the St. Angelo Fort at Kannur in the early 16th century. Almost two centuries later, the region came under the control of the British, who established a cantonment at Cannanore in the 19th century. Captain Nair tells me how, as a boy growing up here, he would organize soccer matches; his team consisted of local boys, while the British one had grown-up men for whom soccer - or "football," as it's generally known throughout India - was a sport in which they almost always won. But Captain Nair instinctively understood that the British soldiers were gaily indulging the Kannur boys; they allowed the boys to win from time to time so that the locals weren't disheartened. The games were part of the good will that the Britons lavished on local residents.

In 1902, the Presidency Port Officer of the Madras state government authorized an amount of 3430 rupees for the construction of a lighthouse tower atop the fort. This stone tower was commissioned in the year 1903, but at a later date the tower, along with a part of the fort, was eroded by the relentless sea. After this only, a mast was installed inside the fort to hoist a lighthouse lantern. Captain Nair takes me there.

Sounding like a history teacher, he tells me that in order to warn ships at sea of land, a system of hoisting a lantern with an oil wick lamp was introduced in 1843 by the British.

In 1924, some additional enhancements were made. The light was shifted in 1939 on to a 16-metre steel trestle was raised on the northern bastion of the Fort. The steel trestle can still be seen today at the Fort.

The equipment was replaced by a flashing light with 10 second character running on gas in 1948. This light remained in operation till the new lighthouse tower was constructed at the present location during 1975-76 by a company based in Cochin, a busy port that's several hundred miles to the south

Captain Nair tells me that Kannur has, of course, changed since his childhood, as would be inevitable with creeping urbanization, but that he loves this still fetching town on the Arabian Sea. He tells me that he looks forward to building a hotel and an airport here.

"I dream of seeing India as number one in my lifetime. I will never give up this dream," he tells me.

The Captain is sitting to my left. Occasionally, I ask him questions.

I spot a particularly colorful temple, and turn to him to ask about the deities whose images decorate the building's exterior. The Captain is well versed in Hinduism, and the local folklore, and I reckoned that he would have an answer.

I awaited his response. The car is still moving. But The Captain isn't there.