Under my byline

Poetry in motion

Posted in Fitness, Health, Profiles by Rrishi on 17 August 2008

Hotelier Ajay Bakaya devised an unusual fitness regime for himself

For a hotel chain that’s roaring up the charts — 10 hotels to be completed this year, 11 the next, 10 again the year after — its Delhi office is surprisingly drab. It is a small and functional space in a nondescript building on a potholed lane in one of Delhi’s industrial areas.

In fact, the cabin of Sarovar Hotels and Resorts’ executive director Ajay Bakaya is at nodding distance from the receptionist herself, and she nods us through in no time at all.

Bakaya, a respected hotelier, is more impressive in person than his office. He’s tall and calm, and wears a neat thatch of distinguished gray hair above an angular face. There aren’t many Indian executives who look as healthy and fit.

“I think I’m crazy,” Bakaya says, quite comfortably. He’s referring to his devotion to peculiar fitness pursuits, which range from ChiRunning to chakra meditation and eating according to his blood group.

“I do one activity every day,” he says. “I’m running now three times a week, the gym trainer comes home once a week, I do yoga three times a week, tennis every Sunday, and chakra meditation” regularly. The last item comes from a system of exercises called the “Five Tibetan Rites” which were first publicised by an American named Peter Kelder in the late 1930s, in a book called The Eye of Revelation. The point is to “activate” the chakras and keep them spinning fast for good health.

“Of all the crazy things that I do,” Bakaya says, “running is the most normal thing.” He learnt ChiRunning, too, out of a book. “It’s based on Chinese principles. It is all about posture,” he says, standing up to demonstrate. “Ordinary running uses power, in this you use gravity. Don’t lift your knees, instead lift the feet behind.” In effect, as he describes it, ChiRunning allows the runner to minimise effort. It looks, and feels, like a continuous process of falling forward.

Vitally useful to Bakaya, because he loves to run marathons. He fell into the habit in Sydney, where in the early 1990s he helped set up the Hotel Nikko Darling Harbor. There he ran the City 2 Surf marathon down to the famous Bondi beach. “It was a challenge,” he says, “but 14 km is so much more do-able” than the half-marathons in Delhi and Mumbai which he has run since, which are 21.097 km each.

“It’s a fantastic community event,” he says of Sydney, “there are brass bands, picnics, people cheering you on…” In contrast, “In Delhi community participation is much lower — Mumbai is better.”

There’s no chance of his winning a marathon, says Bakaya. The professional runners do that, and they’re not Indian. “Long-distance running in India is nowhere. You’re not even at the halfway point and you see these guys passing on their way back.” Not everyone can stay the course, either. Bakaya says that of the 20,000 who participated last year in the Delhi marathon, 3-4,000 ran the half marathon and 20 per cent of those actually finished.

Bakaya runs for pleasure, and also to raise money for chosen charities. For two years running he has individually raised more than anybody else (Rs 5 lakh and 10 lakh respectively). “I was miles ahead of everyone else both years,” he says. “You have to commit that you’ll raise a lakh. To start off with you give a cheque for Rs 10,000. Luckily I’ve been in the [hotels] business for a long time,” so he has a large pool of potential donors. “You’ve got to be persistent, you’ve got to be shameless,” he says proudly.

“Last year it was for Delhi’s street children,” he says, and “the year before I raised money for the Psychoanalytic Therapy and Research Centre in Mumbai — they work with mentally challenged children.”

Bakaya’s commitment to his own fitness is not recent, but it does owe something to his career. “In hotels you see excess always,” he points out, and “I was a hotel manager for years and years and years, entertaining or being entertained seven times a week.”

Your normal health, he says, “takes you through until you’re 35-ish. Then I thought let me be more careful. I’m now beyond 50.” Since he’s now group head of operations rather than a hotel manager, he’s “not socially so gregarious” and can sleep early and eat what he chooses.

His food choices are limited by the diet he keeps. “I subscribe to and follow a blood group diet,” he says, designed by an American naturopath named Peter D’Adamo, in which one eats according to one’s blood type. “It’s the most scientific theory I have come across.” So the day’s food consists of lots of fruits and juices, nuts and dry fruits, cereals and soya (no cow) milk, apart from the ordinary rice-dal-sabzi. “It’s a bit antisocial at times” to eat like this, he admits, but “the good thing is not being too pedantic about it.”

Eccentric though Bakaya’s health choices are, they clearly work. He has the physical grace and economy of motion of an athlete, and the calmness of one used to endurance running. This must have been an advantage in his career — hospitality can be trying on the nerves. “It’s an investment in the future,” he says, somewhat prosaically. “You need to put a little in the bank.”


2 Responses

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  1. J Wightman (Dr) said, on 30 December 2008 at 7:08 am

    Comments are a bit late – but I should like to congratulate Rishi on the quality of the article above. we have known Ajay for many years. In fact, from the time he was GM of the Krishna Oberoi in Hyderabad – he had the task, as Oberoi’s youngest GM, of getting a significant, and to us iconic, new establishment underway: waer supply or no water supply. (My wife held our wedding reception in a function room, and our son subsequently was helped to discover an enduring love of papads, thanks to the accommodating restaurant staff).

    I do not think he has changed. As depicted, he is an introvert in an extrovert milieu. I remember his birthday wish one year – ‘a day of silence’. Ajay’s wonderful wife is as extrovert as he isn’t. I am not sure whether he had his day of silence – it may have been extended a little, tempered by that reproachful kind of look that can happen in marriages!

    Fitness? He actually made his hotel cricket team jog twice around the boundary before a Sunday afternoon thrash around – can’t remember who won = probably them.

    It was difficult to see where Ajay’s abilities would take him. He reached what some would regard as a career pinnacle before he was 40. We subsequently met his family in Holland and in Sydney and it was clear he was still climbing: and how he was and is -figurativley(?) and literally. Take care Ajay: please do not run out of oxygen.

  2. Rrishi Raote said, on 31 December 2008 at 12:01 am

    Dear Dr Wightman,

    Comments are always welcome, and never late, especially on so unfrequented a blog as this!

    I wish there had been more space on the page (the printed page in the newspaper where I work) because Mr Bakaya had several more interesting experiences and stories to recount than would fit into 900 words! Managing a hotel in Liberia during the Cold War, for example…

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