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Sailing to new shores

Anoothi Vishal  |  New Delhi 

The business of leisure may be hotting up in Kashmir and tourists once again queuing up to take the shikaras.

But one man who'd rather have his houseboat right here in Delhi rather than on the Dal Lake in Srinagar is Suresh Kilam.

Nope. That isn't a mistake. Kilam is really planning a houseboat in landlocked Delhi? And not just one, but an entire resort filled with houseboats.

Kilam, an Indonesia-based businessman with interests in the paper and furniture industry, says he is ready to plough in Rs 25 crore to Rs 30 crore for what he calls his "dream".

He is currently in town scouting around for a 25-acre plot in the right part of town "" or its outskirts "" where he can translate that dream into reality.

"It will be like a little Kashmir right in the middle of Delhi," Kilam says rather wistfully, getting nostalgic about Kashmir, from where his family originally came.

The plan is all worked out and the picture very clear. Kilam want to create a resort with around 20 houseboats, one large, the rest smaller, all bobbing on a manmade or a natural lake "" if he can find one.

The biggest houseboat will be 25 feet X 100 feet, with three restaurants and a lobby to boot. Guests will walk in to the reception and from there they will be escorted to a shikara which will then take them to their houseboat.

In fact, Kilam has even built a model of what he is planning. He's crazy about houseboats and it shows. His own farmhouse, on a 5-acre plot, near Faridabad, has been built in the shape of a houseboat.

It is this same fascination with boats that is also on show at Kilam's new restaurant in Gurgaon. Odyssey, the 340-seater, giant-sized eatery sprawls over 17,500 sq ft at Sahara Mall, Gurgaon.

The shape and design are intended to look like a luxury cruise liner. Kilam says that Odyssey is India's biggest restaurant. And he claims that it may also be in the running as the most expensive restaurant in the country.

He won't talk figures but says that "a couple of millions" have been spent on it. Certainly, there's evidence of a lavish budget with crystal glasses that are said to cost Rs 1,000 each.

Even the chopsticks are imported and they've been made to order from the "whitest and lightest wood" imported from Bali. When the restaurant threw open its doors for the first time a couple of weeks ago it was with a 'fountain' of champagne, literally.
The bubbly flowed from glass to glass""placed in a pyramid formation""a showy practise borrowed from dining rooms of cruise liners.

So what does this fascination stem from? Nostalgia, if you like. Or some smart marketing. "I am essentially from Kashmir and my grandfather built and managed the first houseboat in Kashmir, the Kashmir Princess. So I have always wanted to do something on those lines", says Kilam explaining his fascination with 'boats'.

Kilam's family were amongst the first pioneers of tourism in Kashmir. Starting from the Kashmir Princess built by his grandfather Pt.

Narain Das Raina in 1885, the family built and managed 300 houseboats till 1948. After Partition, says Kilam the business was sold because with fewer, high-spending European clients the losses started piling up.

"At first you could hire a room for just Rs 18, then over the years this became Rs 50 and in the 1950s, Rs 700 but the Indian tourists could not afford such prices", he says.

Kilam studied chemical engineering and was then posted to Indonesia in 1980, to work on a project for Ballarpur Industries.

Once there, he decided to shift camps and went on to join Asia Pulp and Paper, Ballarpur competitors, a $ 15 billion company, still reckoned to be one of the biggest paper companies in the world, despite messy financial trouble post 1998 and the Asian Crisis.

In more recent times, a massive debt restructuring exercise was completed just a couple of months ago and Kilam is currently the company's director, marketing.

But while his core business interests remain in that country""he is also an Indonesian citizen""Kilam has clearly set sights back home.

He plans to come back "every weekend" to look after his "latest baby", Odyssey, which he plans to develop into a bigger chain of restaurants. In fact, he is already looking at sites in Noida and Vasant Kunj "" at the DLF mall coming up next to the Grand.

But the priority remains the houseboat project. Kilam, who wouldn't like to return to Kashmir "because it is still not safe" and because much of his family is settled in Delhi, says he has been thinking of the project "since 1998".

It is going to be a long drawn out affair. "Each houseboat takes at least a year to build", Kilam says, adding that he hopes to complete the project in the next three to four years. When that happens, it will be possible to enjoy a slice of Kashmir right here in the Capital.

First Published: Sat, January 24 2004. 00:00 IST