In conversation with the youngest scion of the Apeejay Surrendra Group, Priti Paul, at her Indo-Moroccan Delhi home, HELLO! finds out what makes her a true cordon bleu global citizen with a creative soul and a nose for business.
“So much of this house is Indian in influence, yet everyone who walks in calls it a Moroccan riad,” smiles Priti Paul, as she ushers us into her Delhi home.Touches of fine fresco art, magnificent arches and detailed trelliswork, all crafted by Indian artisans, fill this mini Moroccan palace. The home aptly reflects the dual existence of its resident, who is fiercely Indian at heart, yet blends into the Moroccan way of life like hand fits to glove. It would, in fact, not be wrong to call her a cordon bleu global citizen who shuttles between continents. Born and schooled in Kolkata, she pursued her undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Soon after college, this youngest scion of the Apeejay Surrendra Group had to jump into the family business when the Pauls lost their patriarch, and all three siblings — Karan, Priya and Priti — had to fill his large shoes.
Priti was sent to the UK, where she worked her way up in the male-dominated shipping enterprise of the family. It wasn’t long before she met her Moroccan husband, Joauad Kadiri, a hotelier and a man with as intense a taste in the arts as her. They had a fairy-tale wedding that got covered by global glossies — and Priti has remained the toast of glamour media, besides making her presence felt with the culture writers and the business press. Three gorgeous sons — Jad, Kais and Jai — a castle-like hotel in Marrakech and an equally strong repertoire of business portfolios to manage keep her on her tiny toes.
“I think we all are reinventing ourselves in the post-Covid scenario, decluttering our lives, doing what truly pleases us and going beyond the brief,” she shares.The latter comes easy to this versatile and innately creative soul, who has lived beyond the box all her life. She carefully combines her love for the arts with her nose for business in her strategies. Not to forget her innate Zen for luxe. Helming two verticals for the group, Apeejay Real Estate and Oxford Bookstores, she’s brought in innovation and gravitas to both realms — though books, bookstores and literary events light up her eyes the most.
“I’m so glad that the world is once again returning to bookstores,” she smiles.
Under her guidance, the century-old chain of Oxford Bookstores, the ombudsman of all bookstores in India, carefully stepped beyond the fuddy-duddy image you link to such shops. Instead, vibrant walls, Art Deco-inspired shelves, a crackling Cha Bar and a warm, welcoming environ sucks you into the world of words. At any Oxford Bookstore, you can encounter an army of young and hip denizens getting initiated into the literary world over hot chocolate and mozzarella cheese sandwiches.
Founded in 1920, Oxford came to the Pauls in 1987, when the Apeejay Surrendra Group acquired a slew of properties on Park Street in Kolkata, the bookstore being a part of the buyout. The Pauls felt that the city needed a place to offer “food for thought” in the form of a bookstore, which would weave into its very fabric. The Oxford Bookstore was retained and restored to its original glory. And under Priti’s cerebral influence, it continues to play a role in the culture of this historic city, Park Street being part of her life.
“Kolkata and its people love literature and understand the soft power of culture,” she says.
A power she herself carefully cultivates in every city she loves and lives in. Hence, in Kolkata, she celebrates books through the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival that will “return after two years in January 2023. What makes it even more special is that with the festival, we will link the celebrations with 100 years of Oxford.”
As a lover of all things Moroccan, especially its art, she dreams of one day creating a space where the finest of African art can reside. Meanwhile, she supports celebrated voices like author and artist Mahi Binebine, commissioning the translation of his novels into English. In fact, translation is her most loved bastion of literature.
“Translation is a rare art. Right from the time we hosted the first edition of Lost in Translation, I have supported it significantly.”
As friends of the Guimet Museum in Paris, Priti supports the Asian literature segment, helping books by Asian authors get translated into French. In reverse, she supports the Romain Rolland Book Prize instituted by the Institut Français en Inde to award the best books translated from French to any Indian language.
“This year, we took the onus of helping to translate 10 French books into Indian languages,” she adds.
A committed mother, Priti tried hard to keep her boys close to their Indian roots, a thought that led to her rewriting the alphabet book with iconic references to India. Grown up now, they were the reason Priti took to writing ABC Desi.
“It was an idea that came to me while bringing up my children. When they would go through the ABC books, I realised they were the same as they were 60 years ago when my husband and I read them. The imagery was not particularly Indian, and I felt it would be hard to relate to for Indian children. Even for NRIs, the images were not something they could use to learn about their country or culture.
That’s why I thought of ABC Desi, in which C could still stand for a car, but the image would be that of an Ambassador. P for panda is common, but why not depict a peacock instead? And T for tiger or tiffin? Incidentally, my children did not know about the concept of a tiffin box.”
An architect who got married to a man who is a visual genius, Priti loves turning spaces into dreamy castles. Her hotel, Sahara Palace Marrakech, was one such marvel that was generously featured in Sex & The City, the movie. Having passed on the reins of the hotel, the Kadiris are currently engaged in creating a riad for them to reside in. With sprawling courtyards, high roofs and sumptuous arches, a slew of water bodies and fountains and generous use of wood and frescoes, it promises to be “a Mecca of design that will be the finest coming together of Moroccan and Indian art influences. It will resonate with our love for all things handmade.”
Besides books, Priti also leads Apeejay Real Estate, the group’s logistics and industrial park business that recently accrued a funding of Rs 300 crore. The Apeejay warehouses set up in cities across India are facilities that cater to over 100 million consumers at a blink!
“Supply chain management was the most sought-after course at MIT this year. Modern-day retail will turn to these warehouses that can get your Louis Vuitton bag or Jimmy Choo shoes to your homes!”
A great fashionista and luxury buff, Priti enjoys “the sharp designs of Tarun Tahiliani, the embroideries in Anamika Khanna’s free-flowing ensembles, and the Kolkata-inspired designs of Sabyasachi.”
She believes the real luxury today is in marrying technology with high-end retail, and she’s fascinated by how gen next acquires anything they wish for at the press of a button.
Meanwhile, Priti continues to balance the lyrical world of books with the here and now of technology in her everyday life.
Interview: Anshu Khanna; Photos: Abhishek Khandelwal; Creative Direction & Styling: Amber Tikari; Hair & Makeup: Anu Kaushik
This interview has been adapted for the website from an interview that was originally published in HELLO! India’s December 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!