Of Nyla and casinos
During my recent trip to Kathmandu I met Nyla Bista. Nyla is the fist woman in Kathmandu to run a casino. Located at the five star Shangri-La, this casino, I am told, is also the first to have a woman CEO: Shalini Wadhwa, Nyla’s employer and a kind of a demi god to her. I did not meet Shalini because she was travelling. Considering every word Nyla uttered had a Shalini Ma’am to it, I guess I knew as much that I wanted to about Shalini without meeting her.
Till Casino Shangri-La happened Shalini, Nyla told me, was busy publishing magazines. It was her husband who pushed her into running a casino: something she never wanted to do. The Wadhwas own most of the casinos in Nepal. They must be well connected because getting a license for a casino and being in business is not easy.
Running casinos in Nepal, Nyla says, was big business till Indians became rich and changed destination from Kathmandu to Goa, Malaysia, Macau and Singapore.
In fact Goa gives tough competition to Nepal because of its on-shore casinos. As per law, the off shore casinos in Goa are completely electronic and therefore not much competition. It is the on-shore ones which attract gamblers: “The thrill and feel of actually holding the cards as against playing on machines, is what gamblers go for. Add to that the charm of being on a ship and people are easily hooked,” explains Nyla. On-shore casinos started some 18 months ago. Therefore if Indians have a choice between going to a politically tumultuous Nepal or the Goa waters, they naturally head for the sea. Add to this the fact that Singapore and Malaysia are preferred destinations for conferences. Consequently, business in Kathmandu is down. Rough estimates put the current casino headcount to 200 people in 24 hours as against 600 in 2007 and 800 in 2006. The liquor and cigarettes consumption: down from some four crores per annum in 2006, to 15 lakhs rupees this year: 12 lakhs on liquor and some 3 odd-lakh on cigarettes.
It is all about money honey and as Nyla says the Indians have “gotten rich” and head for exotic places. Kathmandu, is off the list for big time gamblers.
Coming back to Shangri-La. Nyla claims it to be the first boutique casino. Ask her what it means and she will tell you that it is specially designed to cater to families than solo gamblers. She also calls it a designer casino because of its emphasis on mutli-coloured walls and a specially crafted decor: “We keep out riff-raff and allow only up market clients,” says Nyla.
Born in Ajmer, Nyla Bista studied in Jaipur and Bikaner and later at the Aligarh Muslim University. As a lecturer, her thumb rule was: break barriers and rule hearts: something she tries to do till today. Yes, Nyla can talk non-stop and touch hearts with her naïveté and simplicity. Marriage brought her to Nepal where she started off with Hotel Yak and Yeti till Wadhwas spotted her.
Casino Shangri-La is Nyla’s first casino experience. Like it is Shalini Wadhwa’s. The two decided to make the most of it and by the way things appear they had a great time while knocking it to shape. In 2006,when they opened, the local media gave Nyla and Shalini extensive coverage as a two-women team making inroads into a male domain.
In the course of my two-hour conversation with Nyla, I learnt a lot about casinos. And about the superstitions that govern those who run them. For starters, it should be vaastu-compliant. For the uninitiated vaastu shastra is an ancient science of construction. It is the art of correct settings and design aimed at maximum benefits. Earlier it was restricted to temple architecture but now is being applied to homes and work places also.
In Casino Shangri-La every gambling table faces east: a direction that is lucky for the owners. If it is not possible to have all tables east facing, then the next best direction is north facing. What does this mean? Nyla ofcourse will only tell you that it keeps out the negative energies. But actually what it does is to rake money for the casino: in other words, casinos win, gamblers loose. Suggest this to Nyla and she gets a panic attack: “No..no..nothing like that ma’am.”
Whether like that or this, the fact remains that casinos can only make money when those visiting it lose. So what is good for the casino is bad for you. But then that is the rule of the game if they have to survive in business.
There is this interesting tale about a problematic table. It only brought in losses. They changed its direction, but it was no good. Then they changed the tabletop. Even that didn’t work. Then they replaced its legs, now there is nothing left of the original. Finally they did puja on it and now it seems to be getting in money, more money. Good luck for casino owners and bad luck for gamblers. Nyla will of course never tell you which one it is or whether it is in the casino anymore. Then there are the roulette tables. One was a perennial problem. They changed the direction but that no good. Then they swapped numbers. Roulette table one was changed to table two and vice versa. And finally they did a grand lakshmi puja to make it work.
For gamblers, casinos also have an in-house astrologer. He is perched at the entrance, to predict the future. Of course gamblers are interested in their next one hour future and the key question: will they hit the jackpot or go out bankrupt? Clever as they are, the astrologers will tell you everything but that. They beat about the bush and the closest they get to is your planetary position, which is neither here nor there.
I did not get a chance to interact with the astrologer at Nyla’s casino. The day I went he was on leave. The next day, he was surrounded by gamblers, of course, wanting to know whether they will win or not. Getting the job as casino panditjee was not easy. He was actually made to write an exam before he was selected: “We shortlisted six astrologers, got in clients to ask questions “three per pandit” and asked them to predict their past, present and future. The selection was based on who was most accurate,” Nyla told me. Virendra Kapre made it to the job. A tight ropewalk for him because God help him if he has even hinted that the client will win and he loses.
My gambling skills are restricted to slot machines but in the Shangri-La they were deserted: “Kids play,” sniggered a regular. And at the tables, where I played Black Jack, I lost. The roulette, which is fun, was of course overcrowded and there was little chance of getting a turn. All through I saw Nyla keep a safe distance from the game. When I coaxed her, she said she never gambles. Nor do I, I said, but it was no use. She was adamant and said rather philosophically: “Since I run a casino, it is only right that I do not gamble. If I start gambling, I will cease to be objective.” Made sense but somehow I found it tough to fit in the seriousness with Nyla’s persona. I was unsure whether this was for my benefit, like many of the things she said, or the truth. Nevertheless, Nyla did not play that night. In any case her job which is running the two dozen odd departments of the casino is a day job where she manages and controls the functioning of the casino and ensures a smooth run minus glitches.
An interesting department is the sales department: its USP: to identify gamblers, woo them and get them hooked to the casino. The sales team, has among others, the soft-spoken and absolutely adorable girl Rita. She only knows how to smile. She took me around the serpentine by lanes of Kathmandu and also the Pashupatinath temple. For their third anniversary this year, the sales team was packed off to India to identify gamblers and get them over to Kathmandu. They focused on Punjab, UP, Delhi and Mumbai and roped in 50 gamblers. Hard core gamblers given that their gambling range was anything between anything between 2 lakhs to ten lakhs per night. Don’t ask me where I got the figures, because Nyla didn’t tell me. Nor did Rita. Yet they are authentic.
Apart from wooing gamblers, the sales department also initiates the uninitiated. They entice, if I may use the word, them with free play coupons in the hope that they would get hooked on and turn into major players: actually gamblers to say it upfront.
I was also led into a secret zone where there were several computers monitoring the goings-on in the casino. This is to check cheating, Nyla told me giving me a step-by-step account of how they keep tabs on unruly elements.
Casino Shangri-La also has lady bouncers. Sixteen in all. Nyla claims they are the best. They range from Nepal’s boxing and karate champions to judo blackbelts: “They can handle four guys at a time.” One of them was Jharna, who escorted us and looked too soft to even hurt a fly. Women bouncers, Nyla, says was because her boss (Shalini) wanted them: “Hire them she commanded and I did,” Nyla told me saying that she is a yes- boss- kind-of-a-person. It was quite apparent that she hero-worshipped Shalini: Ma’am and Sir (Wadhwa couple) mean the world to me, she coo-ed. Whether she gets her never say die spirit from her employers or whether it is inherent is difficult to say but Nyla holds the flag high in their absence.
So, next time you are in Kathmandu, wish Nyla and she will teach you everything there is to learn about casinos. Even better, send her sales team to search you out and hand over free coupons: Nyla or New York, Los Angeles which according to her is the expanded form of her name.