Essay : Delhi, India, economy, financial, nouveau riche, automobile, society, global market
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 22:27 GMT
This essay appeared in Granta 107
It all comes together on the roads.
Delhi is a segregated city; an impenetrable, wary city – a city with a fondness for barbed wire, armed guards and guest lists. Though its population now knocks up against twenty millions, India’s capital remains curiously faithful to the spirit of the British administrative enclave with which it began: Delhiites admire social rank, name-dropping and exclusive clubs, and they snub strangers who turn up without a proper introduction. The Delhi newspapers pay tribute every morning to the hairstyles and parties of its rich, and it is they, with their high-walled compounds and tinted car windows, who define the city’s aspirations. Delhi’s millionaires are squeamish about public places, and they don’t like to go out unless there are sufficient valets and guards to make them feel at home, and prices exorbitant enough to keep undesirables outside.
But in this segregated city, everyone comes together on the roads. The subway network is still incomplete, there are few local trains (unlike Bombay), and you can’t take a helicopter to work (unlike São Paulo) – the draconian security regulations prevent that. So the Delhi roads accommodate every kind of citizen, and offer a unique exhibition of the city’s social relations.
On the eve of “liberalisation” in 1991 – when the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh opened the economy up to global money flows, so bringing an end to four decades of centralised planning – there were three varieties of car on sale in India. The Hindustan Ambassador and Premier Padmini had both been around for thirty years and it took seven years to acquire one – production was limited to a few thousand a year and ownership restricted, in practice, to bureaucrats and senior businessmen. The compact Maruti 800, by contrast, was a recent arrival that had been conceived as a “people’s car”: with a quota of 150,000 a year it had brought the possibility of private car travel within reach, for the first time, of the middle classes.
Nearly twenty years on, those three originals have all but vanished in the flurry of new brands that liberalisation ushered in (though the stately Ambassador remains the preferred conveyance for Delhi’s politicians and senior bureaucrats). The new economic regime stimulated more Indian companies, such as Tata, to start building cars, but it also brought in the global giants – Hyundai, then Ford, GM and Toyota, and sooner or later everyone else – and now, with car markets declining around the world, they are looking to India to take up some slack. India’s car consumption is ten times what it was in 1991, and rising rapidly, and the effect in the cities is deadlock. The stricken carriageways are never adequate for the car mania, no matter how many new lanes and flyovers are built – and in Delhi, most cars are stationery most of the time. Hemmed in by the perpetual emergency of roadworks, and governed by traffic lights that can stay red for ten minutes, the situation is unpromising. Delhi drivers, moreover, never confident that any system will produce benefits for all, try to beat the traffic with an opportunistic hustle that often turns to a great honking blockage, smothered in the smoke of so many engines air-conditioning their passengers against the forty-degree heat. The main gainers are foot-bound magazine sellers, who move fast and offer something to while away the time.
Another distraction for unmoving drivers: the endless automobile reveries posted up on hoardings, images of a parallel world where the roads are open, and driving is sexy and carefree.
With so many cars jammed up against each other, each as hobbled as the next, road travel could threaten to undermine the steep gradients of Delhi’s social hierarchies. But here the recent car profusion steps in to solve the very problem it creates. The contemporary array of brands and models supplies a useful code of social status to offset the anonymity of driving, and the vertiginous altitude of Delhi’s class system comes through admirably, even on the horizontal roads. Car brands regulate the relationships between drivers: impatient Mercedes flash Marutis to let them through the throng, and Marutis move aside. BMW limousines are so well insulated that passengers don’t even hear the unflinching horn with which chauffeurs disperse everything in their path. Canary yellow Hummers lumber over the concrete barriers from the heaving jam into the empty bus lane and accelerate illegally past the masses – and traffic police look away, for which cop is going to risk his life to challenge the entitlement of rich kids? Yes, the privileges of brand rank are enforced by violence if need be: a Hyundai driver gets out of his car to kick in the doors of a Maruti that kept him dawdling behind, while young men in a Mercedes chase after a Tata driver who dared abuse them out of the window, running him down and slapping him as if he were an insubordinate kid.
There is nothing superficial about brands in contemporary Delhi. This is a place where one’s social significance is assumed to be nil unless there are tangible signs to the contrary, so the need for such signs is authentic and fierce. And in these times of stupefying upheaval, when all old meanings are under assault, it is corporate brands that seem to carry the most authority. Brands hold within them the impressive infinity of the new global market. They hold out the promise of dignity and distinction in a harsh city that constantly tries to withhold these things. They even offer clarity in intimate questions: “He drives a Honda City,” a woman says, meaningfully, about a prospective son-in-law. Brands help to stave off the terror of senselessness, and the more you have, the better. Where the old socialist elite was frugal and unkempt, the new Delhi aristocracy is exuberantly consumerist. With big cars and designer accessories, it literally advertises its supremacy, creating waves of adoration and hatred on every side.
Somewhere around 4am on the morning of January 10, 1999, a car sped along Lodhi Road, a broad, leafy artery flanked by Delhi’s parks and richest residential areas. At the wheel was a drunk young man named Sanjeev Nanda, who was returning home from a party with two friends. The car was a £100,000 BMW, one of the manufacturer’s largest and most luxurious models, which had been privately imported and still carried foreign plates. Later estimates said it was travelling at 140km per hour; at any rate, it went out of control when it reached a police checkpoint and crashed through the barrier, ploughing into seven people, and killing six instantly: three policemen and three labourers. Witnesses said that two men got out to see what had happened; when they saw the bodies and the screaming survivors they got back in the car and drove off in a panic, running over one of the prostrate figures as they went.
Sanjeev Nanda was a charismatic twenty-one year-old who had just graduated from Wharton Business School. His lineage was deluxe: his grandfather was Admiral S. M. Nanda, Chief of India’s Naval Staff, who, like several other well-connected figures in the Indian armed services, had made big money in his retirement by setting up as an arms dealer, brokering deals between foreign arms companies and his former colleagues. The business flourished further under the shrewd eye of Sanjeev’s father, Suresh, whose acquisition of Delhi’s elegant Claridges Hotel was only a small part of a network of investments and acquisitions he built in India and around the world.
After the accident, Sanjeev sped away to the nearby house of one of his companions, who were also from elite business families. This man’s father owned a finance company and was used to grasping complex situations quickly: he immediately ordered his driver to move the BMW off the road and into his compound. The front of the car was covered in a gory mat of blood and flesh, and the guard was given the job of cleaning it up. But it had left a trail of leaking oil as it fled, which the police were able to follow to the house. They turned up in the middle of the clean-up, arrested Sanjeev and took him, still drunk, into custody.
The case should have been simple, but it was to melt away under the backstage influence of the Nanda family. Manoj Malik, the only one of the seven victims to survive his injuries, changed his story during the trial to say that it was probably a truck, and not a BMW, that had hit him. The only independent witness, Sunil Kulkarni, who had been passing by that night and had described bodies flying over the BMW’s roof, withdrew his testimony and said that he had made it under pressure from the Delhi Police, who were supposedly conspiring against Sanjeev Nanda. Sanjeev himself alleged he had not been in the car that night, which was registered in his sister’s name, and denied any connection to the incident. The Nanda family tried to dissipate ill-feeling by making unofficial payments to the victims’ families. The case lost steam and life went on. Out on bail, Sanjeev did an MBA at INSEAD in Paris, became Managing Director of the family hotel business, and moved into a penthouse at Claridges. Manoj Malik mysteriously disappeared.
Suresh Nanda’s business was hit with unfortunate publicity: an undercover investigation into arms procurement corruption carried out by journalists from the critical newspaper, Tehelka, found that he had paid large bribes to government ministers in return for favourable consideration of his clients’ products. He was charged with corruption and let out on bail while the Central Bureau of Investigation looked into his affairs. It emerged that he ran an internet procurement monopoly that gave him a guaranteed cut of the vast business of government tenders, and the newspapers expressed outrage that he could continue to enjoy this privilege even as that same government had him under investigation. Before long, he was caught offering a bribe of a hundred million rupees (£1.4m) to a tax official who was offering to hush up the investigation, and he and Sanjeev were sent to jail for fourteen days.
Then the BMW case took a new turn. The discredited witness, Sunil Kulkarni, in an attempt to show the world what pressure he was under, took undercover television journalists to a secret meeting with representatives of the Nanda family. This operation revealed that the Nandas were paying the lawyers on both sides of the case, who were working together to keep Kulkarni silent. The lawyers were dismissed and the case was finally heard in the Supreme Court. In September 2008, nine years after the incident, Sanjeev Nanda was convicted of mowing down six people while driving in a drunken condition, and sentenced to five years imprisonment – an extraordinary moment when, contrary to expectations and experience, it was shown that the Indian elite cannot always make its acts disappear.
Contemporary Indian society is transfixed by wealth. A new genre of popular magazine is filled from cover to cover with features about gold-plated bathtubs, diamond-encrusted mobile phones and super-deluxe vacations, allowing readers to wallow in what they can never afford. Television game shows give weight to the seductive whispers of the market, showing working people in the very moment they are transformed into millionaires. People love to read about the possessions, opinions and talents of India’s leading industrialists, some of whom have succeeded in creating quasi-religious cults around themselves. Criticism of the rich results in astonishing waves of rebuttal by ordinary people who feel it is an attack on their national pride.
But this determined adoration of the rich co-exists with something else: something more crepuscular, full of fear and night-time jolts. In a society as stratified as this, it is possible to imagine that the ones at the top of society enjoy endless freedom – freedom so absolute that the only adequate use of it would be cruelty. For most people, Delhi life remains gruelling and deprived, the inconceivable promise of the global market unfulfilled, and this feeling of perpetual deficit lets in apprehensions of a vampiric ruling class, sucking the plenitude away from everyone else. This is the feeling that finds resonance in the story of Sanjeev Nanda, which has become one of Delhi’s most popular parables. This story erupts into the public domain with the delicious nausea of something widely felt, but rarely observed: the recklessness of this economic system, its out-of-control heartlessness. Nanda’s speeding BMW is a symbol of gleaming, maleficent capital, unchecked by conscience or by the roadblocks of the state. The scene of the impact, a 100-metre stretch of road strewn with organs, severed limbs and pools of blood, is like a morality painting of the cataclysmic effects of this marauding elite in the world of ordinary people.
In this nightmare version of the rich, they are no longer the pride of the nation but invaders from outside, representatives of trans-national currents who are never authentically committed to the Indian good. Much was made, in the Sanjeev Nanda story, of his British passport and his imported car, as if his fatal velocity was that of foreign forces whose impact, here in India, could only be catastrophic. The Indian road has not been given over to speed as it has elsewhere; it is a place of innumerable modes of transport, a place of commerce, leisure and bureaucracy, a place cluttered with history. Even the most powerful men in the country cannot expect that clean lines will open up for them through the Indian reality. Only someone with no connection to that reality could imagine such a thing.
The society that has emerged in post-liberalisation India is one consumed both by euphoria and dread. The rich are the emblems for both these sentiments, which is why they never settle into a single meaning. They are the simultaneous saints and demons of contemporary India, and any consideration of them oscillates with powerfully contradictory feeling.
In the Western press, the face of the “new India” is typically urbane. It might be that of the exquisitely suited Azim Premji, Chairman of Wipro Technologies, and staple of every Asian power list, who studied at Stanford, inherited a successful vegetable oil company and turned it into a global technology enterprise. It could be the face of Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys Technologies, Forbes Asia’s “Business Leader of the Year 2006,” and author of the recent Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century. English-speaking, intelligent and articulate, these billionaires are the kind of men the West can do business with. They are regularly invited to explain India’s economic growth to international business conferences and journals, where they project a rational and understated image of the country. They reassure Western audiences that the “new India” will be no more than an annexe of the old West: that the future of India, and therefore, to some extent, of the world, will be intelligible and familiar.
In truth, however, the anglicised class to which Azim Premji and Nandan Nilekani belong is becoming marginalised from Indian society. Immense upheavals are afoot, and English-speaking sophisticates now speak about themselves as harried and besieged. They still enjoy many privileges, but as time goes on they see their values and sensibilities disappearing from the media and the streets, and they are faced with the troubling realisation that they no longer rule this society or dominate its imagination – or even understand the first thing about it.
Rajiv Desai, a fan of the Beatles and the New Yorker, who spent twenty years working in Chicago before returning to Delhi and setting up one of India’s leading PR firms, is quite clear:
“Many of my friends are moving to Goa. There are so many people like me who have a second home in Goa, which is the only place you can still find anglicised values. People have intelligent conversation. There’s standing room only in the jazz clubs. My house in Goa’s not a country home, it’s a second home, where I go to be myself and preserve my sanity. I can’t stay the whole year in Delhi. It’s backward. You take your life in your hands on the roads, you see the kind of people there are. It’s been taken over by Hindi speakers and loud Punjabi festivals like karva chauth that no one used to make a fuss about twenty years back.”
The Indian economy of the turn of the twenty-first century has been far too explosive for the tiny English-speaking class to monopolise its rewards. In fact they have not even been its primary beneficiaries. Their foreign degrees and cosmopolitan behaviour prepare them well for jobs in international banks and management consultancies, where they earn good salaries and mix with people like themselves. But they are surrounded by very different people – private businessmen, entrepreneurs, real estate agents, retailers and general wheeler-dealers – who are making far more money than they, and wielding more political power. These people may come from smaller cities, they may be less worldly, and they may speak only broken English. But they are skilled in the realm of opportunity and profit, and they are at home in the booming world of overlords, connections, bribes, political loopholes, sweeteners – and occasional violence – that sends their anglicised peers running for the nearest cappuccino. Over the last few years, provincials have become Delhi’s dominant economic group, with many millionaires, and a few billionaires, among their number, and networks of political protection that make them immensely more influential than those who have got rich on a salary.
Saif Rizvi, a sociable young plastic surgeon who has grown up mostly in Saudi Arabia and the United States, is one of many who are affronted by the new arrivals. Prominent Muslims from Lucknow, his family traces its lineage back five hundred years, and Saif has a healthy contempt for Delhi’s upstarts:
“Oh my God, the nouveaux riches. Yeah I see them everywhere I go, man, you see the way they walk into the clubs, the way they order their drinks. They’re horrible. The only thing those guys have that’s nice is their cars. The nicest cars pull up and the most horrible people get out. Horrible bodies, horrible teeth, horrible voice modulation.”
Saif moved from New York to Delhi to take over the family clinic when his father was killed by a truck on a road in Uttar Pradesh two years ago, and he is gloomy about his new surroundings. He is alienated by Delhi conversation, and he takes refuge in ex-pat social evenings.
“I’m not impressed by Delhi since these guys came into money. Now the clubs cater to them, the TV and everything. Everywhere they play Bollywood music, man, that’s what these guys like.”
Rizvi is a DJ in his spare time; he plays the sort of psychedelic trance that gives Delhi’s Cambridge- and Berkeley-educated youth a good environment to take MDMA and escape from the city’s grind.
“The Ministry of Sound set up a club in Delhi and you know what kind of music they played? Bollywood. Can you believe it? The Ministry of Sound is supposed to be cutting edge, and they play Bollywood songs! Just to keep those guys happy!”
Unfortunately for Saif, the laments of disdainful cosmopolites like him carry less weight these days. The city now looks to the Bollywood-loving provincials, who have reaped billions in the early twenty-first century boom, and turned the city’s club-like mentality upside-down. The rewards of that boom have flowed to them because its implausible escalations rode on the one thing they had that Delhi people did not: land.
In 1957, Prime Minister’s Jawaharlal Nehru’s government consolidated the capital’s planning and development agencies into the new Delhi Development Authority. The DDA had sole responsibility for planning and executing the city’s expansion and development and, in order to fulfil this, it had the right to acquire land forcibly and at greatly reduced prices. It was a development monopoly, whose exclusivity was guaranteed by laws making it impossible for private individuals or companies to own more than a few acres of land within the Delhi borders.
The DDA was given such enormous power over the landscape of this new capital that one can only be in awe, today, of the mediocrity of its achievements. The drab, mouldering tower that the agency calls home is fully indicative of the DDA’s preferred architectural style: the countless housing developments it has built across Delhi are warren-like and poky, and by now they are leaking and falling down. Nehru Place, the ugly office complex built by the DDA in the 1980s, is in ruins, and has now been mostly abandoned by companies fleeing to new accommodation outside Delhi. Nehru Stadium, which the DDA built for the Asian Games in 1980, has had to be entirely rebuilt in order to serve for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Such physical rot is an outward indication of the enormous corruption that gripped the DDA in its heyday of the 70s and 80s. Since no one else could own land for development, the agency was able to control the entire construction business – and to charge money for access. It would keep the supply of land low, sitting on its bank of rusty, disused plots and selling building contracts to the highest bidder. Building contractors would then claw the expense of their bribes back, once they were given a contract, by cutting every kind of corner on construction. In a city of Delhi’s size and prestige, this racket was big business, and some of the largest fortunes in the city were made by mid-level DDA engineers whose job it was to rubber-stamp new projects – and many of them resisted promotion out of these lucrative positions for years.
But the disaster of the DDA created a set of other, unexpected effects, whose long-term impact was even more momentous. With the city of Delhi completely sealed to private commercial development, a number of individuals began in the 1980s to buy up land in the surrounding states. It was a quiet and laborious process, and most of the people who began it were not from the urban elite. They came from small towns, they understood how to do business with farmers, and they operated in areas that seemed impossibly backward and remote to Delhi businesspeople.
One of these men was Kushal Pal Singh, who came from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and whose father-in-law’s real-estate business was decimated when the DDA was set up. Singh was charged with reviving the business, later called DLF, and in 1979, unable to operate in Delhi, he began to buy up rural land to the south of city, in the state of Haryana. This is how he describes the process:
"I did everything it took to persuade these farmers to trust me. I spent weeks and months with their families. I wore kurtas, sat on charpoys, drank fly-infested milk from dirty glasses, attended weddings, visited the sick. To understand why this was important, it is necessary to understand the landholding pattern. The average plot size in Gurgaon was four to five acres, mostly held by Hindu undivided families. Legally, to get clear titles, I needed the consent of every adult member of these families. That could be up to thirty people for one sale deed. Getting the married daughters to sign was often tricky because the male head of the family would refuse to share the proceeds of the sale with them. So I would travel to their homes and pay the daughters in secret. Remarkably, Gurgaon’s farmers sold me land on credit. I would pay one farmer and promptly take the money back as a loan and use that to buy more land. The firm’s good will made them willing to act as bankers for DLF. But it also meant I had to be extra careful about interest payments. Come rain or shine, the interest would be hand-delivered to each farmer on the third of every month at 10 am. We bought 3,500 acres of land in Gurgaon, more than half of it on credit, without one litigation against DLF."
When men like Singh first called Delhi building companies to trudge out into the far-off brushland and build middle-class apartment complexes, the contractors thought they were mad. They drove out in jeeps, lurching over the baked earth, and stood in the naked expanse, where brightly turbaned villagers lived in huts and tended goats, and they wondered which Delhi banker or advertising executive would ever venture there. But by the 1990s, Delhi was caught in a real-estate crisis. Delhi’s megacity population was growing faster than anyone could build, and the city anyway had little space left for new housing developments. The DDA had made almost no provision for commercial real estate, and big companies were operating out of cramped domestic basements. The quaint community markets built in the socialist era were entirely inadequate for exhibiting the products of the new consumer economy. So when Gurgaon opened its doors, proclaiming a “new Singapore” of glass office blocks, gated communities, golf courses and shopping, it did not take long for the corporate classes to respond. Flush with boom cash, India’s banks handed out loans to anyone who asked, and house prices were rising so fast that it made sense for everyone to put their savings into property. Microsoft and its ilk built their Indian headquarters in the thrilling emptiness of the Haryana countryside, and Gurgaon quickly became the largest private township in Asia, a dusty, booming expanse of hypertrophic apartment complexes, skyscrapers and malls. In 2007, K.P. Singh listed his company on the Indian stock exchanges; the 2008 Forbes list estimated him to be the world’s eighth-richest man, with a fortune of thirty billion dollars.
Gurgaon was only the largest and most prestigious of many such developments across Haryana and U.P., and K.P. Singh’s fortune only the most fabulous of countless others. The land surrounding Delhi was an amazing commodity, doubling in value every three or four years, and multiplying its value sixty times with the simple addition of bricks, concrete and a bit of cheap labour, and the 2000s saw a desperate land rush. Hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land were sold on to developers. Companies that had previously made their money from other things suddenly switched to real estate, and major banks such as Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley queued up to fund them. Small-time developers from drab little towns like Ghaziabad became serious property moguls, who bought mansions in Delhi, threw glitzy parties with Bollywood star entertainment, and sent their sons to U.S. business schools to learn how to run billion-dollar businesses. Even farmers walked away from land deals with a few million dollars in their trunks, and bought hulking SUVs for their sons, who brought them to Delhi and drove with macho glee around the seat of power. Such windfalls were often quickly spent, but the more astute of these families set up real-estate businesses, and took further slices of the pie. Some of the real-estate agents who had set out on their mopeds a few years ago to sell all this new property now received Mercedes and apartments as bonuses. As always, politicians, made a killing. Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom agriculture was sacrosanct, had cast stringent rules to prevent just such a land grab as this, and U.P.’s legendarily entrepreneurial politicians made sure that people paid well to have such an august tradition overturned.
This bonanza privileged those whose business methods were catholic. It was nearly impossible to operate at any significant scale without a wide network of paid connections among politicians, bureaucrats and the police. Moreover, amid such intense competition, the acquisition frenzy sometimes abandoned the delicacy of K.P. Singh’s recollections. Real estate mafias grabbed country houses in Haryana and employed senior policemen to silence the owners by filing false criminal charges against them. In Uttar Pradesh, they forced farmers and tribal communities to sell them their land under threat of violence, employed the local police to clear the locals off, and sold it on at a large profit. There was a general escalation of criminality and violence, and the people who came through with new fortunes were a formidable breed. They knew how to hijack state power for their own private profit, and they enjoyed the support of the police and of much-feared extortion gangs. Such people had cracked the muscular equation of contemporary India, and they spurned its liberal platitudes as just so much pious cant. These were the ones who became suddenly and gleefully conspicuous in Delhi, arousing the resentment of people like Rajiv Desai and Saif Rizvi.
During all this action in Haryana and U.P., Delhi’s own property prices had reached fairytale levels. In 2006, at the height of the boom, industrialists and property moguls were paying almost 1.5 billion rupees (then $33 million) for Delhi mansions. Even retired army officers or journalists, to whom the state had given spacious plots at knock-down prices in the 1950s, suddenly found they were sitting on property worth two or three million dollars – and since they often didn’t have much in their bank accounts, they decided to sell. But like everyone else selling property in Delhi, they set the official price low and took the majority of the money in cash so as to reduce the tax bill on their profits. Who could buy property at those prices on those terms? What kind of people were walking around with, say, a million dollars in cash? It was not the cosmopolitan children of the original Delhi middle class, who worked as PR executives or TV newscasters, and for whom a million dollars of black money was a tall order. These people were moving out of the city into Gurgaon flats. No: the people with the suitcases of cash were, as likely as not, property tycoons, industrialists, politicians or criminals. The capital of “shining India” was being systematically handed over from its middle classes to a new black money elite, and it was this group who was increasingly setting the tone – aesthetic, commercial and ethical – for everyone else.
Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka, is a prominent Delhi figure who has devoted the last decade of his life to documenting corruption and violence in the twenty-first century Indian ruling class. His newspaper made its name with a sting operation in which senior government ministers were videotaped accepting bribes in return for their consideration of the products of a fictional British arms company, and boasting openly about other money they had made in this fashion. Another Tehelka sting operation helped to put the son of a powerful Haryana politician behind bars after he shot a waitress dead for refusing to serve him a drink: the gunman had been acquitted by the courts, but Tehelka’s intervention showed that the witnesses had been paid off by his family. Tehelka has published an unparalleled study of the 2002 slaughter of two thousand Muslims in the state of Gujarat – a set of interviews that proved what many suspected: that the state had actively colluded in the event. The magazine has tirelessly documented the ongoing land-grab by which vast tracts of Indian territory are seized from farmers and handed over to corporations under the recent Special Economic Zone Act. In a country of complacent, celebrity-happy newspapers, Tehelka is a major journalistic achievement, and one might expect Tarun to be quietly satisfied. But he is not.
“No one cares,” he says. “There are no ideas except the idea of more wealth. The elite doesn’t read. They know how to work the till, and that’s it. There’s nothing: we are living in the shallowest decade you can imagine. Rural India, that’s eight hundred million people, has simply fallen out of the master narrative of this country. There should have been an enormous political left in India, but people worship the rich and there’s no criticism of what they do. They face no consequences; they live in an atmosphere of endless possibility.”
“Do you think anything will come of all this money they’re making?” I ask. “Do you think they’ll try to leave behind a legacy?”
“They don’t care about their legacy! This is a Hindu society: I’m back for a million more lives – how much fuss am I going to make about this one? Indian businesspeople might run a school or feed a few orphans but they’re not interested in reform because they are bent on making the system work for them. Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalises inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it.”
There’s an incredible energy to Tarun. Messages arrive constantly on his two mobile phones, and he answers them without a break in his oration. Over the course of the last few years, while managing a weekly magazine, he has somehow found enough spare time to write two novels. The second, The Story of My Assassins , has recently come out. It is a devastating portrait of Indian society, a tale of such hopeless horror and violence that the reader is left beaten down and without response.
Tarun is never lost for words, but as we talk I get the feeling that he too is becoming disillusioned. Tehelka has got him into a lot of trouble: he has faced death threats for his journalism, and ministers have tried to bury him with tax investigations and libel suits. The magazine runs on a shoestring: advertisers have stayed far away, and corporate funders have been advised to pull out. Tarun is a well-connected man from a good army family, but over the last few years many of his connections have turned away. Some have even suggested that he is in pay of foreign agents and that this is why he writes so critically of the Indian state. All this has left him wondering whether the enterprise of trying to tell the truth as he sees it – “Free, fair, fearless” goes Tehelka’s slogan – is simply pointless.
“The dominant mood is frenzied accumulation,” he says. “The corporations and the state are in bed with each other, eating and drinking the country out of everything it has. The Ganges is becoming a trickle: the most fertile river basin in the world. But the truth is that no one is interested in what’s really going on. We don’t even have a vocabulary to talk about it.”
To find a reason big enough for such a startling predicament, Tarun burrows into history.
“It all goes back to colonisation: we’re a damaged people. We were a subordinate race for three hundred years and it’s made us envious. Now people are coming into wealth for the first time, they’re discovering goodies, and they want them for themselves. They don’t want anyone spoiling the party. Their parents were completely different: they weren’t extravagant, they never ate out, they were still inspired by Gandhi. This generation has nothing in its head except goodies.”
Our conversation is brought to an end by the arrival of Tarun’s next visitor. As I leave him I find myself looking for ways out of the sealed box of his hopelessness. I can’t disagree with his morose assessment of what is happening around us: it is difficult to live here and not be stupefied by the speed and brutality with which every resource is being fenced in, mined and commodified. But is it true, as he implies, that north Indian Hindus are simply programmed by their history and religion to be rapacious? Capitalism is rapacious, and its new elites, wherever they have been in the world, have usually risen sternly. Is the new Indian elite worse than everyone else? Is it worse, moreover, than the socialist ruling class that went before? It is so common, these days, to hear people indicting the vulgar new India, as Tarun does, by comparing it unfavourably to the more genteel socialist system of the old days. But wasn’t the socialist elite just as cruel and corrupt, even as it quoted Shakespeare and Marx? Isn’t there much that is positive in the explosive dynamism of the contemporary Indian economy?
I go to have lunch with a psychotherapist, Anurag Mishra. I tell him about a man I recently met who told me a story curiously similar to the Sanjeev Nanda incident.
“His son called him to say he had just killed a man with his car,” I say. “The son was in a panic and didn’t know what to do. There were injured people lying on the street. The father told him, Get out of there as quickly as you can. His son had borrowed his car but he was only sixteen and shouldn’t have been driving at all. So he told him to run. Isn’t that surprising?”
“Not really. He’s an Indian father, and he’ll protect his son above everything else. A car accident is a matter of perception, it’s a trick of fate, but a father’s duty to his son is absolute. Do you think he’s going to say, Confess to what you have done and pay the price? This isn’t a guilt culture. In the Indian psyche, you dissociate yourself from the bad things you have done, and then they’re not yours anymore. That’s why you can never make any accusation stick to a businessman or a politician. They won’t even recognise the crimes you’re accusing them of. They’ll probably have you beaten up for insulting them.”
We are in an Italian-style café. Anurag is talking too much to touch his Caesar salad.
“Delhi is a city of traumas,” he says. “You can’t understand anything if you don’t realise that everyone here is trying to forget the horrifying things that have happened in their families. Delhi was destroyed by the British in 1857. It was destroyed again by Partition in 1947. It was torn apart by the anti-Sikh rampages of 1984. Each of these moments destroyed the culture of the city, and that is the greatest trauma of all. Your entire web of meanings is tied up in culture, and if that is lost, your self is lost.”
He tells me stories of clients of his who have been torn apart by returning memories of Partition horrors – memories they had successfully buried for sixty years. He tells stories of the recollections of violence and deprivation that remain frighteningly persistent even in the minds of those who have made good money in the last few years.
“That’s why Delhi is by far the most consumerist city in India,” he continues. “People buy obscene amounts of stuff here. Delhi has an impoverished symbolic vocabulary: there hasn’t been enough time since all these waves of destruction for its symbols to be restored. If I don’t have adequate symbols of the self, I can’t tell the difference between me and mine. So people buy stuff all the time to try and make up for the narcissistic wound. It’s their defence against history.”
“Don’t you think it will get boring after a while? If it’s as you say, people will surely realise after a while that buying stuff isn’t solving anything. Maybe they’ll try something else? Maybe their children will rebel?”
“This is very interesting,” he says. “You know about the Oedipus complex? Freud said this was the universal condition of young men: they unconsciously want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. That’s the source of revolutionary energy – you kill your father symbolically by rejecting all his values and finding new ones. But I don’t think this applies to Indian men. I would analyse Indian men in terms of what I call the Rama complex. In the Ramayana, Rama gives up the throne that is rightfully his and submits himself to enormous suffering in order to conform to the will of his father. Indian men don’t wish to kill their fathers, they wish to become them, they wish to empty themselves out of everything that has not come from their fathers.”
Like Tarun, Anurag sees the fundamental structures as fixed and preordained, even as the surface of Indian life changes so fast. Once again I struggle to find a way out. Surely it’s not enough to say that the business elite is so in thrall to its own wounds and traumas that it cannot restrain its own reckless impulses? – for these people are striking primarily for their astonishing boldness, not their limitations. I ask Anurag about his own relationship to money.
“During the British time,” he says, “my grandfather was a freedom fighter. After independence he became a Congress politician. My father was a college teacher and member of the Communist Party. Both of them were idealistic and frugal, and I was always taught to think that people with money were bad. They had to be doing something seedy, and probably criminal. At school I envied the boys with money because they had stuff I wanted, but I also thought they must be bad.”
We’ve finished lunch by now and moved out to the café’s terrace so that Anurag can smoke one of his beloved cigars.
“I didn’t have money for most of my life and it was a big problem for me when I began to practise as a psychiatrist. I didn’t know how to relate to myself as someone with money. I didn’t really believe that I deserved money, or that I had the right to charge for my services. When I first got money I started eating a lot and I got very fat. I ate bad things, just wanting to fill myself up. I’ve only made my peace with money quite recently. I’ve lost all that weight. Now I think it’s OK to give myself good things. Like this lunch. I don’t have to have twenty bad things: I can have one good thing, and it’s better than that excess.”
As he talks I realise how complicated it must be for him to watch the unrestrained consumption of the new rich with whom he shares his city. I realise that, for a certain segment of the anglicised middle class, the new rich offend sentiments that are so deep and complex that the only possible response is profound anxiety and revulsion. I realise that there really is no simple way out of the gloom they feel about the present moment; I understand why these conversations always hit dead ends.
If people like Tarun and Anurag refer back so nostalgically to the socialist period it’s because, no matter how hypocritical it was, the socialist regime at least took the trouble to legitimise itself in terms they could recognise. This modicum of intellectual correspondence with the ruling class seems positively alluring now that the people who are shaping their world are so adamantly opaque. Where possible, the new Indian elite runs private companies that have no shareholders and no scrutiny – and often it conducts its ground-level operations through a myriad of other companies whose ownership is deliberately obscure. It amasses invisible fortunes and pays very little tax. It does not like to seek funds from public sources; instead it forms alliances with other secretive and cash-rich elites, such as the Russian billionaires. It keeps such a low profile that some of its richest and most enterprising individuals return no entries on Google. It operates behind high walls; it is energised, rather than outraged, by the immense disparities in the world, and it is pretty much indifferent to public outcry or media exposé: you can think whatever you like, there is no dialogue.
I can find little reassurance for someone like Tarun Tejpal. There is nothing trivial about his feelings of outrage and impotence. They are feelings, in fact, that accompany the north Indian business class wherever they go: both Mumbai and Bangalore have significant political movements devoted to protecting local society against the ferocious business acumen of north Indian entrepreneurs. It is true what he says: in these times it is difficult to make any mark on Indian public life through the subtlety or distinction of one’s thought. People whose talents and tastes lie in that direction can do what they like; for the time being the rules are set by others.
And perhaps Tarun’s are the dominant global feelings, in fact, of the times to come – for the new Indian elite is charismatic and muscular and ultimately well reared for the age of globalisation. In all their grandiose unsentimentality they remind us that a lot of the comfortable myths we have been told about capitalism are simply that. In truth, it is a flailing, terrifying thing.
MC makes a timid entrance into the quiet hotel lounge where he has asked me to meet him. He wears a black turban and suit; he is stocky and muscular and speaks with a faint lisp. He is twenty-eight years old.
He is not particularly talkative. I try to break the ice by telling him that we have a friend in common, and we talk about her for a while. He relaxes. I ask him about his life.
“Until I was a teenager,” he says, “I thought my dad worked for the government. I used to ask, Why do we have this big house? They told me, Your grandfather built it, then we lost the money and now your dad works for the government.”
In truth, MC’s father ran a large assembly of businesses across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. The mainstay of this empire was liquor retail, a business which, in gangster states like U.P., offers rewards only to the shrewd, charismatic and violent. Other people with MC’s background have told me how they grew up hearing their fathers giving assassination orders over the phone – but at this early point in the conversation he is too professional to share such details.
“Of course there were goons around – you can’t run this kind of business without a strong arm – but my dad always kept them out of our sight. He believed in discipline. He said, If you do bad things, like if you get caught for drunk driving, I can’t get you off. A lot of powerful people said to their sons, I can get you off anything. It makes for a different kind of mentality. Of course, later I discovered that there was nothing I could have done that my dad couldn’t have got me off.”
MC’s father is present throughout his conversation as a kind of spiritual touchstone.
“The company was set up by my great grandfather in 1952. When my father took it over in the 1980s the family was in debt. Now the group has an annual turnover of $1bn. My father’s will to succeed is phenomenal. If he sets out to do something, he will get it done. If there’s someone I want to become, it’s him.”
MC speaks about the family business in the first-person plural. He has grown up absorbing business ideas and techniques, and they are a natural part of his speech.
“When our liquor business was at its height we controlled 19% of Indian liquor retail. At that time, the government auctioned liquor outlets to the highest bidder. Later on it introduced a lottery system to prevent monopolies. But we could still grow the business because we had so many employees. In any lottery in our region, out of a 100 entrants, 80 were our men.”
MC was sent to a series of expensive schools, but he was repeatedly expelled, and at the age of sixteen he dropped out for good. He went to London for a year or two to have fun: clubs, parties, and everything else that a teenager with a well-stocked bank account can think of.
When he came back he was put in charge of one of the family’s sugar mills. But his heart was not really in it – and the real estate boom was on. In 2001, the family set up a real estate business and MC, twenty-one and entirely untrained, was given the task of building the largest shopping mall in northern India.
“When I was in England I spent a lot of time walking around malls, studying how they were made. There’s no point re-inventing the wheel. I know more than anyone in India about how you set up a mall, how you arrange your brands. My father had no experience in a professional context, so everything I know about the professional context I’ve learned myself. I introduced computer systems into the business: I taught myself Oracle programming because the professional contractors were no good. Then I taught myself all about the latest building techniques. My first mall was built with special pre-fabricated steel pillars which had never been used in Indian malls before. Recently, I taught myself finance. I read finance texts online and every time I didn’t know a word I looked it up. Six months ago I didn’t know anything and now I can conduct finance meetings with PriceWaterhouse.”
MC's mall was famous for having Delhi’s most luxurious, high-tech nightclub. It was MC’s pet project, his personal party zone with endless champagne for him and his friends – and his nightly arrival there, surrounded by bodyguards, was always a frisson.
“For a time I was the man in Delhi. Loads of people wanted to be my friend. Women wanted to sleep with me. I said to my wife: if I hadn’t been married, things would have been very different. A lot of people were very fake.”
Like many Delhi rich boys, MC was given a big wedding as a way of winding down his wild years. When he was twenty-two, he married his childhood sweetheart, SK; their reception had 6,000 guests and featured dance routines by Bollywood stars Diya Mirza and Shilpa Shetty. MC still loves parties, and, as I discover during our conversation, he becomes relaxed and witty with alcohol, but there is no doubt that he has by now grown into a fully-fledged partner to his father. He’s ready to shut down his nightclub: he doesn’t have time to attend to it anymore, and he doesn’t want anyone else to run it. He operates five shopping malls across India, and he has another 1400 acres under development. And that is just the beginning. He is moving on to much bigger plans.
“We’ve just leased 700,000 acres for seventy-five years; we’re opening up food processing, sugar and flower plantations.”
He is so matter-of-fact that I’m not sure if I’ve heard correctly. We have already discussed how laborious it is to acquire land in India, buying from farmers at five or ten acres a time. I can’t imagine where he could get hold of land on that scale.
“Where?” I ask.
“Ethiopia. My father has a friend who bought land from the Ethiopian President for a cattle ranch there. The President told him he had other land for sale. My dad said, This is it, this is what we’ve been looking for, let’s go for it. We’re going in there with [exiled Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky. Africa is amazing. That’s where it’s at. You’re talking about numbers that can’t even fit into your mind yet. Reliance, Tata, all the big Indian corporations are setting up there, but we’re still ahead of the curve. I’m going to run this thing myself for the next eight years, that’s what I’ve decided. I’m not giving this to any CEO until it meets my vision. It’s going to be amazing. You should see this land: lush, green. Black soil, rivers.”
MC tells me how he has one hundred farmers from Punjab ready with their passports to set off for Ethiopia as soon as all the papers are signed.
“Africans can’t do this work. Punjabi farmers are good because they’re used to farming big plots. They’re not scared of farming 5000 acres. Meanwhile I’ll go there and set up polytechnics to train the Africans so when the sugar mills start up they’ll be ready.”
Shipping farmers from Punjab to work on African plantations is a plan of imperial proportions. And there’s something imperial about the way he says Africans. I’m stunned. I tell him so.
“Thank you,” he says.
“What is on that land right now?” I ask, already knowing that his response, too, will be imperial.
MC is excited to be talking about this. His spirits seem to be entirely unaffected by the recession that currently dominates the headlines. He orders another beer, though we have exceeded the time he allotted. All of a sudden, I find him immensely charismatic. I can see why he makes things happen: he has made me believe, as he must have made others believe, that he can do anything. I ask him how he learned to think like this.
“I’m only twenty-eight,” he says. “Why not?”
He becomes flamboyant.
“We’re going to be among the top five food processors in the world. You know the first company I’m going to buy? Heinz.”
I’m interested in his Why not? Is it on the strength of such throwaway reason that three quarters of a million acres of Ethiopia are cleared and hundreds of farmers shipped across the world? I wonder what the emotional register of this is for him. It seems as if, somewhere, it’s all a bit of a lark.
“I sometimes wonder why I work,” he says. “I do ask that question. I don’t need to work. But what else am I going to do? You can’t sit in beach resorts for three sixty-five days a year. So I think of crazy things. I like it when you think up something and it’s so wild you’re messed in the head and you think How can I do this? – and then you think Why not?”
I feel like pointing out that life holds more possibilities for someone like him than just sitting on the beach. “Messed in the head” sounds like language that remains from his wild days, as if the whole thing is about getting a high. I ask him how he wants to spend his money.
“Currently I drive a BMW 750i. It’s good for long drives to the mall I’m building in Ludhiana. The car I really want is an Aston Martin DBS. But I’ll buy it later when I deserve it more. My father wanted to buy me a nice sports car three years ago but I said, Wait. I set myself certain goals. By the time I’m forty I want a 160ft boat. I want a nice Gulfstream plane. And I want to be able to run them without it pinching me.”
MC talks as if he were saving up for a motorbike or a fridge, and suddenly he seems strangely banal. This is a man who can dream up earth-bending forms of money-making, but his ideas of spending it are consumerist in the most ordinary of ways. His middle-class vocabulary seems at odds with his multi-billion dollar international economy, and I wonder if he is deferring his sports car so as not to run out of future acquisitions too quickly. I wonder if the whole enterprise does not teeter on the edge of senselessness, if he is not in fact still waiting for someone to supply him with a meaning for this money around which his life is organised.
Unprompted, he becomes philosophical.
“I’m not religious. I’m spiritual. My basic principle is: Whatever goes around comes around. It will come back to you, you can be dead sure of that. I live my life in a Vedic way. Disciplined. No idol worship, no stupid acceptance. Also that you don’t just let someone hit you and take it from them. You give it back to them.”
I’m not sure if this last point flows from the basic principle, but I don’t question it. MC is deadly serious. He is letting me in on his knowledge. He tells me a story.
“I was at a party recently, and the waiter was handing out drinks and he moved the tray away a little too soon and this guy hadn’t got his drink. So the guy shook up a soda bottle and sprayed it in the waiter’s face. I went straight to the host and I had him chucked out of the party. You have to know how to behave. Some people only feel they have money when they can screw someone else, and then they feel, OK, I have money. You have to know how to treat normal people. You see there are two kinds of rich. There are people who’ve had money for a long time and they don’t give a fuck who you are: they’ll be nice to you anyway. Like I’m nice to people. You may get bored being around them because all they talk about is how they’ve just got back from Cannes or St Tropez, but they won’t kick you out. But the people who’ve got rich in the last five years, they turn up at a party and the first thing they do is put their car keys down on the table to show they have a Bentley. They don’t know how to behave.”
MC is a little drunk, and he’s policing boundaries that are clearer to him than to me. It’s not the first time he’s said People have to know how to behave. Once again I feel that his stand against the nihilism of the Delhi rich is all the more fervent because he is assailed by it himself. He is intimate with all the thuggish bad boys who have given people like him such a bad name (“It’s so sad what happened to Sanjeev Nanda,” he says, “he’s such a sweet guy”) and he is impressed by parables of restraint.
“I have a friend who’s a multibillionaire,” he says, “and I asked him about the best car to buy for your kids, because I’ve just had kids, and he suggested a Toyota Innova. He could afford to buy a jet for his kids but he doesn’t. They have to earn it. He just buys them an Innova. You see, people say there are bad kids but it’s all the parents’ fault. It’s totally the parents. They have fucked their kids and once that’s happened it can never be undone. One day the guy is driving a Maruti 800 the next day he’s driving an S Class and he buys Beamers for his kids when they’re ten years old and they just go crazy. The kids get fucked up.”
I’ve had a number of conversations with people in MC’s economic class and they all talk about Delhi as a kind of El Dorado, where fortunes pour in overnight, almost without your asking. In this country, at this time, they say, you’ve got to be an absolute fool to go wrong. But for all the talk of “new money,” most Delhi fortunes are not, strictly speaking, new. They have certainly exploded in the last few years, and small-town powerhouses have indeed turned into metropolitan, and even global, ones. But they rest on influence, assets and connections built over many decades, and in that sense they are wholly traditional. The sudden prominence of a new, provincial elite should not lead one to think that the economy has become somehow democratic. People like MC have always had money, and they see the world from that perspective. The gruelling, arid Delhi of so many people’s experience is not a city they know.
“Where do you place yourself in the pyramid of Delhi wealth?” I ask. “There can’t be many people turning over a billion dollars?”
“You have no idea,” he smiles condescendingly.
“This year’s Forbes list counted about twenty billionaires in this country. How many do you think there really are?”
“At least a hundred. Most people don’t go public with their money. They don’t want scrutiny. I would never list my company.”
“Who’s the most powerful person in Delhi?”
“It all depends on politics. You can have a billion but if you have no connections it doesn’t mean anything. My family has been building connections for two generations and we know everyone. We know people in every political party, we never suffer when the government changes.”
“So why do you travel with bodyguards?”
“The U.P. police intercepted communications about a plan to kidnap me, and they told my father. People want money and they think of the easiest way, which is to take it from someone who has it. They can’t do anything constructive themselves so they think short-term. We need more professionalism in India. More corporate governance. Then we’ll show the entire world.”
For good reason, MC is grateful to India.
“Since I was fourteen I’ve realised India is the place. I love this place, this is where it’s at. Elsewhere you may have as much money as Laxmi Mittal but you’re still a second-class citizen. This is your fucking country. You should do it here.”
MC tells me how he hates America.
“Why should Walmart come in here? I don’t mind Gucci and LV – they do nothing to disturb the social fabric. But keep Walmart out of here. We were under slavery for seven hundred fucking years. We’ve only been free for sixty. Give us another thirty and we will buy Walmart. I tell you, I was at a party the other day and I had my arms round two white people and I suddenly pushed them away and said, Why are you here? We don’t need you guys anymore.”
Twenty-eight years old, well travelled and richer than most people on the planet, MC's resentment towards white people is unexpectedly intense. I ask him how the world would be different if it were run by Indians.
“It will be more spiritual,” he says. But then he thinks for a moment and says,
“No. It will be exactly the same.”
I bring our conversation to an end. MC pays the bill, and we walk outside to the quiet car park.
“Thanks,” he says, shaking my hand. I don’t really know why.
His driver opens the back door of his BMW, and MC gets in. The gates open, the BMW sweeps out, and behind it an SUV full of bodyguards.
MC lives about two hundred metres away.
I drive home, thinking over our conversation. I ponder a little detail: during my loo break he took advantage of my absence to send a text message to our common friend. Just checking that I really knew her. Somewhere in MC is something alert and intimidating.
I’m still driving when he sends a text message to me, asking me not to quote certain things he has said. I write back
ok if you answer one more question. what does money mean to you?
He responds straight away:
one of the end products of my hard work, it does mean a lot I respect it it gives me more hard work and on the side a bit of luxury (:
Driving past Delhi’s sole dealer of Bentleys and Lamborghinis, I stop in on a whim and ask to speak to the manager. He’s not around and I’m sent to have coffee with the PR girls. They are appropriately attractive and, judging by their diamonds, from the right kind of family (“I’ve driven a million Porsches and Ferraris,” says one. “They’re nice cars. But when you get into a Lamborghini it’s something else”). For them, Delhi is a place of infinite money-making, and they fall over themselves trying to express this fantastic fecundity.
“When someone comes in here looking to buy a Bentley we don’t ask him what he’s driving now. Just because he drives a BMW doesn’t mean he can afford a Bentley. We ask if he has a jet or a yacht. We ask if he has an island.”
“Are there many people with jets in Delhi?” I ask.
The girls wax apoplectic.
“Everyone has one. And not just one – they have two, three, four.”
We chat about nice cars and expensive living. A Lamborghini is driven into the showroom: the noise is so deafening that we have to stop talking until it’s in place. I ask the Philistine’s question: what’s the point of spending thirty million rupees (£400,000) on a car that can do over 300km per hour in a city where the traffic doesn’t move? They tell me about the car club that meets at night in the diplomatic enclave, where the roads are straight, wide and empty.
“You have to have at least, like, a BMW or a Mercedes to join. They meet at midnight and they race their cars. The Prime Minister’s office is always calling us to complain.”
“Because the Prime Minister can’t sleep. These engines make so much noise they keep him awake. So he calls us to complain, but obviously there’s nothing we can do.”
As I drive away, I cannot help thinking of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tossing and turning in bed, his snowy hair unturbaned on the pillow, his dreams interrupted by the rich boys’ Ferraris screaming up and down the roads outside. Manmohan Singh is of course the man who, long ago, as Finance Minister, opened up the economy and set the course for a new market elite.