www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> On Delhi
Rana Dasgupta on Sat, 1 Aug 2009 00:04:49 +0200 (CEST)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> On Delhi


My recent essay about Delhi, and the culture of its new rich, from the 
current edition of Granta magazine.  Read it here for full formatting:
 
http://www.ranadasgupta.com/texts.asp?text_id=47

or here in plain text:




CAPITAL GAINS

*ONE*

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.



*TWO*

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.



*THREE*

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?”

Anurag smiles.

“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.


 
*FOUR*

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.

“Nothing.”

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 (:/



*FIVE*

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.”

“Why?”

“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. 


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org