Monday, July 20, 2009

Then that ogre called Capitalism found India...

On the new elites in India and life in Delhi...

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-de luxe 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.
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 kinds of families (‘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 30 million rupees ($635,000) on a car that can do over 300 kilometres 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 un-turbaned 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.

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