I was at the VAT refunds counter at Charles De Gaulle a few years ago. The great Chinese shopper had only recently arrived on the European shopping scene quickly replacing the cargoes wearing, sun visor donning Japanese tourists who one was accustomed to seeing patiently queued outside designer stores.
The Chinese shoppers in the VAT queue were walking away with wads of cash after declaring their newly purchased items yanked hurriedly out of their massive Tumi bags. It was a humbling experience for me to receive my few hundred refunded Euros in such a climate. I looked around, hoping to find some wealthy Indians who had shopped up a storm in Rue du Faubourg and Rue de Sevres and unlike me, were walking away with a respectable amount of VAT refund. I crained my neck in both directions but could not find a single Indian in those long queues. My national pride suffered greatly that day.
Back in Bombay, my national pride surged once again when an acquaintance mentioned casually over a Japanese meal with friends that she and her husband were test flying a Bombardier to Dubai and that she looked forward to buying fresh Bateel dates from there for her children. “It will be lovely once we buy the plane, we can all fly to Dubai for lunch as and when we want,” she told her friend with unmasked hubris.
I was nauseated briefly, not by her wealth, but by the bragging rights that it had bought her but then, I quickly reminded myself that we had to do better than our oriental neighbours and felt happy for it.
I ran into the same mother at a birthday party years later and could not help but notice that her maid was carrying an ochre coloured Louis Vuitton bag for herself. It might have been a hand-me-down, clearly, but normal people didn’t walk around with their maids sporting designer accessories.
Maybe I did not know what normal meant any more. A lot has changed in India over the past twenty years. After generations of playing down their money, wealthy Indians decided it was time to splurge unapologetically and make a show of it while they could. And so it is that they began to buy yachts and Gulfstream jets and drive around in the congested streets of Mumbai and Delhi in their Lamborghinis and Ferraris. They flew down Cirque De Soleil inspired elaborate acts for their children’s birthday bashes and gave away iPads and iPods as return presents.
They transported the famous nightclub Pasha from Ibiza and recreated it for their guests in their sprawling Mehrauli lawns to bring in the New Year.
The wives of these spendarati too did their bit by cultivating Hermes and Jimmy Choo store managers on Sloane and Bond Street and having them on the fast dials of their Swarovski encrusted Vertu phones.
Not that the lives of these women wasn’t beset with problems. My own friend, a mother of three, was in a quandary over which child to name her newly purchased yacht docked around the Italian Riviera after. My heart went out to her when she told me she had been having sleepless nights over this. Or this other lady I know from Mumbai, who was distraught that the excited chatter about her party in honour of a celebrated artist based out of the UK had fizzled out in favour of a soiree hosted by her art connoisseur neighbour for a well-known Pakistani artist friend.
You ask about emptiness? What emptiness? Where is the time to consider your emptiness when there are constant acquisitions to be made? New seasons, limited editions, exclusive spa resorts in the Austrian Alps and other sybaritic pleasures of life take care of that void, even if briefly. It is only the ‘have-nots’ who assume that the ‘excessively rich haves’ must be miserably unhappy. It makes their own lives’ drudgery seem romantic. Not that miserably rich is a bad thing. There is always prosaic to take care of that.
I look forward to speaking on the subject of the lives of Crazy Rich Asians at the Times Litfest on December 5th. Joining me in the discussion are authors Kevin Kwan and Moni Mohsin who represent China and Pakistan respectively. The discussion will be moderated by writer and publisher Rajni George