Is there any phrase more loathsome than ‘high society’? Can there be any human being more contemptible than one who aspires to this ‘high society’? Why do I feel so strongly? Well, I guess it’s partly because I despise what the phrase represents.
The only way to become part of ‘high society’ in most of the world is either to be born or to marry into it. Merit, intelligence, accomplishment and talent count for nothing; membership is determined by birth and genealogy. And partly, it is because high society is defined by exclusion. The whole point of stacking an exclusive clique at the top of the social pyramid is to make it clear who is not a part of the club. With exclusion comes snobbery and pretension. But mostly, it is because of the way I was brought up.
Way back in the 1960s, I was the only one of my friends who could not go to the Willingdon Club or the Bombay Gymkhana or discuss what activities had been planned for children that weekend. My father was what they called a ‘progressive’ then. (And what we could call a trendy lefty today if we were to be unkind, though, unlike many trendies, he actually spent a decade as a CPI worker.) By the 1960s, he had begun to accept that communism was not what it was cracked out to be, but he still retained many of the prejudices of his youth. One of these was a deep disdain for the whole concept of social acceptability. He refused to apply for membership of any club on the grounds that the admission process required a committee composed either of fossils from the so-called ‘old families’ (at the Willingdon) or gin-sodden, boxwallahs (at the Bombay Gym) to decide whether he could join them.
He also believed that the concept of ‘high society’ had no real place in India. The clubs, he said, had nothing to do with our India. They had been started by the Raj for white men out in the tropics (the Bombay Gym would not admit Indians for years) or had been opened to allow the natives to suck up to the sahibs (the Willingdon). Indian high society, he believed, was a joke; full of pretenders, has-beens, never-will-bes and snivelling snobs. In his vision of India (and, by then, he was sold on Jawaharlal Nehru), birth and social acceptability should not count.
He had a point. In the West, high society is narrowly defined. In Britain, it consists of the aristocracy, the gentry, City of London grandees and the odd millionaire. Film stars, sports heroes and New Money find the door slammed in their faces. In the US, much the same rules apply, even though there is no formal aristocracy. Each time a movie star or a recent multimillionaire tries to buy a flat at a fancy Manhattan co-op, the residents close ranks. France follows the British pattern and so does much of Europe.
But what constitutes Indian high society? Old Money, I suppose. The Tatas have never been party-goers, but they would be top of the A-list. In Mumbai, the Dubashs, the Wadias, the Godrejs and other great family names have always been A-list. In Kolkata, as my old boss, Aveek Sarkar, used to say wistfully, “The Birlas are the royal family of India.” (Just as well they own this paper, then). Royalty is a traditional component of high society. The Gwaliors, the Jaipurs, the Pataudis, the Barodas, the Jodhpurs and the Morvis would be welcomed in any country house in England.
And that, I guess, is about it. If you were to compile the Indian social A-list, you would splutter to a halt after 10 names or so.Gayatri Devi
So it is with so-called Old Money. The Parsis may be great at parties, but would you really regard some belching, farting trader as a social icon only because his family fortune goes back centuries?
I think that my father’s perspective has been vindicated over time. Indian high society is an artificial construct, doomed to extinction. Look at the ways social respectability is being reshaped. Dilip Kumar, great star though he was, could never have been on any social A-list. But Amitabh Bachchan has Old Money nibbling reverentially at his toe-nails. In the 1960s, when Dhirubhai Ambani was starting out, he went to Viren Shah, scion of the richest family in his village (Chorwad), to seek investment. Viren—good looking, rich, glamorous, Swatantra politician, charming, etc.—sent him packing. But today, Dhirubhai’s son, Mukesh, rivals even Ratan Tata as an elusive catch at the top of the social pyramid.
And then, of course, there are the professional party-goers, the pathetic Page 3 people, a mixture of pimps, politicians and minor millionaires with eager wives with brown-blonde hair, lurid lipstick and visible panty lines. They rarely make it to so-called high society parties, but because they are so visible, the lines tend to blur.
A few months ago, Maureen Wadia, one of the mainstays of Mumbai’s A-list, complained bitterly about vacuous Page 3 types to The Hindustan Times. I empathized with her contempt. But I would go further. Page 3 people are soft targets. Let’s just accept that even the old concept of high society is crumbling. It makes even less sense than before. And I, for one, am delighted. When the final crash comes, I will stomp on the debris and dance in the ruins. (Vir Sanghvi, one of the best-known faces of Indian print and television journalism, will share his observations on society and pop culture. Comments on his column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)