Manu Joseph: What explains new harmful behaviours of India’s rich

Once, India’s rich had to hide their wealth because it was very unsafe to be rich in a poor country. (HT_PRINT)
Once, India’s rich had to hide their wealth because it was very unsafe to be rich in a poor country. (HT_PRINT)


  • It didn’t take the Porsche crash in Pune to tell us that Garish gluttons of material goods are often mistaken as India’s new rich. This is wrong classification.

Once, I was in a bus with a former nun. She had recently quit a convent. Now nobody could stop her from having fun, even in a bus. She started clapping and singing, and tried to get everyone else on the bus to join her. She also yelled at passersby on the road, all in the pursuit of fun, her idea of fun. This is probably what she thought people who had fun did. When she did not feel the fun, she tried harder, and finally looked confused at why fun was not coming to her. 

It’s the same baffled look I see in boys anywhere in India who go out on New Year’s Eve to have fun in the Republic of No-Fun. To tell themselves they are enjoying life, they have to get totally drunk, sway, fall, vomit and laugh aloud. It is the same emotion I see in extraordinarily rich young men in India when they are in luxury vehicles their dads got them. 

They look like miners of fun. Eventually, all they can do is get drunk and drive at 200km an hour. Now and then, they send pedestrians flying, as it happened a few days ago in Pune, when a drunk 17-year-old rammed his father’s Porsche into a motorcycle, killing a young man and a woman.

Since then, India has been very confused about what to do with the juvenile, first releasing him on bail within 15 hours of the incident, and then, because of public anger, taking him back into remand. The teenager’s father, a builder named Vishal Agarwal who it appears had wilfully given him the car, reportedly tried to flee, but was eventually arrested. Stripped of legal jargon, the man was arrested for being a lousy parent and thus a danger to society. India’s wealthy homes today are filled with this type.

Once, India’s rich had to hide because it was very unsafe to be rich in a poor country. It was a time when the rich were called ‘industrialists.’ That generation of India’s rich had also sponsored idealism out of self-interest to defeat the era’s cultural elite, the British. They either ended up believing these ideals or had to somehow sustain the noble myth. 

They knew what being vulgar was, and did not wish to do that. It was hard to hide their wealth, but their displays often had a public context, as with the aplomb of royals. Even today, it is rare to see outrageous behaviour from the children of billionaires. It could be that billionaires are rare, so all incidents involving them appear rare, or it could be that when they do mow down people, that news gets slain. 

Granting all this, I still get the feeling that the children of India’s industrialists are briefed well at home to behave well and not kill people with expensive cars. But the ordinary rich are a different lot. I can’t imagine those families telling theirs sons to be aware at all times of their dumb luck and be kind to those who are not as lucky.

You sit with some of India’s wealthy, and all you hear is what money has bought and will buy next. What they have taken from the world, what they will take next. A new generation has been raised listening to this talk and might believe that this is the way to be, this is how the rich should enjoy their luck.

It is my guess that the best thing wealth can buy is an intellectual pursuit. The origin of intellect is in wealth, and it still serves the rich the best. Without an intellectual pursuit, wealth searches desperately to entertain itself with material things, to somehow buy fun that is unattainable for others.

In response to this demand, capitalism has invented many fake products for the super-rich. But the fun just does not come, and like that nun on the bus, they have keep doing more desperate things. They have to buy more and more, consume more and more, and veer towards the dangerous side. Like pushing a Porsche’s pedal to 200kmph on an Indian road.

Garish gluttons of material goods are often mistaken in India as the new rich. This is wrong classification of a group of people that may actually exist in the West.

I do not think there are many newly enriched people in India because that would mean this is a country conducive to rags-to-riches or even middle-class-to-riches. We are not such an equal society.

There could be some exceptions, but we are in essence a rich-to-more-riches nation. Most of the rich we see around us, the winners of capitalism, are beneficiaries of a head-start from previous generations, like Vishal Agarwal, the father of the teen in the Porsche. So what we have is not the new rich, but new behaviour of the rich.

After the Porsche slammed into the bike, the people on the streets thrashed the teenaged driver. We can assume this was not an act of rage on behalf of the victims, but rage at the Porsche.

There is a sociological mystery in the world, especially in India. Why don’t the poor kill us? Why do they tolerate blatant and vulgar inequality? They know the price brackets of cars and how much we order as a single meal on Zomato. There are some obvious and banal reasons why they have not risen in violent ways. Like, for instance, the poor don’t want to be violent. 

Also, they do not want to go to jail. But there are some underrated reasons for this peace. One is that all things considered, the poor are probably meaner to the poor than the rich are. The rich not only generate jobs and make sweet but useless art films about the plight of the poor, the affluent sophisticated Indian is the face of goodness in India, the very representation of good intent, social service and activism against the rich.

This perception lies in precarious balance with that other face of the rich—the ominous lightly damaged Porsche on a road.

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