A year of dating a feudal throwback forced Shrayana Bhattacharya to confront her fascination with the wealthy
A few years ago, the Indian Army and I could have been accused of a similar form of discrimination: favouring Jats and Rajputs. While my dearest friends suggested I was dating the who’s who of human crap, a petitioner in the Supreme Court highlighted bias in the Indian Army’s recruitment policies for the Presidential Body Guards (PBG). Unsurprisingly, the Army defended itself on physical grounds—the PBG was a small ceremonial unit which demanded tall officers (over six feet) with common build and appearance to ensure adequate “pomp and projection” during events at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Thus, only martial castes would suffice.
Despite the trivial nature of my love affairs compared to lofty affairs of state, I found deep parallels between the army’s defence and mine. For me, too, a partner had become an accessory in the performance art that was my social life in Delhi. Unable to bear the weight of being on my own or being myself, I chose to burrow into one of Delhi’s feudal landed gentry. Determined to break away from the nerd-herd at university, I was mesmerised by his quiet confidence, despite his lack of an ancestral gun salute. His sense of self-possession born of privilege, and the financial freedom that arose from successful “investments”, seduced my anxious salaried soul. He also looked like Shashi Kapoor. While his frame was many standard deviations away from the average men who populated my life, I ignored that his intellect did asymptote to zero.
In the early days of our year-long tryst, I became a cringe-worthy product of patriarchy, unwilling to find a moment, or myself, interesting without him. He became the One; I became possessed by his past, convinced his interest in me was some fleeting mistake. His attention became the only worthwhile form of validation. My sense of self fluctuated with the One, his moods and his libido.
Accustomed to reading statistics about the top 20 per cent of Indian families accounting for 45 per cent of disposable income, I understood the economics of inequality. Despite our claims of middle-classdom, I knew that the economic middle was largely rural and uneducated. Just by virtue of living in urban Delhi and being high school graduates, nearly everyone around me was in the top two economic tiers of the country. But I also knew that the richest one per cent of India owned 53 per cent of its wealth, up from 36 per cent in 2000.
The social texture of this wealth ladder revealed itself to me during my days and evenings in love with the One. Despite being neighbours on the economic spectrum, there was an invisible partition between this man’s world and myself, thin enough to be pierced by desire but solid enough to efface camaraderie. He hated talking about work, considering it a low form of culture. Gloriously glamorous and unemployed women, for whom marriage was an insurance policy, were the norm in his social circles. The men, meanwhile, were formed by a gallery of competitive anxieties, hanging tooth and nail to their family legacies. The modern laws of Manu divided the world into three clans: his family, his boarding school buddies and the Rest of Us. For the One, the Rest of Us were not people, but functions to satiate his multiple appetites: X for jokes, Y for clean shirts, Z for sex.
I was Z100. He was extractive, blissfully at peace with the everyday exploitation underpinning his pleasures. His friends often suggested that the Indian caste system had historically ensured against civil strife as people internalised their rank in the world. It was liberalisation that created the muddle, as everyone wanted more. Any discussion of social stratification would yield long pedantic lectures on how I needed to “calm down”, accept that some people would come from more than others. His upbringing had taught him charm, not sincerity. And I was far too earnest. That I was an earnest economist-in-training studying labour, welfare and inequality made matters much worse.
We rarely ventured into his terrain together as a couple. But I yearned for encounters with these ethnographic specimens, to see men in their forties refer to each other as Bugs or Donks, preserving their pickled adolescences through each other. Their sole currency was peer approval. Metaphysical backslapping. Soon, I recognised that love affairs were merely heteronormative icing on a dreary homosocial cake. The men and women shared close ties from their previous incarnations as single people: everyone had been with everyone; everyone tailed a history like a string of rusted cans. Lust, avarice and the anxieties of marriage were a second atmosphere. The single men often cycled through a series of strivers before settling on a woman of their own “temperament”. Temperament was code for a woman who would give up her job after marriage and reported the same caste group. The social environment often felt like full contact sport. “Dating” seemed like a ridiculous euphemism.
The women merely served as paeans to male sexuality. The One and friends would parade their partners, as if to say “look at what I’ve acquired”. He had several single friends—kinsmen who seemed bruised by the conjugal market—although his married friends led far more single lives. One such married member of the brotherhood asserted that his girlfriends often looked like members of a Swedish volleyball team, while his Indian wife was a great mother and successful businesswoman. The men loved whisky, spending time with each other, and Salman Khan. They often looked bloated and ill. The men loved hunting, describing life as one big long hunt. Garden-variety sexism was rampant, women who were unknown entities were often accused of being “operators” or “gold diggers”. I heard murmurs of an elite swingers’ club, but couldn’t believe that these men were capable of finding women attractive, given their clear love for each other.
But so what if his society was repressive? He looked like Shashi Kapoor. The drinks were great and the women were well-dressed and slender. Beautiful, intelligent and bored, these ladies had invested their entire lives priming and perfecting their minds and bodies. Now they waited to be desired at social gatherings, while their husbands were drunk on the past. The One never expected much from me. Stay slim and smile, he joked. And never discuss your job, never ask anyone about their work.
In a country with rapidly shrinking numbers of women in the workforce, I wore my employment as a badge of honour. But this was a sensitive issue. Being a working woman who paid her own bills made me a minority and I was instructed to lie low. In our first month together, I recall asking one of his friends’ wives about what she did with her time. She smiled and said she was a princess. I earnestly asked if her role as princess was her profession, indicating that managing properties, homes and old estates must be a tough job. She scowled and said, “We have servants for that, I focus on public relations when I get time. You mean, you go to office every day?” I nodded, moving away as she sipped her vodka tonic.
Another of his friends suggested that I was far more “shapely” than any of the One’s ex-girlfriends. Blind to the hidden compliment, paralysed by sexual competition and body dysmorphia, my life became an endless series of gluten-free chilas.
One night, I landed in Delhi from a trip to Patna. It was cold, the rain smacking everyone in the face. We were to attend a small dinner party, our first as companions. My obsession with the One had morphed into an obsession with my waistline. No one could accuse me of originality. Through chronic dieting, I had finally achieved my goal weight. The plane food tasted like ash and I was starving. As I rushed towards the dinner table, about to indulge in my first cheatmeal since I had become a feudal pet, all six feet three inches of the One walked up to me and gently held my wrist. He placed my empty plate down on the table and said, “You can’t eat here.” Puzzled, I asked why. He stared at the glittering crowd and said, “Only dogs eat in public. Put the plate down, you don’t need the food.” At that moment, I wondered if eating was too intimate an act for these buttoned-up, polo-playing sociopaths. But I noticed his cousin’s wife shovelling kebabs into her mouth. I stared at the biryani and my empty plate. I ate. He glared. I called myself a taxi. The next day, I suggested we break up. He smiled and agreed. I never did fit in, he said: “You’re too serious, you take everything too seriously.” I could never separate Church from State. And I needed to attend finishing school.
Following our separation, when the days collapsed under a deluge of uncertainties, I would walk to Central Delhi’s Amrita Shergil Marg to flirt with real estate. Nothing but bungalows worth 220 crore rupees enveloped by ancient amaltas trees would soothe my soul. I know many who wander this street, marvelling at its elements. All of us united in our strange, psychosexual obsession with the hyper-elite, ogling at their excesses. Nothing elicits greater desire and derision from your average “middle-class” Indian than Lutyens’ Delhi. The area, spanning nearly 3,000 acres, holds 1,000 bungalows; most remain reserved for ministers and senior government officials with 70 properties for private use. Unsurprisingly, the private residents of these enclaves are some of the richest Indians alive.
In 2014, when I decided to move out of Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi and live in Nizamuddin East, my family felt betrayed. Not because I was living alone, but because I chose to live in a neighbourhood closer to power. My mother remarked, “Why don’t you live in Defence Colony or someplace nearby?” For her, Khan Market was the epicentre of a five-kilometre radius of sycophancy. “Sheila Dixit, IAS officers and rich Congress types live there. It’s green and lovely, but never forget that your parents live on the other side of the Ring Road, stuck with jams at Savitri Cinema.” Where you live has historically served as a credible signal of your place in the social map of India. Economists write about location premiums, where you are often predicts who you become. In cities, your ward number and its municipal grade suggest how much rent you pay. Delhi is acutely stratified: living in Bharti Nagar means your family works in tax administration; living in Sunder Nagar hints at old money. The new wave of labour migration into Delhi settled on the outskirts of East Delhi, most of the city being too expensive. Data shows that place is an effective and statistically significant predictor of urban poverty; governments usually use residential address to target welfare programmes effectively.
Still, despite Amrita Shergil Marg’s popularity as a museum of elite excess, on my walks interrogating class and heartbreak, I was certain to see no one I knew, if I saw anybody at all. Delhi is often described as a capital city in search of its own country. But the residents of ASM seemed superhuman, able to teleport to their own planet. How else could you explain the silence and solace? No one is ever spotted running errands in the neighbourhood and the gardens and guards look impossibly bored and manicured. I hear rumours of Halloween parties and awkward dinner conversation, but possess no evidence to corroborate these claims.
On one such day, animated by a state of stress, I found myself wide-eyed at The Marg again. It’s a windy autumn evening. I am trailing behind a young man and woman as they walk towards the Lodi Gardens bus stop. They are arguing in Bengali. The event marks my first experience of pedestrian human activity in this realm, a major rupture. I am alert, at attention. She reprimands him, “You’re too distracted. Look down, do your work and avoid looking at madam directly. These people don’t like it. I brought you here to do work, not indulge in nonsense (nakaami).” His response seems muted; I am unable to hear him. After muttering a few lines, he shrugs his frail shoulders, suggesting a reluctant acceptance of her feedback. Several weeks later, I spot her again, clinging to a mobile phone. She wears the same yellow sari—her uniform perhaps. I speed up, hoping to eavesdrop. Her voice gains greater momentum as we walk past Goa Sadan, a state government guesthouse that serves as a halfway marker to the bus terminal. I hear her frustration and amusement as she yells into her device, “Didi, we need older men to work in these houses as part-time help. These young boys have no control and can’t manage. They stare and slow down work. They have never seen women like this in Mednipur or in Delhi. Our madams here are top-class beauties, they spend hours at the gym, wear expensive things and eat nothing… I send all new boys to work in houses in Defence Colony or CR Park. That colony life suits them better. The madams are not the same. He can work for a Bengali family with children. He can do work properly.” We’ve reached the bus stop. This guide to top-class beauties halts and notices my interest in her conversation. She returns to her phone, “Didi, I’ll call later,” and disappears into the 522 CL Delhi Transport Corporation bus. And I amble towards perspective.
In his meditation on why humans are so interested in those who live lives of excess, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that they “disturb us, get us worked up, because they reveal something important to us about ourselves, about our own fears and longings”. He emphasises the role of culture in navigating a conversation on excess and offers: “Because we are nothing special—on par with ants and daffodils—it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear and bear with—and hopefully enjoy—their insignificance in the larger scheme of things.”
Many months later, I spotted the One and his clan at Khan Market. They were accompanied by an impressive panoply of young sexy women. My heart, and sense of self-regard, sank. To me, the One and his buddies were a collection of Delhi’s antiquities. Wealth fortified their personal narratives of specialness, but its ability to guarantee insulation from any feeling of insignificance was waning. Excess, sustained by old money, in a poor country with a politically ascendant middle class, is a lonely and loathsome place. But the One always seemed in control. That propertied blood, I thought, forever in control. Forever hiding any anxieties in buddy-hood, land parcels and whisky. I looked closer and saw the women displaying an amicable servility that I’m certain I exhibited during our time together—proof that silliness is an all-gender and top 20 per cent disorder. In India, stupidity is our greatest luxury good.
This essay is published in the July-September 2017 issue of the Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is “class”. An expanded version of this essay has been included in Eleven Ways to Love by Penguin.