Shobhaa Dé comes jiving into her drawing room, a plush, glasspaned room in Makers Tower, Mumbai, overlooking a vast swathe of the Arabian Sea. Dressed in chunky silver, trendy white tights and a black dress, she cuts a couple of cool moves on the floor: you’d be hard put to say she’s 60 or a mother of six. Her daughter Anandita is playing electronica on her laptop and Dé says that really gets her grooving. Her mood mirrors her book, Superstar India, to be launched next week. Excitable, upbeat, it prophecies great things for India: a single line of verse thrummed in her head as she wrote it: “Where’s the party tonight?”
Superstar India might be India viewed from South Bombay height, but it is an unabashed and honest rendition of that microdot. As a novelist, as editor of Stardust, Society and Celebrity, and as a socialite in her own right, Dé has been an intimate of the super-rich in India and talks of them with affectionate, if unsparing, insight, among other things.
Excerpts from the interview:
Shobhaa, you say India and you have grown in similar ways in the last 60 years. What is the biggest difference you see?
The biggest difference is that I am far more accepting of differences, and far more accepting of change. Such sweeping terms mean nothing but they play themselves out in very personal ways. For instance, I grew up in a very middle- class family where it was a big deal if you splurged on anything. But in my own family I have got off my high horse and stopped hectoring and nagging at my kids, trying to load my experiences and values on to them. I used to be very sceptical of their generation, I used to think, where are they headed, why don’t they have the hunger and focus I grew up with? Then I stopped dead in my tracks and thought, why should they? It’s a different India they are living in — far more prosperous, with a much stronger sense of self. The pangs of the 50s and 60s are just not relevant to them. There’s no point telling them that we had to wait 15 years to get a phone line. They are not interested in our struggle and deprivation. They are too preoccupied with their own lives. You just have to tune into their world and get with it, or you will be left behind. I hate nostalgia. I have realised it’s key to my survival as a mother, writer and individual to tune into change and flow with it. It’s the same for India.
Which attitudes in your new self are you proud of, which ones are you embarrassed about?
Well, I think I’m far more comfortable dealing with money and I’m happy about that. I am no longer burdened by the old guilts of a socialist India which taught us that money was evil and the meek would inherit the earth. This was something that Hindi movies and the pop culture of our time reinforced again and again. Perhaps it was necessary at that point to feed our people those clichés. We needed to believe in our own poverty and romanticise it because there wasn’t even enough food in our country, but today to keep flogging poverty as the idealised state to live in is not going to fly. No one’s buying into poverty any more. Why should the young in India be stuck with deprivation when they don’t need to be? In India today money and achievement go hand in hand. For the young, you cannot attribute the word ‘success’ to anyone who doesn’t have money. You may be brilliant, gifted, you might win the Nobel — but if you don’t have money, you are a loser. This is a very dramatic change in India and its values.
I’m not sure if anyone is idealising poverty, but it is still the reality for a majority in India. In your book you say that one can photo-shop reality into what one wants it to be. Is the class of people you move in doing that — photo-shopping poverty out of the India story?
Yes we are, but maybe it’s a necessary exercise at this point. Maybe two years down the line our fundamentally strong success story will speak for itself, but as of now, we’re just about getting there and there’s a repositioning and image makeover taking place that goes beyond the tourist board Incredible India — Shining India story. And if our captains of industry are able to achieve that, why not? Most other countries hire professionals to do that job. Take the Sydney Olympics. Australia had a one-point agenda for this: showcase a new Australia. And it was hugely successful — the world did end up looking at Australia differently. This was not by chance; it was by design. So there’s nothing wrong with photo-shopping India at this stage at all. If we want a better face for ourselves, it’s time we took the airbrush in our own hands and did it. Hide the warts, put some blusher on, and present a pretty picture. We have been tarred for so long by vested interests, the world had written us off! Our self worth was in the doldrums, we used to shuffle around the world feeling ashamed of being Indians, holding out our begging bowl. The most radicalchange in India is our self-perception. We no longer see ourselves as poor. This has empowered even the average joe — the educated middle-class Indian. Today there is a new assertiveness. It’s given us a spine.
The rich might want to photoshop India for the world, but does it ever discuss the other India? You celebrate our new cash-rich economy, yet 5 or 6 states have slipped further down the poverty line. Where does nation-building fit into all of this?
I have always thought of myself as the ultimate outsider, a kind of voyeur. I do not belong to the super rich, but I have complete and total access and I have always watched them with great interest. I am fascinated, amused, entertained, but I am not hostile or judgmental. Having grown with them over the past 35 years, I’m more sympatico than, say, journalists who see them as a phenomenon from the outside. I understand their lives.
But to answer your question, except for politically correct forums, in all these years, I have never heard the uber-rich discuss the have-nots. They are just not interested! They are in denial. It’s not a part of their scripted dream, so why must they have to deal with it? Their conversation is always about making more money and enhancing lifestyle. Clothes, exotic villas, cars, bags, price of diamonds, gizmos. The women’s distress scale is measured by whether they have bought the correct bag or not (the price of just one of these bags could feed ten poor families for a year.) But there is a reason for this. The super-rich in India today are mostly first-generation rich, so their attitude to money is very different. They haven’t quite grown into a full sense of security about it, they are almost overwhelmed by their own capacity to spend. I am fascinated by this new money. There is an attempt to be casual, but they really want to be acknowledged as belonging to the billionaire’s club. They have a kind of schizophrenic reaction to money — maybe it’s a hangover from their parents’ days. So there are multibillionaires who are so wealthy the next five generations could live off them, and their 12-year old sons might ask them to buy them Porsches, yet they will count the sandwiches on their private jets or haul up their staff for changing the flowers before they have drooped.
In this, the idea of corporate governance or social responsibility is a very new thing. But you have to see it in the context of India being a very young nation. The Ambanis, Ruias, Mahindras, Mittals — all first and second generation rich — are only just waking up to the idea that’s there’s something called giving back. It may take a few years more — even another generation — but slowly you will see the beginnings of an endowment mentality. With the new globalisation of thinking, as India’s super-rich travel the globe and meet the world’s biggest philanthropists — Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or even an Anita Roddick who said, let my children make their own wealth, and has willed most of her empire to her favourite charities — it will take time, but slowly I believe a new kind of thinking will set in.
In the meantime, you are fine with the conspicuous consumption of the uber-rich?
What bothers me at times is the callousness, the self-centred view of success. And when a man like Narayanmurthy says he lives simply and cleans his own toilets — even if he doesn’t do that, even if they are only platitudes — I think he’s sending out a very important message. But on the other hand, the sense of abandon and completely hedonistic life of some of the super-rich is very fascinating and, at times, awfully attractive. It’s mesmerising because it is life lived at a scale that you would not imagine in your wildest dreams and fantasises being even witness to. A James Bond set come alive. So to see it in all its hedonistic glory — at one level — is quite a treat. And I say, wow and wow again! There’s also a strange kind of innocence at play. When I say they don’t care, it’s not a coldblooded heartless “I don’t care”. They are actually unaware. Like the royalty of old, their reality is mediated by courtiers, who customise what they see and don’t see. Some of them, I might add, are even unaware of their own quantum of wealth. It has ceased to register, it’s so vast; they have no idea how wealthy they really are. This is the bubble they occupy. If I, or you, occupied that bubble perhaps we would be equally oblivious.
To switch subjects, in your book, you write a lot about the young today and their sense of entitlement. They want quick rewards, but they don’t want to work hard for it. How comfortable are you with this?
I’m not at all comfortable. Work is worship — this was hammered into my head by my father. But as I said, my approach to the next generation is pragmatic. I see it for what it is and deal with it. They are hugely, hugely talented and very sure of themselves. But lots of things have come too easily, too quickly for them, compacted in too short a time. Will they value add to this? I don’t know. But if you want to even have an entry into their world, you have to do it on their terms. You cannot lecture and hector. You have to know what captures their imagination and get a grip on it. You have to vibe with their music, their play stations, their lingo, their buzz words. You have to understand their absorption with the virtual world and virtual relationships. Today, as a parent, my biggest competition for my children’s attention is their laptop. It’s not that they are less invested in emotion, they are just seeking their emotional fulfillments elsewhere — it could be an internet friend sitting in Norway who vibes with their world more than the neighbourhood kids. One has to bring the same sympathetic pragmatism to the young in the workplace. Plug into their new style, new ambition rather than reading them the old rulebooks. There’s no point in sounding like old disapproving aunts and uncles. You just have to get with it.
Your book is brimming with texture and anecdotes, but no real thesis. What point of view were you operating from?
I wrote this book in an excitable torrent. I know I occupy only one tiny, tiny microdot of India, and it’s impossible to understand or document such a complex nation, so I wanted my book to be a kind of passionate, personal loveletter. I am not a politician, so my book is not meant to catch votes. I did not want to put statistics and graphs. I was writing for a young bindaas generation — I wanted them to connect with India and get some sense of its immense complexity, as I explored the rapid changes in the country and myself. I’m pleased that the book has a kind of female voice.