Five-Star Delhi

Mumbai’s sleepy sister is all grown up: awash in cash and home to a nonstop, over-the-top social scene. Lauren Collins follows the money.

Culture » Travel » Five-Star Delhi

New Delhi, indeed (from left): Shiva Kohli, Neelu Kaiker, and Malini Israni arrive at the Jaipur Polo Grounds in a 1953 Bel Air.

Five-Star Delhi

Mumbai’s sleepy sister is all grown up: awash in cash and home to a nonstop, over-the-top social scene. Lauren Collins follows the money.

On a sunny day last December, a thickset man and his bride-to-be daughter walked into the Louis Vuitton store at the DLF Emporio luxury mall—the Americana Manhasset of New Delhi. The patriarch pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket: 140,000 rupees (about $3,000), bound with rubber bands. Fanning the bills like a deck of cards, he handed them to the salesman in exchange for a checkerboard duffel and a pair of handbags. It took the clerk 10 minutes to count the cash.

That afternoon, in the mall’s atrium café, fashion designer and woman-about-town Malini Ramani had agreed to meet me for a latte. A few tables over, a dozen fantastically groomed women, their eyebrows like Calatrava bridges, were in the giggly throes of a “kittie party”—a weekly get-together that serves as an “all-out gossip session, a great place to flaunt your new outfit, share jokes, and…shred your ma-in-law to pieces!” according to The Times of India. “Delhi girls love their jewels, love their big bags, love getting dolled up,” Ramani said. On an episode of the Hindi television show Kittie Party, the eight heroines meet for an Egyptian-theme gabfest, during which they wear arm bracelets and Cleopatra bangs, and find out that one woman’s ex-husband is going to marry her former BFF. In Delhi this socially incestuous plotline does not seem entirely far-fetched. “If everywhere else it’s six degrees of separation,” said hostess Sal Tahiliani (a great friend, incidentally, of Ramani’s), “in Delhi it’s one and a half.”

For years the cliché about Delhi has been that it’s Washington, D.C., to Mumbai’s New York—a sleepy capital whose gentility belies a penchant for intrigue and hustle. A more apt comparison might be Eighties Dallas. Today Delhi is a city of black money and pink Bentleys. Talk of fortunes—made, spent, and lost—is constant and unabashed. (The Delhi version of big hair is a luxuriant ponytail, teased in front and cascading down the back.) “Delhi reminds me of the American South,” Arjun Raj Nirula, an art curator and entrepreneur, told me. “We like to hunt, eat, and drink whiskey.” William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, who has lived in the city on and off since 1984, said of Delhi’s recent renaissance: “Calcutta’s fucked. Bombay’s getting a little right wing. And suddenly Delhi is a national capital in a way that it wasn’t before.”

Half a century ago, Delhi wasn’t even among the world’s 30 most populous cities; last year it became the planet’s second-largest urban agglomeration, with 22 million people and India’s highest concentration of millionaires. Delhi is so sprawling that many wealthy residents maintain vacation homes—“farmhouses,” they’re called—in more rural areas within the city limits, where they spend weekends and host endless variations on birthday, wedding, and engagement parties. “The farmhouses are Delhi’s equivalent of the Hamptons,” Priya Tanna, the editor of Indian Vogue, told me.

December is party season in Delhi, and for a person of means to attend five events in one night is not unheard of. In fact, it is encouraged. Ira Trivedi, author of The Great Indian Love Story—a semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman who returns from a few years in the U.S. to find the Delhi of her girlhood an unrecognizable paradise-hell of pool parties and coke problems—said, “Social life in Delhi is way more hectic than I’ve ever had in New York or Paris.” Such is the exuberance of midwinter merriment in Delhi that the police took out ads in the city’s major dailies reminding citizens that the obstruction of roads by horse-drawn carriages, fireworks, dancers, and elephant-riding grooms could have “serious consequences like delay in emergency services” and that loudspeakers should not be used after 10 p.m. Delhiites seemed to take these injunctions about as seriously as a high school curfew.

Last year, when Ramani turned 40, she invited 180 friends to Goa for a three-day party that included an event called the Melodramani Extravaganza, to which guests were asked to come as their favorite emotion. (Ramani went as a pom-pom girl, for “cheerful.”) The weekend following our coffee date at the mall, she, along with many of her crowd, planned to fly to Phuket, where the Delhi industrialist Gautam Thapar, No. 616 on the Forbes rich list, was throwing his 50th-birthday bash. (India’s staggeringly wealthy entrepreneurs are called “industrialists” as unvaryingly as Russia’s staggeringly rich entrepreneurs are called “oligarchs.”) On the agenda were several costume parties—Disco Night, White Night, Black-and-Red Night. Donna Summer and the Pointer Sisters would perform.

All over Delhi, when I mentioned that I was in town to write about the city’s social boom, I was told I must call Priya Paul. On a Tuesday night, Paul, the Wellesley-educated chairwoman of the Apeejay Surrendra Group’s hotel arm, was hosting a party in honor of her husband, Sethu Vaidyanathan. (Apeejay, a multibillion-dollar tea and real-estate conglomerate, was founded by her grandfather in 1910.) Paul, who pioneered the concept of design hotels in India, oversees 10 properties. Just that morning she’d been in meetings in Chennai. Still, standing in the bar at her family’s Park hotel in black pants and a shiny gold top, she looked every bit the buoyant hostess. Theoretically, the event was supposed to start at 9 p.m. Everyone understood that this meant 10:30 IST—India Standard Time. By 11, the Johnnie Walker was flowing, the bass was thumping, and pepper shrimp and spring rolls were being passed on silver platters. A woman in a diaphanous white gown would not have looked out of place at an opera gala.

Delhi was once a city of mud-booted immigrants, many of whom arrived from the rural Punjab region in the years after the 1947 Partition. Punjabis have a reputation for extravagance, and Delhi is often talked about, even by its inhabitants, as Mumbai’s crasser cousin. “Pappu Punjabis”—the nickname for the city’s stereotypically ostentatious nouveau riche—are India’s equivalent of America’s Real Housewives. “The only culture in Delhi is agriculture,” goes the old saw. Upper-middle-class Delhiites look upon the richification of their neighbors with the same combination of envy, distaste, and bafflement that upper-middle-class New Yorkers did a decade ago. One night I shared shrimp and lettuce wraps with a tableful of young professionals—an architect, several doctors, a talk-show host—who griped about “that segment of society where it’s just about what size diamond your husband buys you,” but at the same time admitted, “They have the best parties!”

The guests at Paul’s fete, however, were not the cash-in-a-rubber-band crowd. A sort of subcontinental Mrs. Astor’s 400, many of them had known one another since childhood. Paul led me to the bar, where Atul Punj, head of the $3 billion construction firm Punj Lloyd and one of India’s wealthiest men, was jockeying for a cocktail. Un-tycoonishly, he offered to order me a drink. “Only in the past five years has India realized it’s on the fast track to growth,” he said, clinking my glass before disappearing into the scrum. “Delhi is at the center of that.”

One sure sign of that growth: Real estate is booming. The day after Paul’s party, Anjali Chawla—whose husband, Kabul, founded BPTP Limited, one of India’s largest developers—was sitting in her backyard under a billowing white tent. Striped couches flanked a silver bar cart. Chawla opened a bottle of white wine and poured it into two glasses with glittering Swarovski stems. She was dressed for business: black Gucci pants, Hermès belt and button-down, Gucci sweater, black patent-leather Louboutins. She said, “During the day I’m, like, a labor-class person.”

Chawla had just attended a lunch for Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, who were in town to sign nuclear energy and aerospace deals with the Indian government, and was enjoying the prospect of an afternoon off. A dedicated shopper—“North Indians spend; we’re not savers,” she said as the sunlight shimmered off her swimming pool—Chawla can recite the boutiques lining Sloane Square or Fifth Avenue like a human Google Street View. “Delhi people are seriously trying to change,” she explained. “Fashion awareness is very much here. Before, it was only when you were traveling that you were buying.” As her friends and neighbors have caught on to the stuff that she used to stockpile on trips abroad, she has gravitated toward “brands that have not yet hit the city,” like Balmain and Ermanno Scervino. “I don’t even want to carry a Birkin now, because I’m sick of seeing it,” she said. “It’s, like, wannabe kind of stuff.”

BPTP’s latest apartment complex is in Gurgaon, a rapidly growing suburb about 10 miles from Indira Gandhi airport, whose new international terminal—it occupies five million square feet and is expected to handle 34 million passengers a year—was completed last July. A few years ago, when plans to expand the airport were announced, the Oberoi Group decided to build a “seven-star” hotel in Gurgaon, its first urban project in India in 19 years. “Gurgaon will be to Delhi as Canary Wharf is to London,” Kapil Chopra, a senior vice president of the Oberoi Group, said as he showed me around the property. “So we asked ourselves, What does Gurgaon not have?” The answer, apparently, was a forest. (Gurgaon has grown so quickly that one can still encounter wild dogs and stray pigs on its newly poured roads, but the area’s flora have not thrived along with its fauna.) And so, 4,000 truckloads of topsoil later, a two-acre prefab wilderness of transplanted hardwoods stood adjacent to the site where the hotel was going up fast. Slated to open in March, the Oberoi Gurgaon will have a 24-hour spa and a glass-clad exterior. “This thing, in the night, is going to glisten like a jewel box, a mirror-glass jewel box!” Chopra enthused.

A few streets over from the rising Oberoi is the Devi Art Foundation. In 2008 Delhi’s Poddar family, who made their fortune in paper and perpetuated it in hotels, established the foundation—the first private museum of contemporary Indian art in India. Peter Nagy, an American who runs Nature Morte, Delhi’s leading contemporary art gallery, was visiting that afternoon to see its latest exhibition. After marveling at traditional scroll paintings and bronze casts, Nagy climbed into the backseat of his SUV for the ride back to central Delhi. That night he was hosting a dinner for artist Subodh Gupta, who, depending on whom you ask, is either the Damien Hirst or the Jeff Koons of India. A larger reception was planned for the following night. Nagy’s BlackBerry vibrated relentlessly. “You would not believe the level of prima donna behavior I’m getting,” Nagy said. “Everybody wants an invitation.” Before the financial crisis, he estimated, his clientele was two thirds European. It is now three fourths Indian. “My Indian clients want things that look big and sparkly and international,” he said. “They don’t want anything that looks ‘old India.’”

The Gupta dinner took place in the backyard of Nagy’s gallery. It had a winter wonderland feel: mirrored votives, pale mums, silvery branches. Nagy’s 30 guests were seated in high-backed chairs draped with translucent chiffon as waiters in saffron-colored scarves served soup, daal, and lamb so tender a fork seemed like overkill. Feroze Gujral, once India’s top model and now one of its grander dames, presided over one end of the table. (“Instead of exercising, I get a full-body massage five times a week, which has kept me toned and fit,” she once told Indian Vogue.) Toward the end of the meal, her husband, architect Mohit Gujral, stood to tell a dirty joke. “Stop!” Feroze cried. “It’s so embarrassing!” Mohit proceeded with his joke—it involved an Italian accent, a beleaguered lover, and the line “I can’t take another 67 of those”—and afterward even Feroze was faintly smiling.

Not everyone has found Delhi’s age of prosperity and sophistication so pleasing. “Delhi is…a city with a fondness for barbed wire, armed guards and guest lists,” journalist Rana Dasgupta wrote in Granta in 2009. In the essay, titled “Capital Gains,” Dasgupta offered a taxonomy of Delhi’s class structure, as manifested by its cars: “Mercedes flash Marutis to let them through the throng, and Marutis move aside. Canary-yellow Hummers lumber over the concrete barriers from the heaving jam into the empty bus lanes and accelerate…past the masses—and traffic police look away, for what cop is going to risk his life to challenge the entitlement of rich kids?”

Jewelry designer Hanut Singh, meanwhile, objected to the changing mores of his native city on aesthetic grounds. The day I met him, he was wearing a zebra-print scarf and Adidas track pants, as well as a 17th- century Golconda diamond ring that Cartier had designed for his grandfather the Raj Kumar. Delhi, said Singh, had always been a chivalric place, where well brought-up young people treated their elders like idols and where calligraphers and dancers and speakers of classical languages enjoyed a superbly cultivated audience. “There’s a whole new world out there, a lot of people you haven’t seen before,” he said. “It can be a bit Paris Hilton–ish, if you know what I mean.”

Kalyani Saha is vice president of marketing and communications for Dior in India. She is one of the new set of prominently photographed Delhi women about whom local gossips can sometimes be heard sniping. On the night of Priya Paul’s party, a guard greeted me at the entrance to her estate. Filigreed white gates opened to reveal a sprawling farmhouse. In her living room Saha took a bottle of Moët from a bucket of ice and popped the cork. “Cheers, my dear!” she said. Saha, swathed in a cocoon of gray cashmere, had planned to go to Priya Paul’s party, but she was feeling run-down. “Why socialize if you’re killing yourself?” she asked. Born and raised in Calcutta, she survived a public and contentious divorce with a native son of Delhi, and said her status as a social single woman made her “a bit of a freak case” in town. Her salve is travel. “I joke that the only way to be in Delhi is to be out of it!” she said.

Back at Priya Paul’s party, it was midnight. Waiters set out a buffet: paneers, curries, biryanis with chicken and mutton. In Delhi endless rounds of drinks and conversation are the point of a party, not its prelude. The appearance of dinner often signals that it’s time to go home. Still, guests lingered, balancing champagne flutes and plates full of food. Ira Trivedi, the author, was standing near the door in a long-sleeve black lace minidress. “We’re going to another party,” she yelled to me. “Wanna come?” We jumped into an idling Porsche.

The after-party was on the grounds of a house in Friends Colony, a fancy, shaded neighborhood in South Delhi. A “youngsters party”—one in a series of events that lead up to an Indian wedding—it was supposed to be a relaxed affair for the twentysomething friends of the bride and groom. Outside a white stucco villa, liveried valets directed a throng of chauffeured cars. Inside, garlands of marigolds hung like chandeliers from trees lit by pastel spotlights and pendant globes. The customary late-night buffet was an endless highway of cheesesteaks, stir-fry, Cointreau tiramisu, and seven kinds of Indian bread baked to order in a tandoori oven. Couples smoked strawberry-flavored tobacco from hookahs strewn about on low tables. It was nearly 2 a.m., but the music—bhangra, hip hop, Bollywood tunes—was pumping. The DJ put on Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me.” A man in jeans and a blazer jumped astride his friend piggyback-style. Silhouetted against the pink glow of the bar, they looked like paper dolls.

See More India Where