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!”