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.