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.