Gatsby in New Delhi
Once I became aware of Arindam Chaudhuri’s existence, I began to find him everywhere: in the magazines his media division published, flashing their bright colors and inane headlines from little newsstands made of bricks and plastic sheets; in buildings fronted by dark glass, behind which earnest young men imbibed Arindam’s ideas of leadership; and on the tiny screen during a flight from Delhi to Chicago, when the film I chose for viewing turned out to have been produced by him. It was a low-budget Bombay gangster film with a cast of unknown, modestly paid actors and actresses: was it an accident that the film was called Mithya? The word means falsehood, appearances, a lie — things I would have much opportunity to contemplate in my study of Arindam.
Every newspaper I came across carried a full-page advertisement for Arindam’s private business schools, the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), with Arindam’s photograph displayed prominently. It was the face of the new India, in closeup. His hair was swept back in a ponytail, dark and gleaming against a pale, smooth face, his designer glasses accentuating his youthfulness. He wore a blue suit, and his teeth were exposed in the kind of bright white smile I associate with American businessmen and evangelists. But instead of looking directly at the reader, as businessmen and evangelists do to assure people of their trustworthiness, Arindam gazed off at a distant horizon, as if pondering some elusive goal.
There were few details about the program or admission requirements in these advertisements, but many small, inviting photographs of the Delhi campus: a swimming pool, a computer lab, a library, a snooker table, Indian men in suits, a blond woman. A fireworks display of italics, exclamation marks, and capital letters described the perks given to students: “free study tour to Europe etc. for twenty-one days,” “world placements,” “Free Laptops for all.” Stitching these disparate elements together was a slogan: “Dare to Think Beyond the IIMs” — the prestigious state-sponsored business schools against which IIPM competed. The new India needed a new kind of university, and a new kind of attitude, and Arindam, said the ads, was the man who could teach you how to find it.
IIPM formed the center of Arindam’s empire — the school was not only his first source of wealth, but had also produced nearly all of his employees. It had also become the target of much hostile scrutiny from journalists and bloggers, who insisted that IIPM was a factory for worthless degrees, banking tuition by churning out ever greater numbers of graduates who, if they didn’t get a job from Arindam, would be unable to get one at all. In today’s India, the very rich rarely come under such suspicion; the glow of admiration that surrounds them is too intense. Arindam had achieved great wealth and prominence, partly by projecting an image of great wealth and prominence — and yet somehow that glow eluded him.
“I’ve spoken to the boss about you,” Sutanu said. “He said, ‘Why does he want to meet me?’”
Sutanu ran the media division of Arindam’s company from a basement office where there was no cell reception, and it took many calls and text messages to get in touch with him. When I finally reached him, he sounded affable enough, suggesting that we have lunch in a South Delhi market known as GK II. We met at Flames, an “Asian Resto-Bar” with a forlorn statue of Buddha tucked away in the corner.
Sutanu was in his 40s, a dark man with a bushy moustache and glasses, his raffish 1960s air complemented by a bright blue shirt and a red tie patterned with elephants. He was accompanied by Rahul, a journalist who worked at one of the magazines published by Arindam. Although they couldn’t have been there long, their table held two packs of Navy Cut cigarettes, a partly empty bottle of Kingfisher, and a battered smartphone that thrummed insistently throughout our conversation.
“The boss is a great man, and sure, his story is interesting,” Sutanu said. “The question is whether he’ll talk to you.”
Arindam Chaudhuri had started out in 1996 as the proprietor of a lone business school. Founded by Arindam’s father, it had been — Sutanu said dismissively — a small, run-of-the-mill place located on the outskirts of Delhi. But Arindam expanded it to nine branches in major Indian metros, and now he was going international. He had an institute in Dubai and had allied with a Belgian management school with campuses in Brussels and Antwerp. He was about to open an institute in London, and was planning another in an old factory building in Pennsylvania. Arindam’s media division included a newsweekly, the Sunday Indian — “perhaps the only magazine in the world with thirteen editions” — and three business magazines. He also owned a software company, a consulting division that managed the “HR component of multinationals,” and a new outsourcing company, which claimed to produce the entire content of the online Guardian, as well as proofreading and copyediting the Daily Mail.
“There’s also a film division, and he’s produced a major Bollywood blockbuster,” Sutanu said.
“It was meant to be a blockbuster,” Rahul said quietly. “But it flopped.”
“Yeah, yeah, no big deal,” Sutanu said. “He’s on other blockbuster projects. He’s a man of ideas. So sometimes they flop.” He lit a cigarette and waved it around, the rings on his hand flashing. “What he’s doing, he’s using intellectual capital to make his money. But people don’t get that and because he’s been badmouthed so much, he’s become suspicious. He’s been burnt by the media. You know, cynical hacks they are. They make up stories that he’s a fraud. A Johnny-come-lately. Everyone asks, ‘Yaar, but where does all that money come from?’”
There was a moment of silence as we contemplated this question.
“They don’t ask these things of other businessmen,” Sutanu said. “That’s because when the mainstream media does these negative stories on him, just hatchet jobs you know, they’re serving the interests of the big industrialists. The industrialists don’t like him because our magazines have done critical stories on them. The government doesn’t like him and harasses him all the time. They say, ‘You can’t use the word “Indian” in the name of your management school because we don’t recognize your school.’ They send us a letter every six months about this. Then, the elite types are after him. The Doon School, St. Stephen’s, Indian Institute of Management people. There were these bloggers writing silly stuff about him, saying that the institute doesn’t give every student a laptop as promised in the advertisements. You want to know how he makes money? It’s simple. There are two thousand students who pay seven lakhs [about $15,000] each. The operating costs are low. You know how much teachers get paid in India. So the money gets spun off into other businesses.”
We ate hot and sour soup and drank more beer, our conversation widening out to include our careers and lives, and the unforgiving city of Delhi. Rahul told us a story about covering the war in Iraq and being arrested by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard while crossing over the border from Jordan. When it was time to depart, I felt reluctant to break up the drunken afternoon bonhomie but nevertheless asked, “When do I get to meet Arindam Chaudhuri?”
“The good thing about the boss is that he’s a yes or no sort of person,” Sutanu said. “You’ll find out in a couple of days whether he wants to meet you.”
Why did I want to meet Arindam? Because I thought he was a key: to figuring out the new India, its obsession with wealth, and what that obsession meant and amounted to. The evidence of that wealth lay in plain sight all around, so much so that the plainness seemed to obscure some important truth. I could see it in the new road sweeping from the airport through South Delhi, turning and twisting around office complexes, billboards, and a granite-and-glass shopping mall on the foothills of the Delhi Ridge that, when completed, would be the largest mall in Asia. Within this landscape, with its promise of Delhi as another Dubai or Singapore, moved the inconsequential masses of the not-rich and the aspiring-to-be-rich, on foot and on two-wheelers, packed into decrepit buses or squeezed into darting yellow and black autorickshaws. The beggar children who performed somersaults at traffic lights — the boys displaying menacing moustaches inked on to their faces — focused their efforts at the Toyota Innova minivans and Mahindra SUVs waiting at the crossing, straining their stunted bodies up toward the high windows behind which the rich sat in cool, perfumed clouds of satisfaction.
Such scenes seemed to contain all that could be said about the rich in India, and the journalists I took out to expensive lunches offered little more than glosses on the above. Mittal, Ambani, Dabur, Swarovski crystals, gold-plated toilets, stud farms, nightclubs, private aircrafts. The people being described sounded so boring that I felt I could go home and sum it up in one surrealist sentence: After the rich couple bought the Swarovski crystals and a private plane, they quarreled over whether to visit a nightclub or go home to their stud farm and shit in their gold-plated toilets.
A couple of days stretched to a week. I kept pestering Sutanu with calls and text messages. Then it was done, an appointment made, and I entered the wonderland to meet Arindam Chaudhuri, the management guru, the media magnate, the business school entrepreneur, the film producer, the owner of IT and outsourcing companies, to which we should add his claims of being a noted economist and the author of two “all-time best sellers,” The Great Indian Dream and Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch.
The drive from Delhi to IIPM’s main campus, which is located on the city’s outskirts in an area called Satbari, is a fairly quick one. First come the temples of Chattarpur, modern structures with crenellated, fluted walls, where memories of old Hindu architecture have been transformed into a simple idea of excess. A gargantuan statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, stands with a mace on his shoulder, looking down dismissively at the traffic.
The road is dusty, and the clusters of shops and houses soon give way to large stretches of land partitioned off for the very rich. A few boutique hotels crop up, looking empty, but the land is mostly colonized by “farmhouses,” weekend homes for the Delhi rich where entertainment can range from a western rocker on a downward career curve to upwardly mobile Ukrainian prostitutes. Nothing of this is visible from the road, of course; all I saw on my first drive were walls edged with broken glass, the occasional flash of green from a well-tended lawn, and a young peasant woman with a suitcase sitting in front of a farmhouse.
The high-walled Delhi campus of IIPM squatted amid these hotels and farmhouses. Compared to the sprawling campuses of the state-subsidized IIMs, it is tiny — five acres instead of a hundred — and thus seems more like a miniature, model school than a real one. The gates were kept shut, and the campus appeared sleepy until just before Arindam’s arrival. Then the security guards hovered around the guardhouse, looking at their watches and fingering their walkie-talkies. The scruffy management students, who, in their odd assortment of blazers and flashy shirts, had the air of men just coming off an all-night wedding party, tried not to look as if they were loitering.
The gates were hurriedly opened for Arindam’s metallic blue luxury car, a million-pound Bentley Continental, as it coasted down the driveway and parked in front of the building lobby. Arindam, dressed in blue, passed through a knot of sycophants and disappeared inside the building, leaving behind nothing but the frisson of his arrival and the Bentley gleaming in the fierce Delhi sun. The power and the glory! A million pounds! Custom-made in the mother country of England! A Bentley was the ultimate status symbol of the Indian rich, expensive and relatively uncommon. A business journalist had told me the probably apocryphal story that Arindam ordered the special paint scraped off when his car arrived from England and then had it repainted to match the blue of one of his favorite shirts.
The campus building was split along two levels. Most of the classrooms were on the basement floor, and were filled with the chatter of students, some of them dressed in suits to attend a class in “Executive Communications.” The ground floor contained a computer lab, a tiny library, and some classrooms, but it was dominated by a boardroom in the center. On the other side of this was an open-plan office. The employees sitting in front of computers and phones were mostly in their 20s and 30s, and although they looked busy, they didn’t give the impression that they were running a global megabusiness. Arindam referred to them as “managerial staff,” but when I introduced myself to one of the managers, a balding, middle-aged man, he seemed to be making cold calls, dialing numbers from a database and asking people if they were interested in taking management seminars.
Up close, Arindam was a few shades darker than his picture, though with the same glossy hair tied back in a ponytail. Beneath his blue pinstriped suit he wore a white shirt open to show his smooth, shaved chest. There were rings on his fingers and bright sparkling stones on the frame of his designer glasses, silver cufflinks on his sleeves, and argyle socks and shiny pump shoes on his feet. All these harsh, glittering surfaces were accompanied by a youthfulness that softened the effect. He was in his late 30s, a year younger than me, with a boyish air that took over when he became sarcastic about his critics and rivals and said, “Wow!”
Our first meeting took place in the boardroom. There were about fifty chairs in the room, most of them pushed to one side, and Arindam and I sat at one end of a long table. The air conditioning was fierce, and after a couple of hours, I began to feel cold in my summer garb of short-sleeved shirt and cotton trousers, but Arindam went on speaking, slowing slightly only when a worker brought us chicken sandwiches and cups of Coca-Cola.
Like most of the new rich in India, Arindam hadn’t started from scratch. He inherited the management institute from his father, Malay Chaudhuri, who began it in 1973. But the original institute had hardly been cutting-edge. The admissions and administrative office in a house in South Delhi doubled as a family bedroom at night. As for Gurgaon, where the institute’s students convened, “it was the least developed place on earth.” I understood why Arindam wanted to emphasize this. Gurgaon, an area just across the Delhi border in the state of Haryana, is now a modern suburb, hosting office parks for multinationals, condominiums, and shopping malls. But in the ’70s, the place was little more than an assortment of unpaved roads meandering through fields of wheat, with electricity and phone lines in short supply, a no-man’s land between Delhi and the vast rural hinterland of India, where a management school must have seemed like just one more of those strange, minor cults that crop up in this country from time to time.
Arindam wanted to go to college in the United States, but his father convinced him to enroll in the family institute. Before he had even graduated, he was teaching a course. “I took advantage of being the director’s son,” Arindam said, laughing but making it clear that he had been perfectly qualified to teach his fellow students. Three years after finishing his degree, he started a recruitment consulting firm. By getting into a position where he was hiring people for other companies, he intended to find jobs for IIPM graduates. The placement of IIPM graduates was a pressing problem at the time, and although Arindam would disagree, it remains a problem now, after all his success.
During those early years, Arindam’s ambitions were disproportionate to his abilities and experience. He started a magazine and a research division, but the magazine closed quickly and his recruitment firm failed to take off. He had nothing to sell except himself. “In 1997, I announced my first leadership workshop for senior executives under the banner, ‘Become a great leader.’ My thinking was that if they can take leadership lessons from me, they will give me business. So they came, not realizing from the photos how young this guy was. And then it didn’t matter, because that first workshop was a rocking interactive supersuccess.” His voice rose, his chin lifted with pride, and he looked me in the eyes. “That is how we built a brand.”
At the IIPM campus, I had picked up a brochure that featured a two-page spread of the articles that appeared when Arindam first made his mark as “The Guru with a Ponytail.” Indistinguishable from press releases, these articles reproduced Arindam’s thoughts on everything from “how not to create more Osamas” (the key, apparently, was “wholesome education”) to the negative influence of “the MBA mafia,” as he called the IIMs. But if Arindam was “Guru Cool” in these articles, he was also combative, attacking the IIMs and pushing his “Theory i Management” (the lower case “i” stood for “India”) as part of a compassionate form of capitalism that took into account the country’s overwhelming poverty. He talked about “trickledown economics” and “survival of the weakest,” and although it was never clear from these extracts how such concepts could be put into practice, they showed Arindam’s desire to project himself as a thinker as well as an entrepreneur.
In June 2005, nearly a decade after his first failed attempt to start a magazine, Arindam began publishing a business magazine called B&E. This led to a newsweekly, the Sunday Indian, and a marketing magazine called the 4Ps. Each was printed on glossy paper, heavy on graphics and syndicated material, thin on original content and, to judge by the misspelled names on Sunday Indian covers (“Pamela Andreson”), short of copy editors. In 2007, Arindam began bringing out an Indian edition of PC Magazine under license from Ziff Davis Media. At the same time, he began discussions with Foreign Affairs in New York to bring out an Indian edition, and when that fell through, he began negotiations with Foreign Policy in Washington DC. “In the school, I have an audience of only 6,000 students,” he had said to me (the actual enrollment, according to Sutanu, was closer to 2,000). “Now, every week, I reach one lakh [100,000] people.” The business schools also produced “academic” journals with names like the Indian Economy Review, the Human Factor, Strategical Innovators, and Need the Dough? But the most significant arena of influence seemed to be his film business, which had turned Arindam into something approaching a household name.
In 2002, Arindam decided to enter the movie business. A few days before his first Bollywood film was to be shot, he told me, the director walked out on him. Arindam, naturally, decided to direct the film himself. He admitted to me that he had not been entirely qualified. “But I hope, some day, when I have more experience, to make a truly revolutionary film.” With a plot lifted from the American comic strip Archie, that first film flopped commercially and was panned by critics. Even the DVD stores in the Palika Bazaar underground market were unable to procure a copy for me. But Arindam learned quickly. Before long he had developed a careful corporate approach to filmmaking that differed from the older Bollywood model of massive budgets, dubious financing (often from underworld sources), and a hit-or-miss approach to success. Arindam’s films, by contrast, focused on the bottom line, keeping the budget small and aiming not for huge audiences but for as much presence as possible in the multiplexes proliferating through the new India, places where a number of films ran simultaneously in theaters far smaller than their predecessors. He also sought out prestige; some more recent ventures of Arindam Chaudhuri Productions have been directed by the Calcutta-based Rituparno Ghosh, who has something of a reputation as an auteur.
Within IIPM, meanwhile, Arindam was surrounded by fierce loyalists. Former students and classmates became employees and continued to refer to him in the nice, middle-class Indian way as “Arindam sir.” They were so enamored of Arindam that when I visited him at the IIPM campus or stood too near him, some of them displayed a barely disguised hostility. Upset at the proximity I had stolen, sensing perhaps that I did not entirely share their faith in their guru, they seethed with the desire to protect Arindam from me.
Almost all of Planman’s employees — 90 percent, according to Arindam — were former IIPM students. The same was true of the faculty members, who tended to morph from students to teachers as soon as they had finished their courses. Rohit Manchanda, a short, dapper man who would have been shorter without the unusually high heels of his shoes, taught advertising and headed Planman’s small advertising agency. The dean of IIPM, Prasoon Majumdar, was also economics editor for the magazines published by Planman. Other employees were family members as well as former students. Arindam’s wife, Rajita, a petite woman who drove a Porsche, had been a student of Arindam’s before they got married and now taught Executive Communications. Arindam’s sister’s husband, a young man with shoulder-length hair and a shirt left unbuttoned to reveal a generous expanse of chest, and who was carrying a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma when I first met him, was a former student, a faculty member, and the features and lifestyle editor of the magazines.
When Arindam met with his division heads, all of whom had been his classmates at IIPM, they joked and chatted for an hour before turning to their work. They seemed to derive immense pleasure from showing me just how close-knit they were. “We’re like the mafia,” Arindam said. It was a comparison that had occurred to me, although other metaphors also came to mind. They were like the mafia in their suspicion of outsiders, like a dot-com in their emphasis on collegiality, and like a cult in their belief in a mythology made up of Arindam’s personal history, management theories, and the strange ways in which the company functioned. But perhaps this is simply another way of saying that they were a business, operating through an unquestioning adherence to what their owner said and believed.
During our first meeting, Arindam explained to me in a five-hour monologue that his business was built around the “brand” of Planman Consulting, the group that includes the business school and numerous other ventures from media and motion pictures to a charitable foundation. To an outsider, however, the brand is Arindam. Even if his role is disguised under the description of “honorary dean” of IIPM, the image of the business school and Planman is in most ways the image of Arindam Chaudhuri. With his quirky combination of energy, flamboyance, ambition, canniness, and even vulnerability, he is the promise of the age, his traits gathering force from their expression at a time in India when all that is solid melts into air.
At the time I met Arindam, The World Wealth Report had ranked India as the world’s second-fastest producer of millionaires, just behind Singapore. When I surfed the internet, checking out related articles from Forbes and the Economist, I felt as if I had been granted a dizzying satellite vision of the country, one remarkably different from the view on the ground.
Graphics on these websites showed towers jutting out from the flat map of India, their heights announcing the amount and concentration of personal wealth. Mumbai had the tallest tower. There, India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani (who, in a piece of news concocted by the Indian media, became the world’s richest man in October 2007, ahead of Bill Gates), plans to build a skyscraper in the most expensive area of the city. Sixty stories high, it will have just twenty-seven floors because of its vertiginously high ceilings, and the only residents apart from the Ambani family will be their retinue of six hundred servants.
India seems awash in money these days, much of it concentrated in industries — hotels, airlines, telecommunications, real estate, retail — that cater to the appetites of urban, middle-class Indians. The higher-ups in these industries set an example for their middle-class admirers by their own conspicuous consumption; and so the stud farms, private aircraft, and Bentleys.
Every age gets the rich people it deserves. In contemporary India, the new rich are people in a hurry, always in pursuit of the biggest, best, and most exclusive of everything that exists. They flaunt gargantuan appetites meant to astonish and dazzle — and to convince us, above all, that the money that winds up in their hands through our own much humbler consumption will not be wasted; it will be turned into Bentleys and gold-plated toilets, for which we’ve done our part.
One evening in September, I went to the Grand Ballroom auditorium of the Park Royal Hotel to hear Arindam speak. I had heard him address a crowd before, but that had been a familiar audience, made up of graduating IIPM students herded into a hotel auditorium near the Satbari campus. The students seemed awestruck but restless, their attention wandering whenever the talk veered away from the question of their future to trickle-down theory; no doubt they were more concerned with trickle-up. Arindam hectored them a little, and he had been worried enough about this to send me a text message a few hours later, asking me to “discount some of the harsh words i said to students.”
The event at the Grand Ballroom was different. It was the final performance of a daylong “leadership” seminar for which people had paid 4,000 rupees [$85], the previous speakers having included Arindam’s wife and several IIPM professors. Over a hundred people, quite a few women among them, sat under the chandeliers as a laptop was set up on stage. They looked like aspirational rather than polished corporate types, the men with red sacred threads around their wrists, the women in saris and salwar kameezes, a gathering of middle-class, middle-rung, white-collar individuals whose interest in leadership skills had a dutiful air. After a number of children — it was unclear to whom they belonged — clustered around Arindam to get copies of the all-time best-seller Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch signed, Arindam took the stage. He wore a shiny black corduroy suit, the jacket displaying embroidery on the shoulders, and loafers that appeared to be made of snake skin.
Arindam wasn’t a natural speaker. In prolonged one-to-one conversations, he had the tendency to look away, not meeting the listener’s gaze. This was less of a problem in a public gathering, but he also had a high-pitched voice and a tendency to fumble his lines. He started by asking people what leadership meant to them. As his listeners spewed out answers, using phrases (“dream believer,” “reach the objective,” “making decisions,” “simplifying things”) that seemed to have been lifted from some ur-text of self-help and management, they seemed both eager and slightly combative, as if not entirely convinced of his ability to teach them about leadership. “Here’s the great Arindam Chaudhuri,” a man next to me muttered, using great in the Indian way to mean someone fraudulent. Arindam seemed aware of the hostility, his responses hesitant, his English uncertain and pronouncedly Delhi middle-class in its inflection.
As the session went on, however, it became evident that these qualities weren’t drawbacks, not among the people he was addressing. The mannerisms gave Arindam an everyday appeal, and it was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success, and glamor that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience. By themselves, the Bentley Continental, the ponytail and the designer glasses, or the familiar way Arindam had of dropping names like Harvard, McKinsey, and Lee Iacocca would have made him too remote. But the glamor was irresistible when combined with his middlebrow manner. He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petit bourgeois.
Arindam was well aware of this. If he wasn’t a natural speaker, he nevertheless had a performer’s ability to gather strength the longer he stayed on stage. Thirty minutes into the leadership session, as I began to be drawn into his patter, I realized that Arindam was telling the Indian middle class a story about itself, offering his audience an answer to the question of who they were. “I am trying to be a mirror,” he said, a comment remarkably attuned to the way he represented a larger-than-life version of the people he addressed.
His listeners had come to the session with a rough sense of who they were supposed to be. They received instruction about this from the culture at large, especially the proliferating media outlets that obsessed about them as members of “India Shining” (a phrase coined by the right-wing, pro-market Bharatiya Janata Party government in 2004 to describe the new India, which was affluent, consumerist, antipoor, and antiminority). The Western media characterized them in a similar manner. Arindam’s audience knew that as middle-class, well-to-do Indians, they were supposed to be modern and managerial. They were a people devoted to efficiency, given to the making of money and the enjoyment of consumer goods while retaining a touch of traditional spice, which meant, for instance, that they used the internet to arrange marriages along caste and class lines.
Still, they needed further affirmation of their role, and this is what Arindam provided, mixing that cocktail of spurious tradition and manufactured modernity, while adding his signature flavor to the combination. He told his listeners stories about traveling to America, Europe, and Japan — the ultramodern places that middle-class India had been emulating and suddenly found within its reach. Yet few people in the audience had been to these countries, and if they did go, they would not encounter them with any degree of intimacy. The very places they were most drawn to — the business centers, the shopping plazas, the franchise restaurants — would remain slightly unreal in spite of the photographs taken, the souvenirs bought, the money spent.
In the Grand Ballroom, though, these places were conjured anecdotally and made to resemble the India the audience knew, or thought they knew. So there were jokes about national stereotypes, comments about the different strengths and weaknesses of the Americans, the Japanese, the French, and the Indians. There were no individuals in these stories, only nameless businessmen met by Arindam in anonymous boardrooms, and the world itself seemed no more than a string of Grand Ballrooms, each dominated by a different ethnic group of capitalists.
After Arindam had given the audience this touch of the foreign, he returned to more familiar territory. He made fun of regional Indian identities, something done rather easily among a largely Hindi-speaking, Delhi crowd that tends to see itself as national. He pandered to their middle-class prejudices, attacking the government as inefficient and corrupt, and then satisfied their nationalism by speaking of the Indian army as the most efficient and disciplined wing of the state.
As Arindam became more comfortable, he slipped into Hindi, segueing into the story of the Mahabharata, an epic 4th-century poem about the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas that is one of the fundamental cultural texts of the Indian subcontinent. This was his way of approaching the “Theory i Management” concept of leadership. Like many contemporary Hindus who have tried to cut from their sprawling beliefs the hard lines of a modern faith, Arindam wasn’t interested in the complex ethical questions or sophisticated narrative strategies of the Mahabharata. Instead, his focus was on the Bhagavad Gita, originally not much more than a long episode in the Mahabharata in which the Pandava hero Arjuna, wracked by doubt before going into battle against friends and family, is given a speech on duty by the god Krishna.
The Gita emerged as a foundational religious text only in modern times, when Hindu revivalists reeling from colonialism sought something more definitive than the amorphous set of practices and ideas that had characterized Vedic religion until then. Then in the early ’90s, the Gita again received new life, when the Indian elites simultaneously embraced free-market economics and a hardened Hindu chauvinism. They discovered in the Gita an old, civilizational argument for maintaining the contemporary hierarchies of caste, wealth, and power, while in the story of Arjuna throwing aside his moral dilemmas and entering wholeheartedly into the slaughter of the battlefield, they read an endorsement of a militant, aggressive Hinduism that did not shrink from violence, especially against minorities and the poor. Given this appeal of the Gita among the Indian middle and upper classes, Arindam’s use of it was a canny choice. He was extending into the realm of management theory a story that his audience would be both familiar with and respectful toward, so that to challenge Arindam’s ideas would be tantamount to questioning a sacred text.
Arindam began the elaboration of his Indian theories, naturally enough, by pulling a red Gita out of a pocket. A Planman photographer ran forward to capture the moment and, for the first time in the session, the audience began scribbling notes. Arindam turned to the laptop as if he were going to boot Krishna into existence, but the laptop refused to comply. As one, two, three, and then four people hurried to help, Arindam gave up, turned away from the computer, and faced the audience.
He began a performance that was part television soap and part stand-up comedy, hamming the roles of housewives, husbands returned from work, fathers and babies, management trainees and their bosses. The audience burst into laughter as each little cameo played out. The laptop was finally made to work, and on the screen appeared a matrix of character types Arindam had extracted from Hindu scriptures. There was the tamas or pleasure-loving type, who could be led only by domination; the rajas, ambitious but greedy, who needed a combination of encouragement and control; and the sattva, who was brilliant and talented and needed to be left alone. “Leadership is about changing your colors like a chameleon to suit the situation,” Arindam said, citing Krishna, the androgynous, slippery god, as the role model for the ideal CEO. Laborers and blue-collar workers were tamasic, young management trainees rajasic, and highly skilled professionals like research scientists were sattvic. He had reinvented the caste system in two hours.
Arindam finished to all-round applause, and as he came down the stage, he was mobbed by his listeners. I went outside to the passageway, where tamasic workers in overalls were installing gates decorated with marigold garlands for a wedding reception that would take place later in the evening. I sat down beside a disheveled-looking man in a suit who was holding a plastic shopping bag that said MORE WORD POWER.
He had attended the entire day’s session, and when I asked him what he thought, he replied that it had been interesting. He had enjoyed some of the earlier speakers, especially A. Sandip, the editor-in-chief of all of Planman’s magazines.
“And what did you think of Arindam Chaudhuri’s talk?” I asked.
“Rubbish. It made no sense at all,” he said.
He fell silent, avoiding my gaze, and when he looked at me again, it was with embarrassment.
“You are a friend? You work for the company?”
He cheered up as soon as he found out that I was writing about Arindam.
“The man is a fraud,” he said, “but a very successful one.”
He was a small publisher who churned out language education books. He would be publishing a management book during the World Book Fair in Delhi in February, a work written by a Canadian living in Beijing.
“It is mostly China-focused. You are aware that there is great interest in China these days? So I wanted to have an event like this for the Canadian during the book fair, and I decided to come and see this. You are writing about Arindam Chaudhuri?” He handed me his business card, leaned toward me, chuckled and said, “You must find out how he makes his money.”
I knew by now how Arindam made his money, or much of it — through IIPM’s tuition and (as in his movie business) by keeping costs low. But what was mysterious was the air of disrepute that clung to him; his wealth, oddly, had not bought him a free pass. People like this publisher seemed to see in Arindam a more successful version of themselves: far enough away to be envied, yet close enough to be resented.
Arindam had told me a story about his childhood that involved a strike at his father’s management school in Gurgaon. He described the strikers as “rowdy elements,” students who had failed their courses and objected to the academic demands made of them. The strike climaxed in a telephone call late one night to his father. An anonymous man, speaking hurriedly, said that a student had been stabbed on campus. Arindam’s father took a taxi, accompanied by one of his employees, a canteen manager. Two hundred meters from the campus, he saw a group of students armed with iron rods waiting for him. He told the driver to turn around, went home, and took his family to a hotel. The stabbing had been a ruse to bring him to campus, and even the canteen manager had been part of the conspiracy.
The strike continued for four months. When the Chaudhuri family moved back home from the hotel, they were greeted by protesting students. “They were carrying horrible placards calling us thieves and murderers,” Arindam said. “The neighbors, who talked to the students, began calling my father ‘Bada Chor’ [Big Thief] and me ‘Chota Chor’ [Little Thief].” But what was most distressing, Arindam said, was that they eventually discovered that members of the faculty were behind the strike. “All the people we trusted were involved, and I decided that I would not let this happen ever again.”
It was a touching story, a young boy seeing his father threatened by enemies and deciding to take them on. “My father named me Arindam,” the grown-up man in front of me said. “That means ‘destroyer of enemies.’” Since Arindam had been named a decade and a half before the incident, his father must have possessed either a remarkable ability to foresee the future or a pronounced sense of enemies lurking everywhere. But the rowdy students, the traitorous canteen manager, and the conspiratorial faculty members had no discernible motives in the story Arindam told me. They were there to provide Arindam a motive for his success, and to demonstrate that people couldn’t be trusted. It was as if Arindam were explaining to me why his business was so close-knit; why outsiders were viewed with suspicion; why his public relations person had demanded, unsuccessfully, that I show him everything I wrote; and why this same person refused to respond to the most elementary queries about the company’s business practices and revenues. There was more than the usual organizational secrecy at work here. Instead, a fundamental vision of life was involved, and underneath all the expansive theories of management, below all the chatter of a world brought closer by corporate globalization, there was, ultimately, only this Manichean idea of people divided into the loyal and the disloyal, of Arindam at odds with the world.
Arindam started, he said, by competing for students with the “mafia” of management education in the country, but it was when he started a media division that his troubles began. “The elite now saw that I was challenging them directly, in the realm of ideas.” He was no longer operating merely within the confines of business schools; he was breaking down “the establishment hold on thought.” Arindam’s voice dropped low. “That is the reason why I am hated by a lot of people.”
He was referring in part to a harsh piece about IIPM by an alumna of the elite IIM Ahmedabad business school. “It was the world’s most stupid article,” Arindam said, adding that he couldn’t remember the name of the journalist. But the ensuing public imbroglio (“we had no clue what is the blogger world,” he told me ruefully) put a dent in Arindam’s reputation, even as it solidified, at least for a while, his tenuous alliance with his own student body.
The woman whose name Arindam couldn’t remember was Rashmi Bansal. Responding in part to an especially frenzied media blitz from IIPM (it was reported that they’d spent more than $1 million to advertise in a number of prominent Indian newspapers and magazines), she wrote an article, “The Truth Behind IIPM’s Tall Claims,” for JAM (Just Another Magazine — “India’s Most Loved Youth Magazine Since 1995”), a small periodical that she published herself for a young, English-speaking audience. Bansal’s article claimed that IIPM’s advertising was misleading: only the Delhi campus had the facilities prominently displayed in the pictures, from swimming pool to library, while campuses in other cities were housed in crowded office buildings; the scholars from institutions like Wharton, NYU, Columbia, and Harvard claimed as “visiting faculty” were people who had merely passed through, delivering one-time lectures; the degrees IIPM awarded were not recognized by the Indian government; the company fudged data from media surveys to claim top rankings; and, contrary to its claims, it did not place its graduates in multinational corporations like McKinsey.
The story was linked to by a young blogger and IBM salesman in Mumbai named Gaurav Sabnis. His post, “The fraud that is IIPM,” was vicious. IIPM responded immediately, and clumsily: it wrote to Sabnis, threatening to sue him, and obtained a court injunction against the original article in JAM, which was temporarily taken offline. It also contacted IBM, from whom it purchases the free laptops that it gives to students, asking them to pressure Sabnis to take down his post, and threatening that the students would march to IBM headquarters in Delhi and burn their laptops in protest.1
IBM claimed that it did not pressure Sabnis, but Sabnis resigned anyway to spare his employers embarrassment. This — in addition to abusive comments left by IIPM students on various blogs where criticisms of IIPM appeared — inflamed an already excited blogosphere, which decided that Sabnis was a martyr to truth and freedom of expression. They set about challenging IIPM’s claims with ever greater energy, discovering, among other things, that IIPM’s “campuses” in Antwerp and Brussels consisted of a loose affiliation with a rather questionable institute not recognized by the Belgian government.
Soon the mainstream press took notice. The large weekly Businessworld — for which Bansal was a columnist — reported that it had accepted Arindam’s request to look into the case for and against his institute, but was fobbed off with generalities about IIPM and its “enemies” when it asked for specific information. The resulting article, “When the Chickens Come Home . . . ,” while more moderate in tone than Bansal’s, was skeptical of IIPM’s claims, especially regarding the placement of graduates and the consultancy work done by Planman. Most of the multinational corporations named in IIPM advertisements, when contacted by Businessworld, said that they had few if any dealings with Arindam’s organization. It was unquestionably a public relations disaster for Arindam, though his students stood by him. If anything, their commitment to the school was redoubled.
In sifting through the long, labyrinthine posts on the anti-Arindam blogs, it is hard to avoid the impression of a virtual world being torn apart by virtual tools. Most often, the claims made by IIPM and Planman depended on a careful selection of pictures, comments, and data, and the creation of numerous websites. This approach had worked well because it was part of a larger narrative of corporate success in India. Most mainstream journalists were too lazy and untrained, and too enamored of wealth, to subject these claims to the most basic scrutiny. But this was not true of the bloggers, who relentlessly probed the web, emailed people listed by IIPM as contacts, checked IP addresses, and conducted background research. The most interesting investigation the bloggers carried out involved IIPM’s history, focusing not merely on Arindam and his faculty but also on Arindam’s father, the man who had started it all by beginning a management school in Gurgaon.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about Jazz Age America, there are two questions asked of Gatsby. Where did he get his money? And, where did he go to college? These are necessary questions in a time when money is being made too quickly and in too many ways for established social networks to keep track. In the gap between old networks and rapidly changing times lies opportunity. Gatsby hopes to make good the promise of capitalism that ambitious people can have second acts to their lives. So when he tells people in a voice laced with British affectations (“old sport”) that he went to Oxford, he is trying to transform his new money, procured by questionable means, into old money. And because assuming the persona of a blue-blooded heir leads naturally to questions about why he hasn’t attended one of the Ivy League colleges where wealthy young men like Tom Buchanan are sent for a final polish, he adopts Oxford as his alma mater, a place so far away that it is difficult for people to check up on him.
Arindam, unlike Gatsby, wasn’t a working-class upstart from the interior of the country. He was a middle-class man who grew up in Delhi, alert from the very beginning to the opportunities provided by the capital city, and who thus demonstrates that the mobility provided by the new India is significantly more limited than that of America at the turn of the 20th century. As for the degrees claimed by Arindam, they came not from some exotic overseas institution but from the business school set up by his father. The question of pedigree, the bloggers realized, could be transferred back one generation to Arindam’s father, “Doctor” Malay Chaudhuri, and his claim to have a doctorate from the Berlin School of Economics.
The bloggers discovered that it was hard to pinpoint any such school with certainty. Dr. Chaudhuri had once contested elections to the Indian parliament — he received so few votes that he lost his deposit — and in his application to the Election Commission, he credited his doctorate to an institute in the other Berlin, in the former East Germany. What records could one possibly locate when the country itself no longer existed? The bloggers concluded that there had never, in all likelihood, been a Berlin School of Economics, and that Malay Chaudhuri’s doctorate was simply the first of many fictitious degrees handed out by the Chaudhuri clan.
I could see the rationale of the bloggers, just as I saw how the Delhi publisher’s question about how Arindam made his money was important. In spite of the friendliness with which Arindam treated me, he was always on his guard. My questions about revenues and the size of the company continued to go unanswered, which seemed even more interesting when I discovered that the Indian tax authorities were investigating the company. Although it spent roughly $8 million on advertising in 2006, it paid no income tax that year or the previous. There was also the company’s social responsibility campaign, directed through its charitable Great Indian Dream Foundation. Arindam claimed that it was building schools in slums and villages, setting up a hospital in a rural area of West Bengal, and giving “experimental” seeds to farmers. “We will have fifty-two schools in seven metros by the end of the year. Sixty thousand villages will be covered in the future. Eventually, I hope to fulfill my father’s dream of doing something for the downtrodden in Africa.” Within the glittering capitalist lived a closet radical, someone who admired Che Guevara so much that he had named his only son Che. But I found it impossible to verify any of these claims, and Arindam’s promise to take me to a school for the poor in a Delhi slum never materialized.
Other things remained beyond my scrutiny. I realized I had met Arindam only in hotels and at the main IIPM campus in Satbari, where he spoke, in expansive terms, of expanding to America. “Let Harvard fume, ‘We are two hundred years old,’” Arindam had said, lopping two centuries off Harvard’s past. “Eventually they will recognize how good we are.” It was astonishing, this equation of America, through Harvard, with the old, while the India he represented was new, young, and modern. And perhaps he was right. His institute was a fluid, virtual business school of the future, one that had done away with the arduous task of institution building.
Arindam had first moved the school from Gurgaon to the Qutab Institutional Area, on the southern fringe of Delhi, where it occupied a leased building that finally ran afoul of the city’s zoning laws. Now they were operating from Satbari, somewhere between Gurgaon and Qutab, but even this building, its bright colors and abstract designs done to Arindam’s specifications, its small gym and swimming pool throwing out a challenge to the well-funded IIMs, might not be the final stop. It was a leased space, and Arindam told me that negotiations were already in progress to set the campus up somewhere else.
If the school was mobile, Arindam was even more so. After our meeting at the campus, I had wanted to meet him in his office. “I don’t really operate from a fixed space,” he said. “I am so much on the move.” One day in September, after he’d missed an appointment with me, he sent me a text message at 7 AM. “Good morning!” it said. “Totally totally forgot that day. However in the airport right now. And free. Can call. Do let me know if you ve woken up! Sorry about this early morning missive!” He was going on a long business trip to Toronto and London, and I called him back hurriedly, trying not to sound sleepy. He would be attending the Toronto Film Festival, where one of his films, the Rituparno Ghosh–directed The Last Lear, was being screened. At London, he would be joined on the plane by the stars of his film, the young actress Preity Zinta and the elongated, bearded superstar Amitabh Bachchan, most famous of all Bollywood actors, who has gone from playing thin angry young men in the ’70s to contemporary roles as a corporate patriarch. After the festival, Arindam would stop by his London office for a couple of days.
I remembered an article in the Financial Times that said he would be opening his London institute at Chancery Lane, and so I asked him, “Where exactly is your London office?”
There was a pause.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Where is it?”
He sounded boyish and vulnerable, and I found myself wanting to respond kindly, as if speaking to a child I didn’t want to embarrass about an insignificant lie.
“It’s hard for you to keep track of all the offices you have,” I suggested.
“That’s right,” he replied, seemingly relieved that I had offered him a way out.
One day at the Satbari campus I asked Arindam about the criticism that his institute didn’t really offer careers. It was undoubtedly successful in attracting students, but the students, on graduating, seemed to end up in the very organization that had given them their expensive degrees, teaching at the institute and working for Planman. Arindam told me that his organization was a “family,” one that offered a continuation of the camaraderie experienced by the students. He also pointed out that, unlike the IIMs, he was not using public money to produce a small number of MBAs who then received extravagant salaries from multinational corporations. “They’ve cornered 100-acre campuses in India. The six IIMs, taken together, teach one thousand students. And because they have so few students, the average pay package [for graduates] is 8 to 9 lakhs [between $17,000 and $19,000]. That is aura! Wow!”
He was right in pointing out how higher education for the Indian elite, from the engineering colleges to the IIM business schools, was funded by the state, producing technocrats and corporate executives who then went on to attack the state for being inefficient and wasteful. “Every American president should start by thanking the Indian taxpayer,” he said, noting that US multinationals benefited most from the training given to IIT and IIM graduates. By contrast, he had privatized management education, applying to it the genuine rules of the marketplace. His graduates might get smaller starting salaries. They might be working, he said sarcastically, for distinctly unglamorous companies like “Raju Underwear” and “Relaxo Hawaii Chappals.” But they were not coasting on the taxpayer’s money. He was training people who would work in Indian organizations that needed their skills. “Our placements are improving. Foreign companies are also coming,” he added defensively.
The bulk of IIPM students still ended up working for Arindam. It was hard to find out how much they were paid, but I had a rough idea because Arindam had, in a different context, divided his organization’s salary structure into three groups; those making up to 25,000 rupees a month [just over $500]; up to 75,000 rupees a month [$1,500]; and more than 75,000 rupees a month. It seemed reasonable to assume that a starting IIPM graduate fell into the first category; at $6,000 a year, he or she earned a third of what an IIM graduate did, which doesn’t seem bad. On the other hand, this is only twice what a call center worker with a basic — and cheap — college degree can earn, even if managerial work offers better hours and prospects for advancement.
The problem with Arindam’s approach lay deeper than the salaries his graduates made. Even in the world of closed Indian companies, Arindam’s organization is unusual. It is not publicly traded, and was incorporated only very recently. The success and failure of IIPM students depends largely upon what happens to Planman, and what happens to Planman depends on what happens to Arindam. As for what happens to Arindam, that depends on whether the students keep coming. If the business school produces the greater part of the company’s revenues and employs most of the graduating students, this model can keep functioning only as long as a growing body of students remains willing to put up substantial sums of money for their degrees.
Although the bloggers were right about many things, they seemed unable to comprehend that Arindam wasn’t so much a rogue management guru as a particularly blatant, though uncredentialed, manifestation of standard management principles. Arindam tended to invoke the elite IIM mafia as a way to evade questions, but it was true that the initial criticism had been leveled by Bansal, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate, and then picked up by Sabnis, who studied at IIM Lucknow. It was equally true that the bloggers were remarkable snobs. Alongside more substantive criticism of IIPM and Planman, they posted many comments about the way Arindam and his acolytes dressed and spoke, with an element of distaste and surprise that such pretenders could claim to belong to the corporate world from which most of the bloggers came.
None of the bloggers seemed willing to consider that their cherished corporate practices would necessarily spawn imitators. IIPM has the same relationship to IIM as knockoff goods do to branded products; there is always a market for the knockoff version among the aspirational crowd. In other ways too, the cult of Arindam — the bloggers were puzzled by the vehemence with which IIPM students, the people apparently being defrauded, defended him — is only part of the larger cult that is contemporary India.
Arindam’s management factory produces something less tangible but more resonant than durables or consumer products. It takes people who have a fair bit of money but little cultural or intellectual capital and promises to turn them into fully fledged partners in the corporate globalized world. The students at IIPM are not from impoverished backgrounds. They can’t be because the courses are expensive. Many come from provincial towns, from small-business families that have accumulated wealth and now feel the need to upgrade themselves so they can compete in the realm of globalization. Arindam gives youth from these backgrounds a chance to tap at IBM laptops, wear shiny suits and polished shoes, and go on foreign trips to Geneva or New York. All this involves a considerable degree of play-acting, and the students spend the most impressionable years of their lives in what is in essence a toy management school — mini golf course, mini gym, mini library. But play-acting is what the Indian middle and upper classes are doing anyway, wandering about the malls checking out the products purveyed by more established, easeful play-actors like Tommy Hilfiger and Louis Vuitton.
One morning, I dropped in at a five-star hotel where the Indian Chamber of Commerce had organized a marketing conference. I was there to hear a talk on “luxury brands” by Vijay Mallya, a liquor baron and airline owner who is one of the wealthiest people in the world. Mallya is also a nominated member of parliament, and when he arrived at the Taj Palace hotel, he came with gun-toting government bodyguards in tow. A crowd of photographers and cameramen followed him, recording every facial crease and sparkle of his diamond earrings as he walked to the stage.
Mallya had a pale, fleshy face with a salt-and-pepper goatee, and his hair was rakishly long at the back. He was a portly man, handsome in a grizzled way, and keenly aware that his status in that gathering was something close to royalty. When the panelist asked him to share his “wisdom” with the crowd, he began a rambling speech in which certain words were shouted very loudly. My notes came to this:
vodka — wine — youth — rocking — demands —
drives — smirnoff — romanoff — survive — white mischief —
campaign — eve-teasing fun — mischievious —
bore — old-fashioned — poison — young — daring —
controversial — poison lao.2
After the speech was over, Mallya offered more nuggets of his philosophy in response to asinine questions, many of them as fake as the lemony air freshener that permeated the auditorium. When he was flattered by the questioner, as was often the case, he acted pleased but slightly bored. When he really liked a question, his response was kingly: “There is merit in your comments.” He was a prickly and nervous man, nevertheless; his left leg worked an invisible foot pedal, and he flushed like a watermelon when a woman asked why his companies objectified women with their pin-up calendars and risqué advertisements.
As the event dragged on, I realized that most of those asking questions weren’t corporate types; they were management students and faculty members, each of whom turned to the audience to announce his or her institutional affiliation before proceeding. Here were the aspirers again, rubbing shoulders with wealth and power, their hopes visible in their way of blurting out the question and turning away from Mallya before quite finishing, looking sideways at a companion with a smile of triumph, and then sitting down meekly, as if they had never been born to trouble the world with their aspirations.
There were no IIPM students in the crowd, and yet it was the same phenomenon at work, of young men and women raised to believe that somewhere in the hallowed corporate corridors existed all the wisdom and fruits of modern life. Arindam offered his students proximity to this world by his style and the take-them-on attitude he breathed. Joining IIPM, which required only a high school degree and the ability to pay steep fees, they suddenly became at par with the nobility of the globalized world. IIM, Harvard, McKinsey: these were the names Arindam shouted with familiarity the day he strode up and down the aisle while addressing a class of graduating students. And because the students, in spite of the money spent and the Executive Communication classes taken, still sported bad haircuts and wore awkward clothes, they appreciated the adversarial air projected by their honorary dean. They formed an army of Gatsbys, wanting not to upturn the social order but only to belong to the upper crust, which is why they felt compelled to defend Arindam and IIPM against the bloggers.
Arindam’s fortune, ultimately, was built on the aspiration and ressentiment of the Indian petite bourgeoisie. Without the aspirers emulating, admiring, and parting with their cash, moguls like Arindam would not exist. He had made a business out of their aspirations, calibrating the brashness and insecurity that had come to them on the wings of the market economy and its political partner, right-wing Hinduism. Arindam understood well how these aspirers had been given a language of assertion by the times they lived in, and how they had also been handed a vocabulary of rage that is quite disproportionate to their perceived provocations. It is one of the triumphs of our age that aspirers can be made to feel both empowered and excluded; all over the world, one sees a new lumpenbourgeoisie quick to express a sense of victimization, voicing their anger about being excluded from the elite while remaining callously indifferent to the truly impoverished.
I had begun feeling some of this aspiration myself. One afternoon, I ate lunch with a former IIPM student who was one of Arindam’s prized employees. His name was Siddharth Nambiar. Wearing a suit and designer sunglasses, his head shaven, he appeared in front of me with long strides, car keys dangling from his right hand. He was late because he had rammed his car into the back of a bus, but he was unfazed by this “fender bender,” as he put it.
We met at a shopping plaza just across the street from where I lived at the time, an odd mix of multinational franchises, rundown shops, and a multiplex that often seemed to be showing one or the other of Arindam’s films. Nambiar led me up the stairs to an Italian restaurant called Azzurro. It was quite empty: the call center workers preferred the kathi roll stand around the corner or the TGIF outlet across the square, and it was too early for Western expats and upper-class Indians. The waitstaff knew Nambiar, as did the woman who ran the restaurant. He took off his sunglasses, ordered with a flourish, and began telling me about his career with Planman. He had been a student at IIPM Delhi, joined the company upon graduating, and had soon taken charge of the media division. He was 23 years old.
Arindam had put considerable thought into sending Nambiar to meet me. If his primary business was churning out management graduates, he had sent me his finest product, glistening and confident, someone who could compete effortlessly with the MBAs from IIM. Nambiar’s shaven head shone in the bright afternoon light as he spoke about how he had negotiated with Foreign Affairs about publishing an Indian edition (although the effort was unsuccessful, he impressed Foreign Affairs with his presentation, according to a friend of mine who worked there). He had traveled around the world with Arindam, and in a few weeks he would be leaving for Oxford, where he would earn an MBA. When he returned, he expected to work at Planman again.
I asked about Arindam’s conspicuous consumption, and he was delighted to give me the details. “The car?” he said. “It’s a Bentley Continental four-door. Actually, he got it because of me. We were in London, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and I saw a Bentley parked outside this restaurant where I was having lunch with friends. I had one of them take a picture of me leaning on the hood of the Bentley with a glass of champagne in my hand.” He laughed, waiting for the image to be fully processed in my brain. “It looked so cool, you know? Then, I went to see Arindam at the Ritz, where he was staying. I was showing someone else the picture on my laptop, and he grabbed the laptop from me, looked at the picture, and said, ‘What kind of car is that? I’m going to get one.’”
Arindam had another Bentley in Bombay, as well as a Jaguar Sovereign. His cellphone, a birthday gift from his wife, was a Vertu.
“You don’t know what a Vertu is? Look it up on the web,” Nambiar said encouragingly.
I asked him if he could describe Arindam’s Delhi office for me.
“Let me think,” he said. “I’d say it has a nightclub in the daytime look.”
We laughed at this. Nambiar’s laughter had a doubleness to it — it conveyed the knowledge that he himself was too sophisticated to make such a mistake but also revealed his admiration for a man who had the money to flaunt his taste, however questionable. He described the long, curved, red leather couch, the shelves filled with management books and magazines. An anteroom contained a treadmill, a television, and a pullout sofa where Arindam’s son Che sometimes slept in the afternoon. The office floor had blue granite tiling, and the building’s exterior was of tinted blue glass. From the windows of Arindam’s office, Nambiar said, it was possible to see the Ernst and Young building.
What gave Nambiar’s description a touch of virtual reality was the fact that Arindam’s Delhi office no longer existed. It had been closed down for violating zoning laws and survived only in the images Nambiar so expertly created.
When I asked for the bill, the waiter said that it had been taken care of by the manager. “She’s my girlfriend’s mother,” Nambiar said. “That’s really too bad, because I was hoping to treat you.” I insisted that the waiter bring me the bill. The waiter smiled and disappeared, while Nambiar looked surprised. I said something about journalistic ethics, but I could see that this made no sense to him. I was beginning to lose my temper, and I wondered why. Who would really care if I let Nambiar’s girlfriend’s mother pay for lunch? Who would think that my honesty as a writer had been compromised?
As I cornered the waiter again and forced him to bring the bill, I found myself wondering why I didn’t have a suit, designer sunglasses, and car keys. I wondered why I wasn’t making money at a time in India when moneymaking opportunities seemed everywhere for the asking. Like Arindam’s students, I was an aspirer, finally, oblivious to anything but my own inchoate desires, filled with a sense of anger that I had no wealth to flaunt, as well as a trembling awareness of opportunities that it was perhaps not too late to capitalize. “I don’t like an image of me that isn’t me,” Arindam had told me, anxious to clarify his essential self. And here was I, not liking the image of me that was me. I felt that I was beginning to lose myself in this world of appearances and aspirations, and that paying the bill was the only way to return to steady ground.
See for instance Online Journalism Review, “Business School Flap a ‘Breakout Moment’ for Indian Blogosphere,” October 26, 2005. ↩
“Eve-teasing” refers to sexual innuendoes and other harrassments directed at women; it’s a common Indian term, especially in police reports. “Poison Lao” means “Bring Poison” — the brand name of one of Mallya’s liquors. ↩