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Culture

India's gatsby moment

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AGE OF AFFLUENCE: (Top) A still from the film, 'The Great Gatsby', starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Amitabh Bachchan, that reflects America's glamourous 'Jazz Age', (right) Mumbai's sparkling Queen's Necklace that has always been the Gatsby-esque 'green light', a symbolic magnet for aspiring social climbers

'The Great Gatsby' is about exuberant America of the 1920s. It could so easily be about present-day India, with its obscene pockets of wealth and corruption.

Jay Gatsby believed you could repeat the past. The tragic hero of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby, is back in the news thanks to Baz Luhrmann's opulent 3-D adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Amitabh Bachchan. The story of the mysterious, self-made business magnate Gatsby was the touchstone of America's glamourous 'Jazz Age', a phrase coined by Fitzgerald to describe the heightened post-WWI excess in his country. It could well describe presentday India, whose crop of shiny millionaires is set to touch 242, 000 in the next five years, according to a recent Credit Suisse report.

A night out in Mumbai or Delhi will reveal the many pleasures of India's Age of Affluence. In luxury apartments, farm houses and exclusive restaurants and nightclubs, men and women, like those in The Great Gatsby, come and go like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

These are the playgrounds of the many flamboyant Indian Gatsbys, men who may have made their money through dubious means but have acquired a veneer of respectability. Modern-day Daisies or Devinas chatter about the latest Birkins, their voices truly full of money, while multi-crore scams float in their wake.

The New India in many ways reflects America's 'Gilded Age' when the financial boom bred extreme corruption. Mark Twain coined the term to describe a society whose serious problem had been veiled by a thin coating of gold. India's galloping growth has created a new litter of tycoons who, like the American robber barons of the late 19th century, Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, etc. - have used exploitative and unethical practices to grab land, deals and contracts. The Roaring Twenties of Gatsby's America saw an increase in organised crime and a growing collusion between criminals and politicians, glossed over by the effervescent, hedonistic partying of the times. For a while, India's dazzling economic story masked the corruption and crony capitalism behind it. But with more and more outrageous scams being exposed, that party is over.

Emerging from the shackles of India's Nehruvian past is a new generation that, to echo Fitzgerald, is dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success. Success, perhaps, at any cost.

Siddhartha Deb who explored this phenomenon in his non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned - the title is an obvious nod to Fitzgerald's second novel - says this is the flip side that comes with any rapid change in society. "Global capitalism begins like that - with violence, " he says. "For instance, Andrew Carnegie the steel magnate was brutal in breaking his miners' strikes. The Tatas and the Birlas can play by the rules because they have already established their relationship with the Indian state. The new business barons have to be more aggressive, more violent because there is more opportunity now. A lot of the opportunity lies in: a) firstly grabbing public natural resources like mines, forests and water and converting them into your private wealth;b) exploiting the labour of the poor;and c) taking the aspirations of the poor and the middle class and converting it into your own wealth. "

The lure of a rising, glittering New India can be hard to resist. Deb admits, "Even when I was writing the book I felt that seduction to make money. India is in turmoil, it is becoming a society without a clear sense of where it is going. If you don't care about the poor, if you don't care about anybody, if you don't care about the environment, there are a lot of opportunities in India in a way that don't exist in US or Europe, where these things have already been taken by the original robber barons. "
Mumbai's sparkling Queen's Necklace has always been the Gatsby-esque 'green light', a symbolic magnet for aspiring social climbers. And the sudden surge of wealth has changed the outlook of those on the millionaire wait list. Writer and columnist Shobhaa De has an acerbic take on it all: "There isn't just one Gatsby wannabe, but several. Of course, they wouldn't know a Gatsby from a Frisbee! But what the hell - have money, will flaunt. " She adds, "The 'old' money has shrunk. Most of the genteel folks are either dead or broke. The new money is defined by a spectacular lack of good taste, brashness and crassness that is evident in the way money is recklessly flung around. Pre-teen drivers racing around in dad's Ferrari and knocking down a pedestrian or two? Check. Aspiring social kings and queens paying high-profile people to attend 'private' parties? Check. Desperate Housewives hiring PR agencies to 'position' them in society? Check. There are no Daisies in Mumbai. . . . just faded wallflowers!"

In the clash between old money and the new elites in Mumbai, the Queen's Necklace has just been swapped for a brand new symbol - the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Says De, "Big money has moved North. All South Mumbai is left with are snobs who sniff 'How vulgar!' when a suburban Lamborghini zooms into town over the glittering Sea Link!"
Meyer Wolfsheim, played by Amitabh Bachchan in the film, is the symbolic link to Gatsby's unsavory past as a bootlegger. The actor is also the film's key to Indian audiences aspiring to their own New India dream. The Great Gatsby both celebrates and criticises the dream. Says Deb, "It's a very powerful illusion that you can become whoever you want to be, it doesn't matter what your past is - this is the new country. But then the novel ends by saying the opposite - that your past ultimately catches up with you. "

While urban India revels in its current Age of Affluence, America battered by its economic crisis reverts to nostalgia for a carefree, intoxicating past to feel better about its future. Jazz-Age themed parties abound. Tiffany's and Brooks Brothers have launched Gatsby product lines. The novel is once again at the top of the best-selling charts and there have been a spate of new books on Fitzgerald's wife Zelda, the original party-hearty flapper girl. Gatsby's muse Daisy, too, is marketed to the new generation as the Kardashian of her time. And this is how we are borne back ceaselessly into the past - but as we say in India, tadka maar ke (a dash of spice). Hip-hop star Jay Z, a newly crowned mogul himself, says as much when he riffs on Gatsby's line in the film's soundtrack. "History don't repeat itself, " he raps, "It rhymes. "

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