London’s Big Fat Indian Summer
Why do our country’s rich and famous move to the British capital this time every year? Here’s a voyeuristic look into high life’s party central
THERE WAS a time when it was said that if you wanted to meet every single high net-worth visiting Indian in London, all you had to do was park yourself outside the lingerie department of the Marks & Spencer near Charing Cross Station.
“Terribly grand publishers, A-list industrialists, Bollywood stars – you’d bump into all of them, feverishly stocking up on their year’s supply of lingerie,” swears a frequent visitor to London from Delhi, confirming, among other things, what was always suspected: that no matter how big or important, the same elastic holds up most of India’s rich and powerful.
“The snobbish owner of
Browns once told me that there was a time when American and French tourists were their most preferred clients. That changed to Arabs after the financial crash,” says Bina Ramani, whose family was one of the early settlers in London and features prominently on its expat social scene. (Her brother Gulu Lalvani, who had once flamboyantly bought himself a gold-plated RollsRoyce as a sign of ‘arriving’, is said to have dated Princess Diana.)
“Apparently, there used to be a sign language between the staff at Browns to keep Indians out,” says Ramani. “But now Indians are their no. 1 customers. The owner told me recently, ‘We love them! They come in clusters and shop a lot, and are so beautiful!’
“Everything’s changed,” says uber restaurateur Camellia Panjabi, whose cluster of trendy London eateries, including Chutney Mary, Ameya and Masala Zone, service the legendary British appetite for okra and undhiya at various price points.
Panjabi should know. In the late ’60s when she came to London from Cambridge, the Indian presence in London was almost negligible.
“You must remember that thanks to the stringent foreign exchange regulations of the Indian government, we were all so very strapped for cash,” she says. “Everyone was poor and scrounging for meals. You hardly saw Indians at the top hotels, restaurants and clubs. Which is why the handful of Indians who lived in large homes and had chauffeur-driven limousines, like the Chellarams, Shivdasanis and Hindujas, stood out.”
“Today, there are 200 Indians who live just as well in London as the Chellarams, Shivdasanis and Hindujas. Go to any of the top restaurants, not only do most have an Indian connection as in the case of Arjun Waney who has majority stakes in some of London’s most trendy eateries such as Zuma,
Roka, La Petite Maison, Coya and the members-only The Arts Club, but they will be packed with Indians,” says Panjabi.
“These include Indians who live in London, Indians who live in India but own apartments in some of London’s poshest areas, and of course, Indians who visit London. It seems as though the only people who have money to spend and can be seen do- ing it with abandon in London are Indians.”
A SUMMER SOIREE
Welcome to London’s big fat
Indian Summer, where it’s hard to escape the shopping, dining, partying and general living it up in high gear and full throttle.
“I dropped in to the Audley, the late Victorian pub in the heart of Mayfair, last month and it was packed with Indians!” says AD Singh with palpable glee. “I don’t think it would be easy to find as high profile a group in Khan Market at my own SodaBottleOpenerWala! There were senior counsel and India’s current attorney general, Mukul Rohatgi, Saffron Art founder Dinesh Vazirani, Sula’s Rajeev Samant, fashion designer Pria Kataria
Puri and marketing guru Suhel Seth, all at the same time.”
“I think there’s the push as well as the pull factor,” says Panjabi about the Indian influx, or as someone put it, ‘India’s High Season’ in London. “Indians have always preferred to travel abroad to escape the summer months back home. London, because of factors like language and familiarity, is the natural destination,” she says. “The local Indians have prospered and are an attractive entity for their compatriots who visit. London has become a great networking point for all kinds of business and personal interests. Which is why so many Indians have invested in homes in London, or have placed their kids in schools here,” says Panjabi.
“Mayfair, Park Lane, St Johns Wood are where Indians like to live when they’re in London,” says Chhitra Gidwani, an exporter of high-end garments to England. “They go there to shop, play golf, watch plays and movies. Each year, it’s almost like a rite of passage when they arrive. The same faces in the same restaurants, clubs and department stores, and of course, the same parties thrown by the same local Indian hosts,” she says.
“High net-worth Indians tend to flock to Belgravia and Mayfair of late. A certain part of Hampstead was their first preference