There are two ‘directs’ from Heathrow that count: a direct bus to Oxford, called the Oxford Tube; and a direct train, the Piccadilly line, to the Knightsbridge station, or Hyde Park Corner, if you prefer so. I was told this when I first went to London more than a decade ago, when I started, like many Indians, a summer ritual of moving base to London.
Later I realised that these ‘directs’ are metaphors, almost, for reaching the seats of the elite. Oxford University has produced 28 British prime ministers, including the current one, Boris Johnson. And Knightsbridge, along with Belgravia and Chelsea, is part of the trinity of neighbourhoods which form the capital of ‘Richlandia’ within London.
When I first started to spend a part of my summers there in a flat in Belgravia in a building whose name I will not reveal (I will tell you why later), I noticed that silence hung in the area dotted with embassies and expensive restaurants through the day, but vrooms of cars rang through the night. These were, I found out, super luxury and sports cars—some of which were gold- and platinum wrapped Ferraris—driven at top speed up and down the road that stretches from the upmarket department store Harvey Nichols to Sloane Square when it was empty at night.
It is the sort of thing that happens at SW1, the post code area which includes Richlandia, where bored billionaires come to shop at Harrods in summer, leave their supercars parked wrongly in front of the shopping centre—it doesn’t matter if it’s towed away. From Harvey Nichols to Harrods, from the Mandarin Oriental (the Oriental is known to be a favourite home to Kokilaben Ambani and her family when they are in town) to Gloucester (‘the only pub on Sloane Street’), from the famed One Hyde Park, where the starting price of apartments is $25 million to the Saatchi Gallery of contemporary art, this is the hunting ground not merely of the Indian rich, but the rich from every part of the world. It is a world where a stunning 84% of the households in Knightsbridge earn more than $120,000 a year and the price of an average home is $3 million.
As the sun rolls in, the wealthy from India also descend on these parts in summer. They usually stay at the Taj hotels (mostly the one at St. James’s), The Dorchester, Four Seasons and, of course, the Oriental. The Savoy and Claridge’s, the old lions of British hospitality, still have their faithfuls, but these days the Savoy is considered too close to the tourist action at Covent Garden and Claridge’s, too close to Mayfair, which houses many major corporate headquarters and embassies.
But the wealthy do not come to this area only because the shopping is great or to spot a film actor glide into a Rolls-Royce. Lakshmi Kaul, head and representative-U.K. at the Confederation of Indian Industry, says the real reason is that it is “naturally discreet”. “When people think of SW1, they think of the Harrods sale and Hyde Park but when the truly influential, powerful, and seriously wealthy people think of it, they notice the silent boulevards of Belgravia—there is a certain privacy that is inbuilt in this area,” says Kaul. “Dotted with embassies, it is highly secure and very private, and gives people a natural sense of conformity and continuity.”
This is something I have noticed in my diary jottings about the area year after year. For instance, one high net-worth friend, who is an asset manager, bought a flat overlooking Hyde Park—though not at One Hyde Park—because it made it easy for him to go for walks and jogs with Indian clients. Some of those Indian clients, he told me, were coming to the park, in turn, to do some causal hobnobbing with their Arab and Russian clients. The trick was to come during Ramzaan when the Arab rich move en masse to London (Harrods is said to have moved its sale date to coincide with the holy month—this has never been formally confirmed though). Indians are naturally in the city because it is summer. “Any deal that you suggest to Indians or Arabs,” joked my asset manager friend one summer, “is bound to be less than what’s spent by their partners at Harrods”.
The younger rich from India are increasingly choosing to rent apartments in SW1 rather than live in hotels. On my daily trip to Waitrose on 27 Motcomb Street in Belgravia to get breakfast, I have noticed several Indian faces and the number seems to be growing every year. This must be one of the toniest grocery shops in the world—a place where I first discovered that one could, in reality, see daintily begloved women draped in Chanel jackets, wearing Levi’s jeans and Allbirds merino wool loafers, carrying chihuahuas in Mulberry bags, pop in to buy some coconut water and a clutch of yellow roses.
Now, there’s a bit of social experiment in that image. Apart from the obvious mix-and match of the very expensive with the cheap and-street (after all, everyone who has classy wealth knows that all you ever need is that one standout item in every ensemble), there is a reverse snobbery which is the hallmark of the young and rich. I personally know of the son of one of India’s tech billionaires who merrily does his own grocery shopping when living overseas. That’s exactly the type who would enjoy skipping out for a loaf of organic bread. This new class of the wealthy prides in a sort of rebellious independence. They love not being tied down by butlers and bellboys and living ‘independently’ in rented flats rather than hotel rooms—even though an apartment in Belgravia could easily cost more than a room at the Oriental. Mind you, these are no ordinary apartments. Almost always Victorian, they are discreet from the outside, rarely with any identification besides a number. Inside, there are cascading wooden staircases and rooms furnished à la Downton Abbey.
The idea is not to be a visitor to London every summer, as the rich of an earlier generation might have taken pride in, but to be a Londoner, even if only for a few months. And a true Londoner has no problem skipping over to their neighbourhood grocer every morning.
Even though rich Indians are ever-ready to spend at Harrods and buy their daily bread and champagne, the one place where they are not big spenders is the Saatchi Gallery of contemporary art. Indians prefer classics or antiques. They are far more willing to participate in a sale at Christie’s or Sotheby’s than hunt down an outrageous new name from Saatchi. What sells well, though, among buyers of every nationality peeping through Saatchi are the gorgeous Taschen books from the exclusive boutique of the German publisher right outside the entrance to Saatchi. I have spotted a Bollywood A-lister buying a brilliant series on vintage pornography from here, but the name will go to the grave with me.
Nor will I reveal the name of the building in Belgravia where I stayed when I first came to London lest—as a Londoner warned me all those years ago—it becomes too popular. There is no greater sin than helping everyone discover something about London. I, too, like to keep things discreet.
(This story was originally published in the September 2019 issue of the magazine.)