These are dire times in London, a city of which if one is bored, said the littérateur Samuel Johnson, one must be bored of life itself. The latest Z/Yen Global Financial Centres Index shows that New York has overtaken London as the world’s premier financial hub for the first time since 2015.
Brexit hangs like a permanent cloud atop Westminster and when the bells ring, as they do before each service, at the Abbey next door, sometimes you can scarcely hear them above the roar of activist Steve Bray, 50, who shouts “Stop Brexit! It’s not a done deal” outside the houses of parliament every day. He is called Mr. Stop Brexit.
But do rich Indians care? No.
Last year, Indians poured more money into London than ever before. Foreign direct investment from India to London grew by 255% between 2017 and 2018, compared to a 100% jump in money invested from India into the whole of the United Kingdom (U.K.), according to analysis firm fDi Markets and fDi Intelligence data.
For a decade now, each year I have come to London to understand what makes the city the natural second home for some of the richest people in India, politicians, film stars, deal-hungry investors and, of course, those who don’t want to pay their bank loans back at home. When I realised that I feel completely at home each time I land at Heathrow, I decided to spend a year living in the U.K.—part of the time in London and partly in Oxford—an experiment, if you will, in learning the secret alchemy that makes the British capital so special to so many Indians.
The most fundamental misunderstanding about luxury, which I have seen again and again in the last decade writing the luxury issue, is that people believe luxury is a luxury. Something you reward yourself for a special occasion. This is not how anyone who is a regular consumer of luxury thinks—and this is not how the best luxury brands conceive of their products. True luxury, in fact, is the everyday taste and consumption of those who have taste. The real appreciation of luxury occurs only if it is daily, matter-of-fact consumption. True luxury is not checking into a hotel but a hotel so intimate and so personalised—and, therefore, luxurious—that it merely feels like coming home.
To the rich, London is coming home.
While writing this issue, I mentioned this to Gautam Sen, a retired lecturer of political economy at the London School of Economics, and cream of the British-Indian intelligentsia, who has lived in London for more than 40 years. And we laughed that once upon a time the rulers of the Raj moved from the scorching plains of Delhi to the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, to Mussoorie and Shimla, at the first sight of summer.
Today, the Empire lands back.
Over the years I have heard many reasons why many Indians think there is no place like London: “everything seems familiar”, “the language grows ever closer in accent to what you hear in Khan Market”, and even “the only country that understands that Indians love the class system and has created ever-increasing tiers of visas at various prices” including a ‘premier room’ service where you don’t have to jostle with the crowds.
It was in London, of course, that I was drinking a contemplative martini at Dukes Bar one evening in the summer of 2014 when a Delhi millionaire, elated at the thought of how high the markets would jump upon the victory of Narendra Modi, told me three things prove that you are rich: you never queue up for a U.K. visa, never stand in the cattle class line at Heathrow immigration, and are never found jostling in the Harrods Sale (of course, there is only one sale—at Harrods). If your money cannot get you to bypass these, then, really, what good is your money, and what is fast-track personalised service?
This luxury issue, then, is an ode to the city that has sustained me for a decade—where I have seen everyone from sun-bathing cabinet ministers pretending to hide behind sunglasses (and hoping desperately that someone, anyone, will recognise them at Hyde Park—there is only one park) to billionaires feuding with their siblings and melancholic arms dealers. I have dined where they dine, drank what they drink, shopped where they shop—all, of course, at a fraction of the budget that India’s rich spend in London.
I have even caught a glimpse of the richest men in the U.K.—who obviously live in London and are obviously Indian—Gopichand and Srichand Hinduja (estimated fortune around $27.5 billion, up $2 billion from 2018), and chatted with Lord Swraj Paul (estimated fortune: $900 million) at an art exhibition. I once sat down with the humble multimillionaire Nathu Puri (estimated fortune: $157 million) who told me his incredible life story of having come from Punjab in 1967 when he was 26 years old with a pure maths degree and going on to build a great British engineering-to-hospitality conglomerate. One thing he mentioned has stayed with me: “We paved the way for others to build their dreams in this country.”
That sentence has, I believe, the key to the abiding interest of Indians in London—unlike the Qataris or the Russians, India’s wealthy have historic ties with this city that go back well before 1947. London trained every side of the freedom movement in law from Mahatma Gandhi to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel in between. It is barely remembered today that it was Sir Ratanji Tata (1871-1918) who gave the London School of Economics (LSE) the funds that started its pioneering research in sociology as early as the beginning of the 1900s, which is also around the same time the LSE elected its first Indian student union president, Nandlal Mazumdar.
Today, London has more Indians than any other minority group in the U.K.—about 6.6%— and more excellent Indian restaurants than anywhere else outside India. In fact, several swish Indians believe that it is, in fact, London— and not Mumbai or Delhi—that has the finest Indian restaurants in the world. After all, the first Indian chef to win a Michelin award was Atul Kochhar in 2001 at the London restaurant Tamarind. Now another Indian Michelin starred chef, Vineet Bhatia, has opened the first Indian restaurant in Harrods’ 180-year history.
All this unfolds in one area, a pin code, in London that is a bit iconic, and a synonym for money. It is the place where I have always stayed in these many years of arriving in London. And that is where this story and this issue begin.
(This essay was originally published in the September 2019 issue of the magazine.)