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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

brunch Updated: Jul 23, 2016 20:41 IST
Sunset at the busy New Oxford Circus crossing in London
Sunset at the busy New Oxford Circus crossing in London (Getty Images)

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 Rolls-Royce as a sign of ‘arriving’, is said to have dated Princess Diana.)

The Audley, a traditional English pub in Mayfair, is a popular haunt (Getty Images)

“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 doing it with abandon in London are Indians.”

The window display at the Browns fashion boutique (Getty Images)

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 many years ago,” says Ramani, perhaps referring to the late ’80s when Amitabh Bachchan’s younger brother Bunty (Ajitabh) and his wife Ramola had famously set up home in the leafy suburb, and their mansion had become the scene of many glamorous parties.

She adds: “Hampstead was where they could own an acre or two, but now that’s been saturated. So they’re opting for central London locations. When they’re here, they frequent places like Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges; they eat, drink, gossip and plan the next seven days, all in one go. And they shop like mad.”

Deepak Nathwani, who relocated from London to Mumbai in the ’90s, runs a successful service for outbound Indians looking for hotels or service apartments abroad called Haiku Hospitality Services.

“Outbound travel from India grows and gets more sophisticated each year, but London remains a second home to Indians,” he says. “For hotels, Park Lane and Mayfair are still the most popular locations, so Four Seasons, Dorchester, the Metropolitan and Grosvenor House are still the most requested hotels.”

But it is not room service and housekeeping alone that the well-heeled Indian seeks in London. “Indians are increasingly using service apartments, which are now rented throughout the year and used even on business trips.”

The Arts Club was founded in 1863 for gentlemen interested in the arts, sciences and literature (Getty Images)

Meet the high and mighty

Slowly a picture emerges of a more intense version of the celebrated schmooze fest that takes place in Goa in December, and of the rites and rituals, and the grazing, living, shopping, dressing and socialising habits of that most gregarious of traveller, the Indian in London.

There are Karan Johar and Gauri Khan sitting at their favourite perch in London, outdoors at the Starbucks opposite Selfridges, watching the world go by; the erstwhile Princess of Morvi, Uma Dubash, dropping in at leading Lebanese hairstylist Naim’s for a shampoo; London-based hostess Pamela Grover entertaining a bunch of friends, including Neetu and Rishi Kapoor and her cousin Renuka Khali, at the Dorchester’s Shanghai Tang; three generations of the Ambani clan (with staff) checking in at the Mandarin Oriental, said to be a great favourite of matriarch Kokilaben; India Bulls head honcho Sameer Gehlaut hosting exclusive soirees at his pad at One Hyde Park, known as one of the world’s most expensive apartment blocks; Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor evoking the former’s school days by embracing the London way of life, replete with visits to the supermarket; designer Pallavi Jaikishan enjoying a Sunday brunch with family at Royal China; legal eagles Manik Tarkunde and Raian Karanjawala seeking out the best plays in the West End, and of course truckloads of Indian industrialists with surnames like Mittal, Munjal and Agarwal jetting in and out of Heathrow on their private jets.

“London is now also home to two of India’s most famous sybarites,” says Gidwani. “Lalit Modi and Vijay Mallya have become the first port of call for India’s high-profile visitors. They are known to be generous hosts and like nothing better than to have people over to their sumptuous homes.”

The party goes on

But of course, the more things change the more they stay the same. If there was a time when those desirous of meeting the top Indians in London during high season had to park themselves outside the lingerie department at Marks & Spencer, the action has shifted a few streets up to the lingerie department at Selfridges.

“For some reason, every leading Indian can be found here, stocking up on his or her lingerie requirements for the coming year,” says a long-time observer. “Which, when you think of it, is also emblematic of India’s step up on London’s food chain.”

From HT Brunch, July 24, 2016

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