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July 14, 2009

Subcontinental Drift

By Spear's

Like Paris in the 1920s, Mumbai looks set to become the destination of choice for today’s Lost Generation, says Daisy Prince


n the last great economic downturn many expats fled American and British shores in order to live abroad, where life was cheaper and free of the gloomy times back at home. F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are the two obvious examples of authors who decamped for the gentle resorts of St Tropez and Nice and enjoyed the good living and delicious food, all of which was available for a fraction of what they would pay back home.

Even the repeal of Prohibition in the States in 1933 wasn’t enough to tempt these voices of ‘the Lost Generation’ back to their native shores. As a result, Tender Is the Night, The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast — some of the best literature of the day — were all written abroad and their authors were lauded for their adventurousness and foresight.

In today’s gloomy economic climate, the question is: where do the adventurers go now? Europe is as gloomy as America with its fraught economy, and even the great Swiss vaults are being stood on by the rest of the world to see if they can be cracked open. So where will the new voices of our generation flower? I am betting on India, which is the largest English-speaking democratic nation and is gradually opening up to Western investment. Not only that, but India has thousands of years of history, a pretty solid infrastructure, and a people who are genuinely interested in making a buck.

The most obvious drawback is the horrifying poverty, not to mention the staggering levels of corruption. But India has a bit of a Wild West feel about it — anything goes. Having spent the past month in Mumbai, I can assure you that the city is hopping. It has an energy that reminded me a little of New York in its pre-Giuliani days, when the city was a bit dirtier and more dangerous but had an incredible spontaneous fizz.

<p> Mumbai has that same fizz. Here you can get into a cab with someone you just met and go to a party on a roof deck in Bandra (one of the cool neighbourhoods) until 4am, then find yourself in Goa the next day, lying by the beach and sipping King’s beers until well into the afternoon. You will have made at least ten friends in this process and they will all be the most interesting people you have ever met.


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umbai is thriving right now and one reason for this is the intense caution of the Indian people and their government. The government had all Indian banks nationalised and for years allowed no direct foreign investment in India. If you wanted to invest in a company, you needed an Indian partner to do it. (Foreigners still can’t own apartments outright.) Until April, India didn’t open its markets to derivatives trading and credit swaps to increase liquidity.

On a personal level, the Indian culture does not encourage people to go into debt. It is completely commonplace for Indians to keep their own stock of gold bullion bars, for example. So while they are affected by the downturn like everyone else, they are, relatively speaking, sitting pretty.

And the lifestyle here is more comfortable than that on the Riviera. Everyone has servants — everyone. The most basic thing to have is one person who will cook, clean and run errands for you, for about $200 a month. There is no stigma attached to it and as there is so much poverty, it’s seen as giving someone a much-needed job.

Another reason for India’s surge is that there is a reverse ‘brain drain’ going on. Traditionally, Indian students would leave the country and head to the best universities in the US and stay on afterwards, but now more and more Indians are transferring from top Ivy League schools to Indian academic institutions so that they will be more assured of finding a job at home afterwards. With the brightest young minds heading home, Mumbai is heaving with young people who are looking for new ways to dispose of their income.

The new restaurants are varied and beautifully designed and the nightlife is nothing that even a hardened UK club-goer would sniff at. Although, in theory, Mumbai clubs are supposed to shut at 1.30am, the police are regularly bribed to keep them open longer. Even the marriage scene has changed. A generation ago, men and women often saw each other only once before getting married.

N ow, although arranged marriages still definitely exist, they are more likely to be preceded by a brief period of dating first. Instead of using the local Pundits (the men who carried around pictures of boys and girls to all the families in the local villages), now everyone uses, a marriage website set up by a 35-year-old Boston College graduate, Anupam Mittal.

As his company has an annual turnover of $50 million, it seems that the new India pays, and pays well. I’m sure that Fitzgerald and Hemingway would have both drunk to that.

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