Flush with cash

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Nov 11 2012, 07:27am hrs
I happened to be present (as a non-playing bystander) at the now legendary no-limit Diwali card party in Delhi some years ago where an industrialist's son, halfway through the evening, had lost close to R1 crore to a prominent hotelier. They were playing with counters, not ready cash, and the hotelier insisted on payment before the party ended. The industrialist was woken up at 2 am, and a deal was worked out but it revealed the kind of excess that's crept into festive occasions, the gambling frenzy that blanks out reason and bank balance, and the ways that Indians have begun to flaunt their wealth. Its also a pointer to the perils of one-upmanship, being socially trendy and trying to keep up with the high flyers. Playing cards at a table where the stakes average between R5 lakh and R10 lakh a hand is an indulgence not many can afford, but I am constantly surprised at the number of people who take the risk and wind up losing a fortune, all based on the desperate hope that their luck is just about to change. Brand new BMWs have changed hands because it didnt.

Its also to do with trending. Till a few years ago, those with deep pockets in their Burberry overcoats used to fly down to London and spend Diwali week gambling at the Palm Beach casino in Mayfair, a popular hangout for Indians, local and visiting. In terms of one-upmanship and snob value, its tough to beat gambling in pounds sterling and in the citys toniest enclave. There was also the added advantage of switching to poker, the casinos USP, and the all-you-can-eat buffet. That trend also had its reverse swing: where NRIs flew into India over Diwali just to be able to play cards, party with abandon, and enjoy the fireworks, literally and metaphorically. That trend continues but the London bug has run its coursequite opportune considering the rupee's freefalland now Diwali celebrations are back home where they belong, seemingly unfettered by the joker in the pack: the economic downswing.

Any which way you look at it, Diwali was always destined to be about flash and cash, almost as if given the blessing of a higher being. The five-day Diwali period starts with Dhanteras. Dhan, of course, means wealth and its a day when worship is about prosperity. Its also the day when the business community customarily splurges on gold and ornaments. The third day marks the official obeisance to the Goddess of Wealth and its perhaps no coincidence that Indias most successful business community, the Marwaris, also celebrate their New Year. The day after Diwali is when the Gujaratis, another community with money-making in their DNA, celebrate the start of a new fiscal year. Then there are the traditional rituals involving spending large amounts of cash; redecorating the house, buying expensive new designer clothes to flaunt at parties, or even buying a new car.

Diwali, for all its religious affectations, is all about in-your-face extravagance. The gifts that arrive have got bigger and more expensive, and its meant to signal the financial status of the giver. As do the fireworks. For decades, two residents of upscale Panchsheel Park in south Delhi have been in fierce competition over who can spend the most on crackers. Their kids, and now grandkids, start the show at exactly the same time and its almost like a fiery jugalbandi, basically a mine-is-bigger-than-yours contest to prove who has spent the most on fireworks. Its now reached a point where neither side is willing to call a halt to the extravagance or find a compromise, and the annual bill keeps getting bigger, as do the pollution levels.

Its pretty much the same at the tables, especially in Delhi, where social status has more to do with how much you are worth than who you are and the competition for flashing the most cash, preferably black, is almost obscene. Where you sit at the multiple card tables determines where you stand on the social ladder. The no limit table sets the bar but there really is no dearth of wannabes and pretenders. If there is a positive in all thisif it can be called thatit is to do with gender equality. The major shift in recent times has been the number of women to be seen on the top tables where the turnover is the largest. In fact, at the Chattarpur farm house circuit, there are now women-only no limit tables where a single pot can reach R50 lakh. Its not that women have suddenly started earning more but they have become more ambitious and aggressive about their position on the Diwali pecking order. Heres another change; the card players are not just women, but younger women, mostly daughters of rich parents or young working women determined to be part of the scene and be seen. Here's the bottomline: Diwali in Delhi is no place for the faint-hearted.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express