Bangalore Talkies: Why Bangalore’s tech billionaires want to be seen as middle class and is this a good thing?

A funny thing happened as Bangalore was getting flooded with rain water making this city the laughing stock of the country and the world.  Lakes breeched, storm-water drains leaked and multi-crore homes built on erstwhile wetlands had several feet of sewage and rain water inside. Viral videos of “billionaires in boats” began making the rounds, much to the amusement of those in tenemants. 

What would you do if you are a billionaire who lives in Koramangala, Epsilon, 77 East and other elite real estate developments? Here in Bangalore, the press began getting phone calls from PR folks who wanted to “clarify” that their billionaire clients– founders of said tech unicorns– did not live in those developments with their richie-rich now-flooded homes.

A spate of conversation broke out on school groups about the hypocrisy of the new rich.  “They want to enjoy the trappings of wealth with their gazillion square foot homes but retain their middle class image,” tittered some.  Which begs the question.  Why is new money uncomfortable with being named as rich? Why don’t they own up to their newly minted millionaire status instead of protesting so much? Is this desire to appear middle class while you are actually a millionaire a South Indian thing? And is that a good or bad approach towards wealth and for that matter, life?

The answer is a matter of personal choice of course.  If you suddenly come into wealth, you can either flaunt it or hide it.  In India, the stereotype is that North India, particularly Delhi likes to “show off” its wealth, while South India, particularly Chennai likes to keep things quiet.  Bangalore used to be a typical South Indian city with its emphasis on frugality and its suspicion of sudden wealth.  But today, thanks (or no thanks depending on your point of view) to the growing number of immigrants, this city’s equation with wealth is changing.

In Bangalore today, there are three strands.  There is the old Bangalore which is quiet and values the ideas of frugality and discretion.  Not for them are homes in Kingfisher Towers, several Benz cars and partying with the YPO crowd.  Early tech entrepreneurs who built companies such as Wipro and Infosys fall in this category.  They live modest lives relative to their net-worth.  The second category includes children of MLAs, real estate moguls, newly rich doctors and lawyers.  They don’t have their parents’ hang-ups about money.  “My Dad grew up in a home where money was always viewed as tainted,” said one 20-year-old who drives a Porsche on Bangalore’s pot-holed roads.  For him, this whole idea of tainted wealth is a generational thing, a superstition, a hang up that he has no patience with.  If you have it, flaunt it, he says.

Bangalore’s tech billionaires– the ones who call up newspapers to say, please don’t print that I have bought a Rs. 50 crore home, I only bought it because it needs to house my parents and in-laws too– belong to the third strand.  Generationally they are closer to the Porsche-driving MLA’s son.  But they grew up in middle-class homes as sons of academics.  They grew up around parents who taught them that struggle was a good thing.  Money for money’s sake was never part of the discussion.  Being wealthy was viewed with some suspicion because the assumption was that money– like power– would corrupt you. This is why Bangalore’s newly minted tech billionaires maintain a low-profile, at least some of them do.  These are the folks who benefited from a public education system (whether it was the IITs or IIMs or other such colleges) and absorbed its ethos.  No matter what you say, India is still an ancient civilization where showing off is viewed with anxiety because it will attract “nazar” or the evil eye. You may belong to the top 0.1% of the economy but you would still have heard the “hide your wealth” messages.

The question is whether such a dichotomy is a good thing.  Is it a good thing to have a ton of money and keep quiet about it or is it just hypocrisy? Is it a good thing to drive a Kia when you can afford a BMW? Is it a good thing to live in communities that aren’t an “address” or viewed as overly elite? Again, depends on the person and his or her values.

The problem with flaunting your wealth, the problem with deifying the wealthy which is what the press does, is that it inculcates a value system that is false.  Today, if you go to Bangalore’s top private schools and ask kids what they want to become, the answer usually is, “I want to make a ton of money.”  They are not sure how they will make the money, they aren’t sure what career they will choose, but they know that they want money.  It is the goal rather than the byproduct, which wasn’t what it was for the Bansals, Agarwals, and Byju’s who make up today’s Bangalore.  And all these tech billionaires, some of whom have children, are smart enough to recognise that there is something deeply wrong with wanting money as a life and career goal. That is perhaps why they are hiding their wealth, which to my South Indian mind, is a good thing.

The scary thing about wealth, particularly if you didn’t grow up wealthy is that it is like holding a tiger by the tail.  It is terrific and exciting to catch it but you cannot predict the side-effects.  Tech billionaires want to enjoy the fruits of their hard work without turning their kids into spoiled brats.  This is the tightrope that Bangalore’s tech icons are trying to walk.  The sad thing, as one media colleague said, is that there are many “wealthy wannabes” who are changing Bangalore into Delhi. Bangalore was about “saaku” or “enough” they say.  Now, it has become a “beku” or “I want” culture without the ability or willingness to do the work that begets the want. 

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