"Mr Jennings," smiles Ramola Bachchan, extending a small, strong hand as I reach the foot of the steps. "We meet at last." Given that we have had an introductory meeting in her Knightsbridge office a few days earlier, this greeting comes as something of a surprise.
"At last," I reply.
Circulating, I introduce myself to two young Asian men, both in their mid-twenties. One, a gilded youth with a New York accent, is a trainee broker for Citibank, and is over here on a temporary posting. His companion is a Middlesex dentist who, "as an interest", involves himself in a little property speculation. "Any location in particular?" I enquire. "St James's is very tempting right now," comes the reply. Our triangular conversation is brief. "Networking," explains the Citibanker, hurrying apologetically away. "But nice to meet you."
Over the course of the evening, during which Ramola Bachchan proves an indefatigable hostess, flitting with cigarette cocked from group to group, I have an increasing sense of London as an amenity, as a cultural staging post on the Indian Grand Tour. Like Florence or Alexandria to the British Edwardians, it is to be edified by, perhaps briefly to be wondered at, but it is not to be taken too seriously. The real action, this cologned and raw-silken company somehow suggests, is uncontainably fluid, is multinational, is elsewhere. When I ask Ramola's venture capitalist husband Ajitabh what he thinks of his wife's social activities, he tells me that he is "glad she has something to do, to occupy herself." His own participation, he explains, is necessarily limited. He is away a lot. Bombay, mostly.
Among my professional colleagues - both Anwar Bati of the BBC and Amit Roy of the Daily Telegraph are regular guests at Ramola Bachchan's parties - I recognise Rakesh Mathur, a former Paris stringer for the Times of India. With his date for the evening, a barrister wearing a fashionably cut salwar-kameez, Mathur and I explore the Bachchans' house, or at least those very extensive parts of it which have been thrown open to guests. Its style, which one might describe as North London Moghul, combines precious metals, damasks and statuary to such bewildering effect that, in retrospect, the single image remaining with me is that of a huge silver peanut - the size of a vegetable marrow - at the centre of a plate-glass table. "This," comments the barrister, "is just unbelievably posh."
"Port out," amusedly confirms a Bombay industrialist, overhearing her, "starboard home."
We have not been invited merely to tattle and bystand, however. Our hostess is as energetic a dancer as any Hindi movie heroine, and one by one we are led to the white marble dance floor, where, to loud, adult-taste rock music, we acquit ourselves with varying degrees of dignity. The champagne, as is axiomatic on these occasions, never runs out. "Ramola," murmurs Parmeshwar Godrej, a socialite who is to south Bombay what Ramola Bachchan is to north London, "gives the loveliest parties." Later I watch as the departing guests ease themselves into the upholstery of their chauffeured BMWs. One of the last to leave has a personalised number plate: DIVYA.
UNTIL RECENTLY, the rich Asian social scene in London was a staid, rather conservative affair. The causes of this were partly behavioural - there was a tendency among the migrant community to preserve in aspic the mores of the departed motherland - and partly financial: India's draconian foreign exchange regulations bound her richest citizens and their money close to her. With a handful of exceptions, the really big players weren't in London. From 1991, with the prime ministership of Narasimha Rao, all of this began to change. Rao appointed as his finance minister an economic reformer named Manmohan Singh, and through "Manmohanomics" India's foreign exchange legislation was radically de-restricted. Suddenly, London was full of rich Indians, partly because the city was now a first-rate place to keep and exchange money, and partly because of older allegiances. As one veteran Bombay socialite explained to me: "If you want to play Maharani in London, you still can." Few Londoners entertain on the grand Indian scale these days. "When I take British friends to Indian parties, their jaws drop," the hostess Namita Panjabi told the Sunday Times recently. "They're absolutely floored by how lavish it all is."
It is of the cafe society born of "Manmohanomics" that Ramola Bachchan has become queen. That world now has two distinct capitals: London and Bombay. Until 1992, no one knew very much about Ramola Bachchan in either city. Then, more or less overnight, she was everywhere. She was the anchorwoman for the British satellite channel TV Asia, she was the voice of Radio Asia, she was organising huge charity events at the Dorchester, the Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall, and she was giving the most lavish parties in town. Two defining occasions were last year's Hollywood-Bollywood Bash ("Come as your favourite star!") and Bachchan's ball for London's "500 Most Beautiful Asians", a pre-emptive right and left which, for the time being at least, saw off all pretenders to her throne. For Indians as for the rest of the rich, the London social season is something of a competitive affair. There are several established hostesses, among them Namita Panjabi, owner of the Chutney Mary restaurant in Chelsea, her sister Camellia, an Indian cookery expert, Vimla Lalvani, a fashionable yoga teacher, and business matriarch Laxmi Shivdasani. A recent arrival in Britain is Surina Narula, the wife of a Delhi businessman who bought a Hertfordshire Mansion - Hyver Hall - four years ago (one Hyver guest bemusedly recalls "electric gates, Sheraton-style coach lamps, valet parking, and massive security"). Of Narula, possibly her closest rival, Bachchan concedes that "Surina's all very well, on her own level..." The difference between herself and other hostesses, she insists, is not merely one of scale, it is one of style. As an Indian woman, she dares where the others do not dare. "They'd love to be like me, but nobody else does it like I do!" Describing her outfit at a recent event, she mentions "a sexy dress with top and bottom showing, a Wonderbra, lots of lace..."
When I ask if the creation of this image has involved a degree of negotiation with her husband, she laughs. "Negotiation? that's an awfully polite term. I'd perhaps use confrontation!" When I ask her where she would draw the line, behaviour-wise, she tells me that she would never smoke in front of the High Commissioner for India.
To many Indian socialites, Ramola Bachchan's "arrival" came as something of a surprise. Although her husband Ajitabh's name had long been familiar to the community as the brother of Amitabh Bachchan, the Hindi cinema's greatest star, Ajitabh himself was known as a man of almost Buddhist discretion. He had only recently succeeded in clearing his name in an agonising arms dealing scandal, the Bofors affair - of which more later. If Ajitabh had a wife, people assumed, she must be a traditional Indian wife of the "invisible" kind. And if she wasn't, why hadn't they heard of her?
THE TRUTH was simple. Ramola Bachchan had been busy. There had been studies, there had been children, there had been the Bofors scandal. Now, however, she had cleared her desk, her children were at school, Bofors was in the past, and she had decided to have absolutely the very best time that she could afford. And she could afford to have a very good time indeed.
Two days after her party, I meet Ramola Bachchan again in her office, which is opposite Knightsbridge Barracks. Bachchan has recently launched her own Public Relations firm, RB Promotions. (RB, Bachchan is fond of explaining to those to whom the thought has not necessarily occurred, does not stand for Rich Bitch.) The business is based in premises owned by Victoria Chemicals, one of her husband's interests. While I wait, well- connected Indian women speak quietly into telephones and move purposefully from room to room. We lunch at Richoux, two minutes' walk from the RB Promotions office, where Ramola elects to sit among The Ladies who Smoke. She is wearing a short, sharp business suit in pink, and knows exactly what she wants to eat: scrambled eggs and smoked salmon.
She was born, she tells me, in Calcutta in 1947, the year of Indian Independence. Her parents were Sindhis, a Hindu business community displaced by partition from the now Pakistani state of Sind. At the age of 11, she was dispatched half-way across the globe to a Middlesex boarding school, St Helen's, in Northwood. Five years later, in the middle of her A-levels, she was abruptly recalled by her father, Ram Chugani, to Calcutta. Education was one thing - "a notch up in the marriage stakes" - but the Swinging Sixties, of which news had just reached Calcutta, were quite another. She returned to a life of coffee- mornings, parties and shopping with the rich young Sindhi set. It was a good life, she says, but there was constant pressure to "find a nice boy". Somehow, she knew she was cut out for better things. Excusing herself from the endless summer of jewellery-shopping and tennis parties, she enrolled at college. Almost immediately, she met a nice boy.
Amitabh and Ajitabh Bachchan are the sons of India's best known Hindi poet. Well- connected, although not wealthy by birth, they grew up within the orbit of the Gandhi family. In 1968, both Bachchan brothers were working in Calcutta for Shaw-Wallace, a shipping firm, although Amitabh, the older brother, hoped to become an actor. Ajitabh Bachchan and Ramola Chugani dated on and off for six years, in the course of which Ramola left college and became an air-hostess with BOAC. For a Sindhi girl "of good family", this service was frowned upon; but by then her father, who might have forbidden it, had died.
In 1973 Ramola Chugani and Ajitabh Bachchan married. Ajitabh went into business on his own account as a venture capitalist, and the couple had four children. They lived in a small house in Juhu (Bombay's film colony) decorated with the bits and pieces collected by Ramola during her BOAC days. "I've always loved aesthetic things," she tells me. "Anyone will tell you it [the Juhu house] was very stylish."
After an uncertain professional start, Amitabh Bachchan became the most popular film star in the history of Indian cinema. His best-known film, Sholay (1975), ran in Bombay for a record seven years, and the actor himself acquired quasi-divine and multi-millionaire status. Ajitabh, as private and invisible a figure as Amitabh was public and iconic, managed his brother's career, and advised him on the investment of his earnings. Ajitabh's own businesses were highly successful, and the Bachchans - both families - joined the international community of the super-rich. Developing a taste for winter sports, they took regular holidays in Switzerland.
In 1986, Ajitabh and Ramola Bachchan moved to Geneva with their children, and applied for Swiss citizenship. Six months after their arrival - "out of the blue", as Ramola describes it - and with provisional agreement to the family's naturalisation already granted, Ajitabh received a phone call from his brother in India. It was not good news.
The Bofors scandal erupted in April 1987. A year earlier an Indian government contract worth pounds 775m had been signed with the Swedish armaments manufacturer, Bofors. In the wake of the deal, rumours began to circulate that some pounds 32m in illegal kickbacks had been paid into the secret Swiss bank accounts of certain Indian middlemen. One of six such accounts, claimed the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, was owned by Ajitabh Bachchan. The article, reproduced in India, appeared to confirm the popular theory that the Bachchans, experienced in the ways of Swiss banking, had set up the account on Rajiv Gandhi's behalf. "We were dragged," says Ajitabh Bachchan, "into the cross- fire." In Switzerland, Ajitabh quietly closeted himself with his lawyers. "He never cracked," says Ramola. "He never lost his cool." She pales at the memory, however, and when she talks of the affair - which she does not like to do - her hands shake. Eight years later, no evidence has emerged implicating the Bachchans. Despite this, the Genevoise authorities reversed their earlier decision and denied the Bachchan family Swiss citizenship. They moved to London where Ajitabh successfully sued Dagens Nyheter and the India Abroad news service for libel in the High Court. The Bachchans were in the clear, but, says Ramola, lowering her eyes as if at the memory of acute psychic hurt, "The scars remain. You're never so carefree again."
Carefree or no, Ramola Bachchan has done a pretty good job of appearing to recover her high spirits. For five years, she remained an unannounced presence in London. She undertook a conversion course at the LSE (her father's Alma Mater) to enable her to do solicitors' articles; the Bofors affair, she explains, had given her "an interest in law". Passing her law exams in 1991, she applied to more than 60 firms of solicitors. Eventually she was taken on by Lawrence Graham, a central London firm. "It was very tough," she tells me. "Outside the office, you see, I'm Mrs Bachchan. I have a standing in my community." Inside the office, although officially a junior, she cut something of an individual figure. The secretaries, she says, would look up every day to see what wonderful new outfit she was wearing. (Bachchan suggests that I ring her previous employers for their comments; I leave several messages to this effect, but my calls are not returned.)
Six months into her articles, at a cocktail party, she was introduced to a Pakistani businessman who, with some fellow countrymen, was starting up an Asian-interest Satellite TV and radio station. After five minutes' exposure to the force of the Bachchan personality, he offered her the job of anchorwoman, and soon, alongside her work as a junior at Lawrence Graham, she was hosting a weekly radio discussion programme and a TV chat show. She was a natural. Her guests included, among others, Sayeed Jaffrey, Tony Blair, Imran Khan, Ravi Shankar and David Mellor. As an increasingly well-known "face", she found herself drawn into the big-money Asian social and charity circuit, a process she did not resist. Soon, she was organising major fund-raising events herself. Her double life, she confides, became increasingly bizarre. "I had to appear a hungry junior solicitor with nothing on my mind except work, and then I'd have Zubin Mehta on the phone, my senior glaring at me..." Nor, when TV Asia was sold to ZTV and Bachchan's media career placed on hold, did her extramural activities diminish. To her delight and surprise, as she tells it, she discovered that her address- book now held 700 highly influential names. Many of her past interviewees had, it seems, become close friends, and it occurred to her that she might give a party or two. The media personality metamorphosed into the society hostess.
In October 1994, despite these considerable outside calls upon her time, Bachchan qualified as a solicitor. The decision not to pursue her legal career, she assures me, was a painless one. "I was having too much of a good time."
THE PARALLEL world of London's "beautiful Asians" (for "beautiful" read "rich", for "Asian" read "Indian": Koreans, Cambodians and Vietnamese are rarely encountered in these circles) has changed perceptibly since Bachchan's assumption of its throne. The new omnipresence of the Indian film set, Bollywood wives and all, lends considerable glitz. Ramola Bachchan has introduced dancing - indeed made it almost compulsory - and not only at her own parties. At one recent charity event she had all the furniture moved aside so that she could set her subjects a vigorous example. "It was," she remembers, "a riot."
"The hostesses were all so jealous of each other before," Surina Narula tells me. "If so-and-so's party cost fifty thousand, they thought, I'll spend a hundred thousand. And if you weren't living on Hampstead Lane, well, you simply weren't invited... Now, we have a very wide acquaintance. Parties have become fun."
Fun notwithstanding, the occasions hosted by Bachchan and the other hostesses remain essentially an extension of the business arena. There is a place in London society for Asian playwrights, novelists and photographers, but by common consent that place is not at the tables of the commerce and charity set. This is less an arts-patronising aristocracy than a have-it-and-flaunt-it plutocracy, and to non-players of the big money games it remains impenetrable. If film-actors and directors are lionised, it is because film, ultimately, is business. When I ask Ramola Bachchan about the activities of RB Promotions, she hands me a press release. In this manifesto - offering, among other services, "Corporate and Private Hospitality", "Joint Venture and Strategic Alliance Introductions" and "Event Manage-ment" - all of her worlds have been formally united. Parties are business, introductions are business, charity is business.
Over the coffee at Richoux, I ask Bachchan why, given the comfortable nature of her situation, she continues to work and play such long hours. Taking a long drag on one of the cigarettes that the High Commissioner will never see her smoke, she considers.
"You're born alone," she says, "and you die alone. You owe it to yourself." !Reuse content