A Fort For Mr Kanda

Gopal Kanda’s ostentatious lifestyle is yet another example of the effects of conspicuous consumption in today’s India.

ByAnand Vardhan
A Fort For Mr Kanda
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As the national media engages with the seedy layers unfolding in the Geetika Sharma suicide and former Haryana Minister, Gopal Kanda “beating-the-arrest-surrender” saga, there is something for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conserve as history in the making. The Kanda episode has thrown up an interesting image for national viewership. An image which, in some ways, may decode the conspicuous consumption wish list of the neo-rich in India. It might reveal a duality which is one of the prime propellants of this emergent group – expressing the feudal urges through the language of capitalist materialism.

The national discovery (too contemporary to be an excavation) of Gopal Kanda’s Sirsa Fort – modelled on a Mughal-era fort and built on a 3-acre plot – reveals different strands of an emergent class keen on acquiring and flaunting power. One, the fort located in a sleepy district town of a north Indian state (Sirsa in Haryana) has acquisitions that constitute modern fetishes in luxury – a tennis court, a helipad, a gym, chandeliers (worth Rs 1.5 crore each), etc. Two, the very architecture of the fort (and the stables) could also be seen as feudal aspirations for grandeur, the urge to be imposing in the majestic sense of the term. A recipe for competitive ostentation that can keep those with new-found prosperity frenetically engaged.

But the repercussions could be wider. The Kanda empire is stuff of the imagination of luxury and power in a deprived society, which has daily insipid encounters with want. His “fort act” has the potential of reinforcing the stereotypes about the lifestyle of the rich and the powerful. Generally speaking, a deprived society has exaggerated notions about the indulgences of the rich. One has to live in mofussil India to know how popular perceptions about the things that wealth can do is as wild as the imagination can get. Sample this.

When the Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 and its first session was convened in Bombay, some people were invited on different criteria to attend it. The 72-member body (39 of them were lawyers) invited one person on the basis of his unmatched property. Being the richest man in India of his time, the Maharaja of Darbhanga (the ruler of Darbhanga in north Bihar) was invited to the inaugural session. The lore of his wealth and his indulgences has outlived him. I have heard people sharing their own fabulous accounts of his wealth, his kingdom, his palaces, his queens, his royal exploits and even his benevolence. Most of the accounts require suspension of reasoning. A raconteur’s talent for fiction and fascination with the things wealth can do is more evident in such accounts than the historical facts. Some of the outrageous pieces of “imagined prosperity” which figure in such narratives are: The Darbhanga Maharaja once telling a shopkeeper in London that the whole of London could be mortgaged and yet the value of jewellery on his body couldn’t be equalled.

Even the altered political landscape and forces of representative democracy at work have not changed such narratives. In popular imagination, the imaginative theatre of grandeur has shifted to the powerful political class, big industrialists and flashy celebrities. I have been told many accounts of how Laloo Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan use only mineral water for bathing and attending to nature’s calls (at that rate Bill Gates might be us ing at least cola drinks for the same) and how the cutlery of the Ambanis is of nothing but gold and even more awe-struck tales. You might be having your own collection of such stories.

There is a subtle undercurrent shaping the psyche behind these anecdotes. In deprived societies, it’s a vicarious engagement with the possibilities of affluence. Imagination can run riot when the unimaginable disparities in income and living can itself provide the most substantive script. Though comparisons could be misleading, a workable analogy could be that of a sex-starved man resorting to the voyeuristic tales of a Casanova – often exaggerated, but giving a sense of the possibilities of something that’s badly missed. And of course, such dubious nuggets can also be traced to a feature that’s endemic in all types of societies – the need to gossip, keeping the grapevine in business.

The problem is that some public figures have done little to dispel such “out-of-proportion” narratives, and stereotypes have only prospered in the company of their flamboyance. One of the reasons could be that they themselves were enchanted by these tales while they were working their way up. Once there, they have sought to conquer all those signposts of a material world with a vengeance. Kanda’s fort stands testimony to this. So does Mayawati’s palatial property, fabled wealth and not to forget, the diamond collection. The feudal urge of being imposing is also a running thread in Kanda’s Mughalesque mansions and in the choice of vehicles that local big-shots in mofussil India show. A muscular SUV like Tata Safari or Mahindra Xylo or Scorpio (the poor cousin Bolero being an old favourite) could give Mercs, Audis and BMWs a run for their money in the books of the rich and powerful of the hinterland. And that has nothing to do with the affordability of these costly cars (purchasing power not being the decisive issue) – the factor swinging the choice in favour of imposing SUVs is their feudal aura in the popular imagination of the region.

In the post-liberalisation phase of India, the patterns of conspicuous consumption have been reflecting the mechanics of consumerist culture on which the market economy hinges. It also acts as a divide between the beneficiaries of liberalisation (the neo-rich and the aspirational urban middle class) and a major section of the population which has been left out and is struggling to have a human existence.  President K R Narayanan addressed the basic limitations of such a skewed growth model in his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day on January 25, 2000. It was an address which eminent journalist, P Sainath regards as “the most significant speech made by a head of state in independent India’s history, and much of the media missed the story”. Articulating a sense of moral outrage at the widening disparities in the living conditions, President Narayanan said: “The unabashed, vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption by the noveau-riche has left the underclass seething in frustration. One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages, while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water”.

If you take the crony capitalist route and have a feudal engine driving you, you will find the Kanda Fort in front of you. The ASI should see it as a site that could be a metaphor in the narrative of contemporary India’s engagement with conspicuous consumption. In the process it also consolidates the imagined stereotypes of prosperity in a deeply deprived and iniquitous society. Tourists can also have a sighting of the feudal sense of history of the acquisitive neo-rich in the fort. India’s skewed growth story has an address in North India – Kanda Fort.

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