- Gatsby over Gandhi:The Asian Jazz Age
There’s an enjoyable, if fictional, story of racial revenge frequently recounted in India’s living rooms. Set in British-ruled India at the turn of the twentieth century, it concerns the founder of the country’s largest business house, the Tata Group. The story goes that after he was turned away from Bombay’s finest hotel for not being white, Mr. Tata swore to avenge the insult by building a hotel that would be the grandest of its kind in India. While it’s highly unlikely that a rich Indian businessman with a palatial home in downtown Bombay would have needed to check into a hotel, this urban legend has lent a gloss of racial triumph to the Taj Mahal Hotel that Mr. Tata did indeed build on Bombay’s seafront in 1903. With a chandeliered ballroom and magnificent Moorish domes, the Taj was rated the most luxurious hotel east of the Suez. The story has a pleasant coda. Over the years, the Tata empire expanded rapidly, and [End Page 173] in 1982, in a satisfying piece of colonial switcheroo, Tata Sons bought St. James Court, a historic English hotel in Westminster located a few minutes from Buckingham Palace. Every year, St. James fills up with Bollywood grandees, cricketers and other subcontinental celebrities in search of an Indian summer in England. “India’s superrich elite are colonizing the heart of the former British empire,” noted The Economist in a July 2013 article titled “A Passage to Mayfair.”
Indian readers will likely recall the legend of Mr. Tata and the European innkeeper when they read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. This irrepressibly cheeky novel opens in London on a dark and stormy night in the ’80s. A soaked and suitcase-laden Chinese family rushes into the Calthrope, a very superior hotel in Mayfair, only to be told by General Manager Reginald Ormsby that they don’t have a booking and that the hotel is full. Both statements are untrue. But Ormsby is horrified at the prospect of allowing these bedraggled Asians into his hotel. Apart from anything else, whatever would the Dowager Marchioness of Uckfield, who is staying through the weekend, think? Out, he says. But where will we go at this hour? the family asks. “Perhaps someplace in Chinatown,” he sniffs. So the Chinese are turfed out. An hour later, they return, ushered in by none other than the owner of the hotel, old Lord Rupert Calthrope-Cavendish-Gore himself. His lordship informs Ormsby (in the fine tradition of the Wodehousian putdown, he cheerfully addresses the general manager as “Wormsby”) that he has just sold the hotel to the husband of one of the women in the group. The Calthrope now belongs to the Leongs of Singapore. The first thing they do is fire Ormsby.
Stories involving the smackdown of coxcombs are always satisfying. But there are two important dynamics at work in this anecdote. The first is the unmistakable thrill of racial schadenfreude: the snubbing of a Victorian relic such as Ormsby and the ease with which the Leongs buy over the family silver stoke the popular narrative of an ascending Asia versus a despondent Anglosphere. The second is the blinding speed and scale of the reprisal. Buying a hotel worth a few million pounds in an hour is blowback by blitzkrieg; it’s Kwan’s way of conveying the pulse of change racing away below the gold Rolex strapped on the wrist of Rising Asia.
The story of Rising Asia has been described, correctly, as capitalism on crack. It has invited comparisons with America’s Gilded Age and Jazz Age, periods marked by the accumulation of...