Friday, November 2, 2018

The Billionaire Raj

Title:  The Billionaire Raj:  A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age
Author:  James Crabtree
Publication Information:  Tim Duggan Books. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1524760064 / 978-1524760069

Book Source:  I received this book through Penguin First to Read free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was a sunny December day when I found it, abandoned outside a Mumbai police station and draped in a dirty plastic sheet."

Favorite Quote:  "What was the point of being a tycoon if not to take just the kinds of wild risks that would intimidate more conventionally minded businesses - and perhaps, in the process, bring seismic change to industries or countries? The careers of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies had invited similar questions more than a century earlier, as they built the canals, railroads and steamships through which America grew. In their own eras all were pilloried as corrupt and avaricious. Over time, all have gradually been rehabilitated as masters of new technology and pioneers of industrial change rather than robber barons..."

What is the "raj"? Literally translated, the word means rule or government. Historically, in India, the Raj refers to the British rule of India; that is, in fact, how the dictionary defines this term. British rules ended decades ago. Linguistically, the term remains. Historically, the connotation remains.

Translate that to the title of this book, and it makes sense. The book defines a culture of wealth and of power defined by wealth. With its huge and growing population and despite its growing economy, the wealth gap in India is growing. The rich in India are wealthy beyond belief, and the poor survive in unimaginable squalor.

The cover image of this book captures the wealth. This is the picture of a private home in the skies of Mumbai. Antilia is a the private home of an Indian businessman. It houses a single family and has space for 600 staff to maintain the property. The home has 27 levels in a space that may contain a 60 floor high rise elsewhere. It has been deemed the most expensive private home in the world with a value of about $2 billion. Yes, $2 billion.

The cover image also represents the major theme of the book. The home towers over all its surroundings, literally and figuratively. Capitalism versus the inequity for those who live far below. The book presents a well-researched, detailed account of this struggle between the motivation of capitalism and the pull of social equity. It also presents the conversations and efforts at balancing the two.

The "gilded age" analogy is an apt one for an American book audience. In US history, the Gilded Age was a time of industrialization, expansion, and economic growth. The counterpoint to that growth was the poverty of certain societal segments, particularly the immigrant communities.

That analogy provides a framework in which the author explains India's current position. The author explains the larger societal constructs. He also grounds the book in specific stories of specific individuals, adding a much more personal and readable bend to the social commentary. In this, at times, the book is little like a social exposé.

The main character, if you will, is Mukesh Ambani, the business tycoon owner of the home depicted on the cover. To give you a sense of wealth, Mukesh Ambani is ranked nineteenth on the 2018 Forbes Magazine billionaire's list, otherwise known as the three comma list. He is also #32 on the 2018 Forbes Magazine's world's most powerful people list. His company is on the Fortune Global 500.

These statistics stipulate Mukesh Ambani's position, but they are also a barometer of India's growth and reach. The book argues that despite the wealth gap, the corruption, and the cultural strife that exists in India, the country is poised to lead the world as a democracy. "As democracy falters in the West, so its future in India has never been more critical." The book educates and ends with thought provoking questions for the ending to this "story" is not known. What happens next remains to be seen.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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