This is an extract from Siddhartha Deb’s February 2011 cover story, “Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune off the aspirations—and insecurities—of India’s middle classes.” The article had previously been removed pursuant to an injunction granted by a civil court in Silchar, in 2011, as part of IIPM’s Rs 500-million lawsuit against The Caravan. In February this year, a single judge of the Delhi High Court vacated the injunction. The IIPM appealed this decision, and the injunction was restored while the appeal was being heard. In an order passed on 27 November, a division bench of the Delhi High Court dismissed the appeal, upholding the single judge’s order. In keeping with this latest decision, The Caravan has republished the story online. Subscribe now to the read the story in full, and read more about IIPM’s case against The Caravan here.
One evening in September, I went to the Grand Ballroom auditorium of the Park Royal Hotel to hear Arindam speak. I had heard him address a crowd before, but that had been a familiar audience, made up of graduating IIPM students herded into a hotel auditorium near the Satbari campus. The students seemed awestruck but restless, their attention wandering whenever the talk veered away from the question of their future to trickle-down theory; no doubt they were more concerned with trickle-up. Arindam hectored them a little, and he had been worried enough about this to send me a text message a few hours later, asking me to “discount some of the harsh words i said to students.”
The event at the Grand Ballroom was different. It was the final performance of a daylong “leadership” seminar for which people had paid 4,000 rupees, the previous speakers having included Arindam’s wife and several IIPM professors. Over 100 people, quite a few women among them, sat under the chandeliers as a laptop was set up on stage. They looked like aspirational rather than polished corporate types, the men with red sacred threads around their wrists, the women in saris and salwarkameezes, a gathering of middle-class, middle-rung, white-collar individuals whose interest in leadership skills had a dutiful air. After a number of children—it was unclear to whom they belonged— clustered around Arindam to get copies of the all-time best-seller Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch signed, Arindam took the stage. He wore a shiny black corduroy suit, the jacket displaying embroidery on the shoulders, and loafers that appeared to be made of snake skin.
Arindam wasn’t a natural speaker. In prolonged one-toone conversations, he had the tendency to look away, not meeting the listener’s gaze. This was less of a problem in a public gathering, but he also had a high-pitched voice and a tendency to fumble his lines. He started by asking people what leadership meant to them. As his listeners spewed out answers, using phrases (“dream believer,” “reach the objective,” “making decisions,” “simplifying things”) that seemed to have been lifted from some ur-text of self-help and management, they seemed both eager and slightly combative, as if not entirely convinced of his ability to teach them about leadership. “Here’s the great Arindam Chaudhuri,” a man next to me muttered, using great in the Indian way to mean someone fraudulent. Arindam seemed aware of the hostility: his responses were hesitant, and his English was uncertain and pronouncedly Delhi middle-class in its inflection.
As the session went on, however, it became evident that these qualities weren’t drawbacks, not among the people he was addressing. The mannerisms gave Arindam an everyday appeal, and it was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success and glamour that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience. By themselves, the Bentley Continental, the ponytail and the designer glasses, or the familiar way Arindam had of dropping names like Harvard, McKinsey and Lee Iacocca would have made him too remote. But the glamour was irresistible when combined with his middlebrow manner. He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petit bourgeoisie.