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Reuters/Toby Melville
The lives of the rich and the super-rich.
FLY ON THE WALL

Inside India’s elite kitty parties

Parul Bhandari
By Parul Bhandari

Sociologist

The world of the Indian super-rich is shrouded in mystery, especially the lives of the women married to the country’s business and political elites. There’s much to be gleaned from this overlooked category, including insights into their material and non-material ways.

An unharnessed source of information from that world is their informal social meeting groups—popularly known as the ”kitty parties.”

India’s capital, New Delhi, being the country’s power centre, is perhaps unmatched in such rendezvous, at least for a sociologist like me.

Unapologetic indulgence

A kitty party can be as small as 8-10 women or as large as 30-40. These meetings could be over lunch, brunch, dinner or coffee, over a movie or an excursion—once or twice a month. These get-togethers are where information on people, luxury items, and fashion trends is exchanged.

Often these are the spaces where deeply personal matters are discussed too.

Elite kitty parties are arenas to showcase money, power, and privilege, as marked primarily by the participants’ appearances.

Involving closely guarded groups of women from reputed business or political families, members often flaunt expensive diamond jewellery (a different one for each meeting if they can help it) and designer bags (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Gucci, to name a few brands). Trousers and tops are the preferred attire. I rarely spotted anyone in traditional Indian wear.

The venue is mostly their palatial homes in the tony enclaves of Civil Lines, Golf Links, Vasant Vihar, or grand farmhouses in Chhatarpur or Mehrauli. But they may also meet in plush cafes and restaurants, such as DLF Emporio Mall, Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mehrauli, 5-star restaurants or upcoming spaces in Khan Market.

It is this unapologetic indulgence that primarily differentiates these kitty parties from those of the other, lower, classes.

Old Lafite in new Chateau

While the term “kitty party” is of recent usage, a woman’s informal social club is certainly not new. The group I interacted with was aged between 26 and 35 years, who did not consider their “get-togethers” novel. Their mothers and their grandmothers, I was told, too had formed groups.

Sanya, a 32-year-old, said:

I am sure our great-grand mothers and great-great-grand mothers had friends too! They would hang out, share recipes, exchange facts about household management. So do we…

Indeed, women have formed friendship groups for centuries—and across classes and regions. However, its contemporary form, marked by consumption of food, luxury items, and travel, is unprecedented.

Oh, that Chanel bag!

One such gathering that I witnessed had a group of smiling women settled around a shining round mahogany table in the cafe of a luxury shopping mall. They were chatting, sipping expensive coffee and munching on even more expensive salad leaves.

Karishma, 35, looked at Veena’s bag and remarked:

Oh, so you finally managed to get this Chanel bag? Your husband must have suffered a real bump.

Veena quickly replied:

Oh yes, it is quite expensive. But you know what… I got it during my trip to London and was able to get a good tax refund at the airport… of about 12%. I really did save some…

To which Sanya said:

Oh well, that’s good. Now you can buy a pair of Jimmy Choo with the money saved.

And they laughed heartily.

This exchange brought out the centrality of luxury goods in the elite’s quest for status enhancement or status reiteration.

But it also showed that kitty parties are about much more than just conspicuous consumption. The women showed a keen sense of saving, account keeping and procuring more items in less money.

Some of these women have real business ambitions and have ventured into entrepreneurial initiatives, carrying nomenclatures such as interior designer, fashion designer, social worker, and so on.

In fact, all women I researched from this particular kitty party were graduates, usually in commerce. A few held master’s degrees too, sometimes even from foreign universities.

Yet, despite their education and entrepreneurial zest, their initiatives were largely dubbed ”side-businesses” or “part-time”. Their main source of income was their husbands’ earnings.

Heart of the matter

Kitty parties, most importantly, are crucial for articulation of emotions. It allows women to express their anxieties and vulnerabilities in marriage, discomfort in their otherwise comfortable homes, and strained relations with extended family. Often it is also about their craving for love, passion, and affection, and, perhaps, “feelings” for men who are not their husbands.

In these elite households, much like homes of other classes, women are often bitter and exasperated at domineering in-laws. As Veena remarked:

Today I told her [the mother-in-law] that I won’t be able to supervise next week’s lunch. It is getting too much you know. She pretends to be sick and invites her friends over for lunches, which I have to supervise, as my sister-in-law [her husband’s younger brother’s wife] cleverly comes up with quick excuses to ward off the responsibilities.

Discords with husbands is another leitmotif. Coming from rich families themselves, these women are married to even richer families. Hence, they are used to the “drill” of household management and, well, husband management.

However, their description of their own married lives is often marked by ennui. Lazy husbands or constantly travelling husbands are recurring characters during discussions.

Rita, a mother of two, was particularly disturbed by her husband’s lack of interest in working:

Vicky has shifted his base to the farm house now. He is always there, pretending to work, but what he is actually doing is simply entertaining people.

To rekindle their marital romances or to pretend to even have one, they organise couples-kitty, where they holiday together with their husband, leaving behind the kids.

Yet, despite these strategies, a desire for the “other” surfaces.

Discussed in hushed voices, elusive words and stolen glances, these spaces of private and emotional dialogues are most difficult to understand for an outsider who is only observing them. Yet, they remain highly palpable.

These are some of the many reasons why women from the top social strata may join kitty parties—spaces that are both therapeutic and cathartic.

All names mentioned have been changed to respect privacy. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.