Bose wasn’t going bananas. Middle class is now king

Bose wasn’t going bananas. Middle class is now king

Actor Rahul Bose's Twitter posts about being charged Rs. 442.50 for two bananas at a 5-star hotel went viral

Imagine a day in the near future. You are checking into a swanky 5-star hotel.

"How was your flight, ma'am?" asks the young man at the counter, dressed in an impeccable black suit.

"I came by train, Shatabdi. It was very nice, thank you," you reply.

"Ah, good," he says. "Will you just sign this, ma'am?" he says. "It will only take a few seconds. We'll take care of the rest."

Without noticing much, you sign a series of legalistic fine-print statements at the bottom of the guest form. Including one that says: "I hereby understand the hotel follows a flexible pricing plan under which rates paid may be found at significant variance with ordinary market prices as part of the overall convenience experience that is the unique hallmark of ...(brand name). I hereby indemnify the hotel from any responsibility regards this variance and also agree not to engage in public comments that may be adverse to the property regarding this issue." 

That may sound dystopian, but the way things are, it could well happen if there are more incidents of the kind actor Rahul Bose went through to trigger a Twitter storm over the JW Marriott hotel in Chandigarh billing him all of Rs 442.50 for a couple of bananas. 

Now, overpricing stuff is not exactly new anywhere, and especially in 5-star hotels, where little gestures, plush interiors, and menus that are better read from the right side proclaim that the stuff here is not meant for everyone.  Yet,  it got into the headlines this month because of an outrage sparked by an actor known for offbeat roles and social causes. This is because in emerging India, the folks formerly known as the middle class are increasingly becoming luxury customers. Sadly or happily, they don't leave their value system at the bell desk.

In the old world, the saying went: "If you need to ask for the price, you cannot afford the yacht." This meant that the truly rich do not go for luxury consumption with value-for-money thinking. We are, however, no longer in an India of maharajas, feudal lords and rich inheritors from Mehrauli farmhouses or South Mumbai. You could trace the origins of a new-normal middle class culture with the arrival of Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy, who posed with golf clubs on the annual report of his blockbuster company but found himself in the pages of publications as one who stood in a staff queue for a thaali meal in the office canteen.

Folklore in Bengaluru talks of how billionaire Azim Premji occasionally took an autorickshaw to his office even as he owned fancy cars. 

This "middle-classisation" of a broad Indian culture that sheds old values for new is complete. As they say on Facebook, the relationship status of India's 5-star hotels with its new customers is "complicated."

Rahul Bose's rants and the rise of the fair-priced 5-star hotel (almost an oxymoron if you ask me)  are part of a new Indian urban consensus in which "value for money" and luxury get horribly and/or comically mixed up. 

Here's the catch. The hotelier has to extract his costs and may well slip on a banana peel if he is not careful. When you  pay for your plantains at the gym, you are paying for the air conditioning in the corridor you walked through, ,the carpet on it, the house telephone in the corner of the lift lobby that nobody seems to use, the pleasant orchids in your room and the salaries of the odd-ball executives who loiter around the plush sofas in the common space for no particular reason other than to respond to a glance from a frequent visitor who may be worth a billion dollars or two or three.

How does a poor-little rich-man's servant recover all those costs? Well, he prices those bananas with the audacious hope that the customer, after a happy treadmill run, signs without looking at the bill as he swills a mouthful of equally overpriced vitamin water. 

Enter spoilsports like Rahul Bose, armed with middle class values, very good English, a smartphone and more than million followers on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. 

The guys who fancy business school logic are crying themselves hoarse on "premium pricing."  A learned friend remarked on Twitter that Rahul Bose should know this more than anybody else because his surname corresponds to the planet's hip audio speaker brand. Another brandished a dessert menu from a hotel that priced a fruit platter at Rs 495 to say that this kind of pricing is just not new. 

But who is listening?

They are asking for the price of yacht these days, and worse, proud of it. 

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Hindustan Times, Business Standard and The Economic Times. He tweets as @madversity)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.