Early last month, a news piece on a Dubai-based Indian businessman who paid $9 million for a single-digit car licence plate caught my eye. As did a feature this month about an over-the-top wedding invitation, sent out by a Karnataka mining billionaire for his daughter’s Rs 550-crore wedding.

Apart from the extravagant and wasteful spending, I was struck by the pattern of reportage, and the often condescending prism through which the media looks at those with money. We take pleasure in pointing out excesses. Stories like these are indicative of how we report on a group of people described as the nouveau riche, or the new wealthy, and the seemingly crass display of wealth constantly associated with this demographic.

An adjective frequently used to describe modern India is “aspirational”. In a rapidly changing country, the gradual “un-tabooing” of wealth might be one of the most striking socio-economic trends of the past three decades. Yet, the filters we use while covering stories about the newly wealthy, underlies a schizophrenia that runs through this remarkable social shift.

Reams of newspaper print, for example, are spent covering upmarket weddings in Delhi and Mumbai. Intellectual quarters decry such extravagant displays, demonstrative of our changing values, and a culture of crass consumerism.

But is this dramatic increase in spending limited only to the rich?

Janardhan Reddy’s daughter Brahmani Reddy married Rajeev Reddy, son of Andhra businessman Panyam Vikram Deva Reddy, in Bengaluru.

The world is not enough

In a post-liberalised economy, there is a greater sanction for everybody to want more. The visible manifestation of higher spending is more evident today than it was a decade ago, and especially in big cities, there is an increase in consumption and indulgence. Families go out to more expensive restaurants, buy more luxury automobiles and take more holidays than ever before.

More importantly, spending has increased across all income segments: we consume more as a nation on a whole range of discretionary items. As a fraction of income, lifestyle-based spending has gone up steadily, even in upper-middle class homes. Fuelled by easy access to brands and e-commerce, I am often surprised by the increasing amount of money that families in Patna, Allahabad and Jamshedpur spend on clothes.

Does the educated “middle-class” not spend more than their parents did, even a decade ago? Fine wine, organic cheese, silk sarees, silver jewellery and off-the-grid experiential vacations to exotic countries?

We are all participants in the spending game. We might not have as much as the businessman in Dubai, enough to acquire a coveted car or just its number plate, or crores to spend on a wedding, but that does not mean we do not have an equally insatiable urge to eat more, do more and buy more.

So what explains the need to cling on to our virtuous “middle-class” roots, or the wholesome ideal of “having just enough”? In fact, the shrinking middle-class is its own kind of aspiration, a tag that several, including the first-generation rich wants to appropriate. It symbolises specific qualities, like restraint, hard work and an unfailing desire to get value-for-money in every deal.

Status: It’s complicated

Scrutiny on the politically powerful and the economically wealthy are productive forces in a democracy, but the conflicting views around wealth indicates an important cultural, social and economic shift within India.

India has witnessed an unprecedented phase of wealth creation over the past two decades, a trend that has sharply accelerated in the past ten years. By 2018, India will be home to 3.58 lakh millionaires, more than doubling its tally from 1.8 lakh in 2013. Another study has found that over the next four years, the number of New Wealth Builders, or Indian households with financial assets of $100,000 to $2 million (Rs 66,73,500 to Rs 13 crore), is expected to jump ten-fold, to 4.9 million households.

As we see people around us grow wealthier, as they find themselves richer than they had ever imagined, the way Indians perceive affluence and those who possess it is also changing. At the heart of this narrative are the country’s new wealthy.

There is still a discomfort at being labeled rich.

Over the past year and a half, I extensively interviewed individuals who fall within this group for my book on India’s first-generation wealth creators, their changing attitudes to wealth, and a dynamic wealth management company that has built its business on freshly forged millionaires.

It allowed me to test whether first-generation entrepreneurs and a growing cadre of highly paid professionals, the two groups that form a large swathe of the new wealthy, personify the stereotypes they are often reduced to.

Interviews for my book allowed me to tease out and explore an entirely new set of insights, that focused on the “after” story of the entrepreneurship boom – most reportage on entrepreneurship is limited to the process of building the business. Few articles or books focus on what happens after.

The conventional notion of the nouveau riche, someone that comes into a lot of money, usually perceived to be ostentatious, flashy, or lacking in good taste, did not always hold true with the group of young entrepreneurs.

Instead, I found that despite the rapid rise in affluence, talking money did not come easily to many of India’s newly rich. Many first-generation wealth creators, for example, went to great lengths to dismiss the fortunes they had built as a mere by-product of their success. They seemed to consciously downplay the reality of their abundance, as the focus of the conversation. Many came from a large swathe they described as the “middle-middle class”.

Their attitudes were a combination of past perceptions as outsiders to affluence, and their changed reality of insiders looking in. It was a contradictory diffidence, because it was not as if they were frugal. In most cases, their lifestyles, the homes they lived in, the cars they drove and the services they could access, were a marked departure from the homes that they grew up in. Yet, few said that they were proud of having gathered the financial ability to acquire their new lives.

To be sure, there was no guilt at having made money, even in a deeply unequal society. The reticence is more studied, it came from a blend of self-consciousness and awkwardness. Their discomfort at being labeled rich was a function of societal perceptions, because as a country, we have a complicated relationship with wealth.

Discomforts of luxury

Historically, India has been a country where the vast population was poor with a minor middle class, and an extremely tiny section of people that could be called wealthy. Mobility across classes was limited, and since lines were not porous, attitudes within each group – and towards each other – were fixed and unyielding.

Through most of the seventy years that we have been an independent nation, we have lived in the worthy pursuit of having “just enough”. A craving and indulgence for wealth have neither been encouraged, nor been possible, in a socialist economy where the government controlled and regulated private enterprise.

Our discomfort with wealth also comes from the licence-raj era of business, when participating in crony capitalism, rent seeking and tax evasion were often the main ways of garnering wealth. In this situation, having a lot of money, by default, confirmed that one was corrupt.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm, said that even today the truth is that the act of entrepreneurship is admired but the rewards of it still are not. People continue to believe emphatically that if you are a “businessman” you must somehow be twisting things to suit your purpose. “You’re considered okay as long as the money you have isn’t too much,” he had told me.

Still, I found the discomfort in discussing wealth surprising. At various points of the conversation, I wondered if these were rehearsed responses meant to sound politically correct? Or, was there also a mild delusion at play when people who I knew had upwards of Rs 50 crore in investable surplus considered themselves “not wealthy”?

The interview process – my primary source of gathering insights and experiences for this book – is not always a foolproof microscope for understanding someone. At its core, even in the most frank conversations, interviewees self-select the personal biases and motivations revealed. Much of their self-consciousness around being rich might be genuinely felt but in interviews there is no way to know how truly authentic someone is.

To negotiate around this limitation, and test the assumptions I had arrived at through my interactions, I followed up the interviews with a survey of nearly sixty High Net Worth Individuals. I let them keep their names concealed, with the hope that the privacy would lead to more honest answers. The respondents were asked for other personal details: age, city, industries they worked in, whether they were first-generation entrepreneurs or professionals and how much they had in investable wealth, to build a character sketch.

In summary, however, the findings do reveal some surprising insights, including the fact that 97.5% of the respondents said they do not enjoy showing off their wealth. Nearly 55%, in fact, said they made a concerted effort to underplay it.

Nearly 70% of those polled said they underplayed their wealth because India was an unequal society, another 26% because of what they called society’s attitude toward wealth and a tiny 4% because they worried about nazar, or the uniquely Indian notion of the evil eye.

Many of those I spoke to said they have a simple filter for judgement: Where they could be assured that a rich person had an obvious, identifiable source of wealth, perceptions were not as negative. The disdain was nullified if the origin of wealth could be easily ascertained.

Shreyasi Singh is the author of The Wealth Wallahs, a non-fiction book on India’s new wealthy and the wealth management industry, published by Bloomsbury India.