Gilded Age Cottage
A Gilded Age summer cottage “The Breakers”, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, in Rhode Island tallied in at an astounding sixty-five thousand square feet.

A few nights ago, I had watched the NTV video on Probash Jibon featuring a self-made Bangladeshi born multi-billionaire Kali Pradip Chaudhuri (KPC) in Los Angeles (LA), California. His lifestyle consists of such opulence and excesses that it will be categorically approved by Mukesh Ambani, the Reliance Industries Chairman and Jay Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald’s flamboyant central character in The Great Gatsby. Among the world’s billionaires, I could only think of Warren Buffett (known to maintain a modest lifestyle) who will blush in embarrassment seeing such outlandish display of material wealth. Ambani looks the part and Gatsby simply delivers himself as a symbol of wealth, pomposity, and grandiose lifestyle. And KPC? Dressed in $1,600 plus (or more) Burberry check wool tailored jacket, colorful silk shirt, flashy necktie and other expensive accessories, he seemed caught between the old and the new world in the adopted new land. Though a savvy business man, in the midst of his vast empire he came across somewhat lonely and awkward among the most ostentatious display of wealth that naturally befits the likes of an Ambani or a fictional Gatsby. The juxtaposition and the similarities are quite remarkable and gave me the push to write this piece.

Imagine this — with $18 in his pocket KPC landed in America years ago. He then established himself as a successful orthopedic surgeon. KPC was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh in the village of ‘Dutta Roy.’ He studied at Sylhet MC (Murari Chand) College, followed by Calcutta Medical School. His great-grandfather, Raj Raibahadur Kali Krishna Chaudhury was a flamboyant character, donated the first non-government hospital in Sylhet in 1821. It exists and serves the people of Sylhet to this day. His grandfather Kali Prasanna Chaudhury was tall, and handsome.

His father Kalipada Chaudhury was a well-known personality in Sylhet, founder of Station Club, Union Parishad chairman, and president of the Red Cross Sylhet Branch. His mother Shova Rani Chaudhury was also well-known. Now their son has made it big in America, and lives in a sprawling mansion. The rooms are stuffed with original artwork and sculptures, including a vintage brass/gold eagle statue, the American symbol of strength and freedom. His extravagances do not stop with gilded age type paraphernalia and trinkets; there is an array of luxury cars like the Gatsby era when home and automobiles symbolized the social classes and different cultural and social trends of the 1920s. KPC’s life certainly represents new money of the consumer culture popular in California.

During the years (that time period is now referred to as “The Gilded Age”) following an industrial boom, some wealthy Americans were beginning to enjoy a bustling industrial economy. Some people became very rich in a very short time. The title “Gilded Age”, a term coined by Mark Twain which he co-authored with Charles Warner in 1873 was meant as a satire that capitalized on the phrase, “Golden Age”. “Because the gilding process involves the application of superficial layers of gold, Twain and Warner’s effort was in fact referring to ostentatious behavior, and materialism.” In 2021, KPC seems to be living in the US Gilded Age, with a (perhaps many) huge mansion(s), multiple luxury automobiles (a Rolls Royce, many Mercedes Benzes, a Mercedes Limousine/Town Car, a Bentley, and many other varieties). There is a city named after him in Los Angeles, the KPC City, and a (KPC) Town Center with many retail shops, and a 55 mile stretch of road named after him, the KPC Road, a Parkway.

In the Great Gatsby, The Valley of Ashes was a poor and dusty area where there is poverty and despair. Similarly, a 1.5- hour drive from Hemet, where KPC lives is South Los Angeles. It is considered one of the poorest neighborhoods in America. The undocumented immigrants and the poor (nearly a quarter of the population) live below the poverty line in South LA. Because of language difficulty, their economic and social status does not change for generations. “Ramona Gardens” housing project is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods where gangs and drugs flow and drive-by shootings are a daily occurrence.

In contrast, KPC owns an enormous office with gorgeous chandeliers, flaunting the latest furniture built with silk and golden brocade in the ornate, rococo style as in the time of the (French) Baroque. We have seen the images from Versailles and other magnificent French palaces, with decorated interiors, artistic details everywhere, and intricate gardens. That is the image that should first come to our head when we look at KPC’s mansion(s). “All Baroque architecture has certain other similarities, as well. Fluid curves and rounded or ovoid shapes dominated. Dramatic lighting was created with rows of large windows or the use of chiaroscuro, a painting technique that emphasizes the dramatic use of light and dark. Ornamentation was lavish, with wood and/or plaster that was gilded, or covered in a thin layer of gold and marble finishes.” (https://study.com/academy/lesson/french-baroque-architecture-characteristics-examples.html)

KPC and his family live in a huge mansion with spectacular hand cut crystal chandeliers, thousands if not millions of light fixtures hanging from the ceilings, and oil paintings of his ancestors in Bangladesh (Raibahadurs). His other house in Las Vegas shows opulence to the max, possibly built in the style of US “Gilded Age” homes such as the Biltmore (Asheville, North Carolina, built by the Vanderbilts), Rosecliff (Newport, Rhode Island), The Breakers (Newport, Rhode Island, built by the Vanderbilts), and Whitehall (Palm Beach, Florida by Henry Flagler). There are swimming pools, water fountains, and beautifully manicured formal (and informal) gardens which are impeccably maintained. All the above are reminiscent of a bygone era in the USA, the above-mentioned Gilded Age of the robber barons, the railroad magnates, and the oil tycoons (the Rockefellers of Standard Oil), the Vanderbilts, and Fricks and the Flaglers – followed by the so-called Roaring Twenties of The Great Gatsby fame (by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Interestingly, I got the feeling that all the glitter is on the surface and not very deep; there may not be a well-thought-out strategy behind all this glare, and display of wealth, except to announce to the world that KPC has arrived in America and is on the top of the universe in the great city of Los Angeles, USA.

So as a man born into privilege why KPC does have this enormous need to display wealth? Though wealth is synonymous with diamonds, shiny Rolexes and luxury cars, wealthy people now are more discreet about showing off. Such showiness is becoming less ubiquitous among the ultra-rich. Today both the middle and upper class can own the same luxury brands with extended credit line offered by financial institutions. Therefore, the rich are forgoing the obsession with material things in exchange to invest in immaterial as a sign to indicate wealth, power and status. Investing in a top-notch education for their children, acquiring rare art or luxury yachts on the sea (away from the public eye) are some of the inconspicuous ways the rich are showing off their privileged status instead of flaunting luxury. In the US, the top 1% has been spending less on material goods, according to data from the US Commerce Expenditure Survey. Perhaps the good doctor (kpc) did not seem to realize times have changed and showing off wealth is no longer the way to signify how much wealth you have. It was a hallmark in the previous era.

High end real estate and luxury vehicles have a close relationship everywhere in the world. It won’t be an understatement to say that the Rolls Royce and the Bentley add dimensions and creates more excitement to a billionaire’s mansion. But one does not need to put an assortment of cars lined up in front of his home to impress anyone. Ambani keeps his 168 cars in one floor of Antilia, his mansion in Mumbai. Bill Gates lives in his $2.63 million dollar home tucked away from the public view.

The Great Gatsby captures the exuberance of the 1920s. It is a story of greed, longing, and superfluous wealth, and the concomitant broken American dream told through the eyes of Nick Carraway. Nick rented a place next door to mysterious, wealthy Jay Gatsby and attended some of his grand weekend parties. The novel is ultimately a portrayal of the darker side of society and pointed criticism of the corruption and immorality that are hidden behind the glitz and the grandeur. Gatsby amassed a astounding amount of wealth in a very short time. His rise to a new social status gave him power and confidence to court his lost love, Daisy married to boorish Tom Buchanan, an upper-class plutocrat, in Long Island. Fitzgerald had foreseen America’s romance with capitalism and commercialism before writing the Great Gatsby. Underneath the decadence, he had also witnessed how materialism brings people ruin, and distracts people from a central purpose in their lives. It brings futility, not fulfillment. Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce that he had used to win Daisy’s heart became the source of his downfall. In a lot of ways, KPC’s life is a snapshot of what the gilded era represented – commercialism, materialism, reminiscent of the time when Fitzgerald wrote his famous novel (1925).

At the end of the day, KPC’s life signifies success and commercialism, the backbone of American Dream. Surrounded by glitz and glamor, his life in a lavish mansion did not seem to bring him satisfaction and contentment. While driven around by a chauffeur, KPC’s lifestyle did not really redefine opulence and luxury. He gave the vibe of a misfit in the midst of vast wealth, somewhat lost and at odds as if searching for some justification to define his newfound wealth and status. I had detected both hollowness and solidity in his eyes. He hardly made eye contact with the NTV interviewer. There were times when he was slightly uncomfortable to epitomize ostentation and excess. He also did a poor job to hide his vanity in describing dominance of commercialism, and how wealth is the attraction for society.

What does KPC’s exuberance really represent? As a trained medical professional, his interest is not only to expand his own empire, but also to build new facilities to add to his existing 70 that he has invested his millions in over the years. Since 2015 onwards, KPC’s dream has been to leave a lasting legacy behind by doing something significant for Bangladesh. With that in mind, he visited his home country many times and shared an elaborate plan with the Finance Minister to materialize his brainchild project. KPC group was to build a 142-story Iconic Tower by spending about $4 billion in Purbachal, near Dhaka. Along with the skyscraper, he was willing to invest more in building a megacity. Because of bureaucracy, objection from Rajuk in giving an expat the green signal to build the tower, the government decided to revoke the uncontested tender rights. To KPC’s dismay, that project did not take off as planned. In the video, he said he is now facing challenges of access.

Why despair over building a mega skyscraper? His billions can be better spent in bringing people out of poverty around the world. His atonement could start with the realization that accumulating enormous wealth should not be displayed; majority of it should be spent in making disproportionate and unfair society balanced. The implementation of a progressive agenda needs to be embraced for the wellbeing of those in societies who are left behind. His billions can address inequality; invest in girls’ education, help poor workers to improve their earnings in impoverished nations, and other fundamental challenges the world is facing. What can be better than fighting inequality in a rapidly changing world? For one thing, his money can help accelerate the transition to carbon-free electricity in Bangladesh.

He can start building that promised state of the art Medical College in his home district of Sylhet. In the post-pandemic period, his billions can be used to fight infectious disease, and support healthcare workers. After all, he is still heavily involved in the medical sector and had built hospitals in other places including the West Bengal. His contributions had done wonders to improve the medical technology in California. Kali Pradip Chaudhury is a visionary who believes in the eagle symbolism (the American Dream) where sky is the limit. Nothing should stop him from pushing that limit; the suffering world can benefit from his generosity. As a lasting legacy, improving the plight of the impoverished world is way nobler than building a megatall skyscraper.

Zeenat Khan is a freelance writer and columnist. She lives in Maryland, USA


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