Happiness is an old Ambassador

For six decades, India scorned consumerism. But a taste for luxury is flourishing in the new Delhi,

The Hindustan Ambassador I hire is one of the few left on Delhi's roads. Among the shiny, new Tata Indigos and nippy Maruti hatchbacks, it looks so Old India, a reminder of the decades of industrial stagnation that, suddenly, everyone is in a tremendous hurry to shake off.

But I love it. I love the Morris Oxford design that hasn't changed in 50-odd years. I love the little curtains in the passenger windows. I love the fact that the driver brings along a "driver assistant" who is there to keep his friend company - and push, if we break down.

My driver and driver assistant seem lost in the treeless concrete jungle of the new New Delhi, with its highways and concrete flyovers. Tinted-glass structures housing call-centres and software companies rise up from what was, until recently, lush Haryana farmland. The mustard crops, bullocks and farmers are all gone, their old ways replaced with new biospheres, shielded from the Indian sun, dust and chaos. Orderly parking lots sport bays with painfully straight white lines where ploughs once furrowed in the dirt. Armed security guards man the gates. Satellite dishes connect the buildings to Silicon Valley and potential customers in Worthing.

Behind them loom new apartment blocks, the dormitories for the 24/7 workforce. They are enormous: 20, 30, 40 storeys high, like human filing cabinets with balconies for handles. Many are still half-built, their grey hulks covered in bamboo scaffolding, swarming with sinewy labourers carrying bricks on their heads.

My driver and driver assistant have a difficult time finding the address I'm looking for - there are no road signs. And all the gated "colonies" have been given American names such as Fantasy Island Apartments. The one I'm visiting is called "Malibu Estates", and when the driver asks for directions from rickshaw wallahs at the roadside, they pronounce it "Maibalu" and "Malbabu". But eventually we find the entrance. Beyond lies an exact replica of a Florida neighbourhood straight out of The Truman Show. Trimmed hedges run along perfectly manicured lawns. A sign points the way to the golf course. Mini-driveways lead to cookie-cutter houses in a surreal range of pastel colours. The rows of homes are punctuated by matching two-car garages, red-tiled roofs, and cutesy number signs with caricatures of little men on tractors.

My wife's Indian cousin Ravi lives here with his wife and two children. I have come to see their new home, bought after he landed a job with a software company headquartered nearby. Ravi is an Indian version of Bill Gates: nasal voice, glasses, calls everyone "buddy". His wife, Rachana, works at a local call-centre where the management has given her the nom de guerre "Rachel".

After a warm reception, I'm given a grand tour of the house. It comes with fitted everything: kitchen, bathroom, cupboards, even fitted servant quarters. All the appliances are jumbo American size. You could get a couple of oxen into the fridge (OK, this is India, so oxen are off the menu), and the TV is bigger than a couch.

"India's changing pretty fast, buddy," grins Ravi, after he's done demonstrating the electric food grinder in the kitchen. "Even now, we have a better standard of living than you people in Britain." This is a constant refrain from the burgeoning middle classes, who are forever telling visitors that India is set for "superpower status".

"I think before long we're going to be richer than the United States," says Rachana. I detect an undertone of "we're going to show you arrogant westerners", which I can hardly begrudge.

Nevertheless, it's extraordinary to see how quickly Indians have taken to these waters. For nearly 60 years, they scorned capitalism, frowned on ostentation and criticised America for its shallow values. Not that long ago, mobs in many Indian cities burned down KFC takeaways. Overnight, however, the new middle classes have turned into rabid consumers of everything western. Young families no longer save every penny for the droughts everyone knows will come. Now they have Visa cards.

Plastic is particularly welcome in the new malls. Ravi and Rachana take me to see the one nearest to Malibu: a glass and chrome cathedral of commerce, lit up with neon brand logos. Inside, a vast atrium rises up to a glass roof. Escalators carry you through the air to new levels. We sit drinking frothy coffees while the kids stuff themselves with jelly beans. I watch as a young couple, evidently very poor, walk past us in a trance, their eyes wide open, mouths agape, mesmerised by all the sparkly new products. "A lot of people just come to walk around," says Ravi. "They can't afford anything, but it's like visiting paradise."

I ask him whether he's concerned about the widening gap between rich and poor; that the wealth is not yet trickling down to the poorest. "Poor people aren't doing as bad as they used to, buddy," answers Ravi. "Nowadays, even these rickshaw-wallah guys have mobile phones."

Outside the entrance to the mall, Ravi's words ring hollow. The other India, the one that the new middle classes prefer to ignore, is there to see. Ragged labourers come and go from the shanty towns that have spread between the air-conditioned palaces. Most are working for less than a pound a day. Their children squat barefoot amid the sewage. They are little more than slaves; their clothes are filthy, their spirits subjugated.

After saying goodbye, I find myself wonder-ing if the economic changes taking place are perhaps a cruel necessity. If the economy continues to grow, could tens, even hundreds, of millions of people be raised out of poverty?

My driver and driver assistant, who hail from distant villages and sleep every night under a tarpaulin by the side of a busy road, would certain-ly like to be a part of the economic dream. "Very, very beauty place," they say of Ravi's home as we make our way back in the Ambassador.

Later, as I walk among the peonies and dahlias in the gardens surrounding Humayun's Tomb, which dates back to the 16th century, I can only hope that, in the headlong rush to catch up with the rest of the world, some of India's cultural heritage will outlive Malibu Estates.