The archetypal British village of Tewin is hardly the kind of place you’d expect to find an Indian billionaire.
Yet this cute little village of 2,000 souls—40 minutes from London by commuter train and “god knows how long it all depends on the traffic” by car as one local puts it—is, amazing as it may seem, where Indian billionaire and member of parliament Vijay Mallya is believed to be weathering a fierce financial and political storm.
Mallya has been labelled a fugitive and absconder, charges he vigorously denies.
Mallya, who has been at the center of media and public outrage in India since abruptly leaving the country last week, just hours before his passport was reportedly due to be seized in connection with gigantic debts owed by his companies, broke his silence on Friday and fired off a volley of tweets protesting his innocence:
The truth is that Mallya was fully entitled to leave India, and did so with the knowledge of the authorities. He has been abroad many times over the past few months and years and has never shown any inclination to evade the legal and financial processes going on at home.
But, unlucky for him, Mallya has become a focal point for Indian anger at the perceived untouchability of the rich in a country where 20% of people still live on less than $1 a day, and malnutrition-related illnesses kill a similar proportion.
The issue of his ‘flight’ to the UK has become a hot topic in parliament in recent days with opposition politicians accusing the government of helping ‘thieves.’
Mallya was once—and may still be, depending who you believe—one of India’s richest men.
The son of an accountant, his fortunes were founded on the Kingfisher lager brand, which became the heart of his conglomerate, United Breweries. UB went on to develop an array of valuable brands both inside and outside India in the late 90’s and 00’s.
Vijay revelled in his reputation as the “King of Good Times” and as India boomed, his fortunes ballooned. He bought horses, Gandhi’s sandals a Formula One team, a franchise in India’s glitzy domestic cricket league, and even started a Formula 1 team, Force India.
He threw massive parties at his mansion in Goa—featuring, among other things, a go-kart track where guests could race each other and performances by Latin pop stars like Enrique Iglesias.
“People call me extravagant,” Mallya once told an interviewer, “I couldn’t give two hoots. I sold 38.5 million cases last year and that’s a whole bunch of booze.”
In 2005, however, Mallya broke the first rule of being a successful billionaire: don’t start an airline.
Kingfisher Airlines, which nakedly emulated Virgin’s cool image and informal but attentive customer service, never broke even, but it broke Mallya.
In a last ditch effort to keep his planes in the air, Mallya sold United Breweries to Diageo in 2012, but it was too late. Later that year, Kingfisher stopped flying, with reported debts of over $1bn.
It is a striking testament to the depth of Mallya’s pockets that the airline was India’s biggest domestic carrier at the moment it ceased operations, despite never having turned a profit.
A large part of Mallya’s fortune evaporated. He took it in good spirits. One tweet joked at the upside of being relegated from the Forbes list of Indian billionaires—he is now worth a mere $800m—as his new status would mean less “jealousy” and “wrongful attacks.”
Another tweet said, “I have learnt the hard way that in India wealth should not be displayed. Better to be a multibillionaire politician dressed in Khadi [homespun cotton],” it read.
The court processes ground on, but in the middle of last week Mallya abruptly left India, narrowly pre-empting a Supreme Court petition led by the State Bank of India—part of a group of debtors owed a reported $1bn—to seize his passport and prevent him leaving the country.
He headed first for his imposing townhouse on London’s Baker Street, and then bolted for his 30-acre country home on Queen Hoo Lane in the village of Tewin, where he has been holed up ever since.
In contrast to Mallya’s high-rolling lifestyle in India, in Tewin, few villagers even know about the existence of their controversial neighbor.
Those who have heard of him, or come across him, speak of a man projecting a very different image to the one he is associated with at home.
“He doesn’t do anything to draw attention to himself,” said one local. “We feel quite protective about him. It’s good he feels he can come to Tewin and just lead a normal life.”
Mallya would go to one of the four pubs in the village to eat occasionally with friends, but that would be about it in terms of a public profile.
But he has not apparently stepped foot outside his gated residence this time.
The only sign he is in the area has been the to-ing and fro-ing of black Audis with ‘Force India’ (the name of his F1 team) branded on the side.
“We’ve seen him down at the pub before, but this time he hasn’t been seen around the village at all,” one local told the Daily Beast, “He’s obviously keeping his head down and who could blame him.”