'If only they had come together earlier, they would be world number one," my friend Gupta was saying. "What was it?" I wondered. Have Federer and Nadal decided to play together now? He was looking at Business Standard on the Web.
"Who, why, what?" I asked.
"Mukesh and Anil, of course," he said. "Now they have reached an agreement. Had they done it two months earlier they would have beaten that Mexican," he said.
The Forbes magazine with its annual list of the world's richest was lying on the table next to him. "Still we have two in the first five and so many in the Asian wealthiest list," he declared.
Let alone me, not even Gupta need be concerned about wealth. We live with the certainty that we will not have it, me on a government salary and he on a bankers'. But as he had once told me, who has decreed that just because you drive a Maruti 800, you cannot talk about the Mercedes, the BMW or even the Porsche.
So it is not only the rich who read and discuss the Forbes annual rankings of the super- rich. Others do too. Out of curiosity I picked up the magazine and started flipping through its lists.
And found many surprises and revelations.
For instance, I knew that for years the wealthiest man in the world has been Bill Gates. As the joke goes, if he is walking on the street and drops a $100 bill, it does not make sense for him to bend and pick it up, since he is already earning more in a second than that.
But in 2010, in the new Forbes list, he was no longer No 1. That place had gone to Carlos Slim of Mexico. He at $53.5 billion had overtaken Gates at a mere $53 billion, the poor man.
As I looked at the numbers and the names, other interesting patterns began to emerge. After all, the list of the richest people in the world is not like the list of the sexiest women. How do you account for Aishwarya Rai being number one this year to be replaced by Angelina Jolie the next? May be she gained half a kilo? May be the editor changed?
Wealth on the other hand is quantitative and not in 'the eye of the beholder'. So as I began to look at the lists and charts, the diplomatic observer in me started to rejoice in the clear and unmistakable evidence about the spread of wealth to hitherto unconventional regions and individuals in a fast changing world.
There are 1,011 individuals who have more than one billion dollars today -- more than a thousand people each with Rs 4,500 crores (Rs 45 billion) net worth, if you can imagine that. These are the world's super rich, though they may not necessarily flaunt their name or riches.
It is believed that it is the mere millionaires who like film stars want to show off their wealth. By the time you become a billionaire, you are likely to be more discreet and more focused on wealth generation than wealth display.
At any rate this is what 'wealth behavior psychologists' say. Yes, it is a special discipline. The best example of this behavior is Warren Buffet, the world's most celebrated investor, the third richest man in the world, who lives in Omaha, a downbeat city, has never changed his modest home, and answers his own phone. His passion apart from investing: playing Bridge and giving away money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In India, I would not think of Mukesh Ambani with his 27 floor house for Spartan lifestyle. But N R Narayana Murthy of Infosys, also a member of the billionaire club, comes to mind.
Looking for national trends, I saw with some satisfaction that there are now 56 countries with at least one billionaire: The spread of super wealth across nations has never been better. Predictably, the US leads with 403 billionaires, though it has lost the number one richest person position to Mexico, thanks to Carlos Slim's genius in building the world's most successful telecommunications empire.
To validate the talk of BRIC -- a matter of bread and butter to me personally in my position in Brazil -- the BRIC country billionaires club is ready for launch, if we so decide. China has 64 and is the second highest in the world, Russia 62 and India has 49 with Brazil too with 18 billionaires.
Both India and China have doubled its billionaires in 2010 from the previous year. Things are going very well for some Indians, a fact that will displease some others like Arundhati Roy no doubt, but more on that later.
Bored with nations and numbers? The more interesting question is who are these people and what makes them own such staggering sums of money? A qualitative analysis of wealth and not mere numbers is what is more fascinating for people like you and me.
As a conservatively brought up South Indian and a student in the universities in the seventies, I had earlier lived with the notion that to get rich is to be exploitative. In the inner recesses of ones mind all wealth was somehow regarded as tainted or undeserved or built on labour of others.
I have long learnt the naivety of this view, but looking at the list of the superrich, I realised once again how close the connections between wealth generation and innovation and investment can be.
Apart from Bill Gates at No 2 are the names of Larry Ellison of Oracle at number 6 and a little further down the list, Sergey Brin of Google, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Jeffrey Bozos of Amazon.
Thanks to my previous job in San Francisco, I have had the privilege of having seen all these legends of technology at conferences. I know that they were not born to wealth, did not steal it, but in the American jargon 'created their own luck' with innovation and enterprise. Nor is wealth generation their singular objective; they want to create something and money is a measure of the success of the business model.
The youngest billionaire in the world today is Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook, all of 25 years old. The art and science of bringing together engineering skills, software genius, mind-blowing design, user interface, and ultimately product launch and marketing is another story. But suffice it to say, there is nothing illicit or clandestine about such wealth generation.
Every Indian mega success in the IT area from Aziz Premji to Nandan Nilekani also figure in the list.
But there is the good old inheritance, investment and industry model too. I already mentioned Warren Buffet, the famous investor. In the Indian list the two Ambanis, Mittals and Munjals, Mallya and Mahindras, represent this more classical story from riches to super-riches.
Several larger issues -- some positive, others more worrying -- arise, as we reflect on these tables and trends.
The good news is about the diffusion of wealth more widely. We are not talking about equity or justice here but about multiple points of affluence in a multipolar world, and specially about the success stories in Asia, Latin America and even Africa compared to the past.
Globalisation has produced winners across the globe, unlike the previous decades when much of it was limited to the US, Europe and Japan.
The second piece of good news is that many of these stories relate to technology. Dreams can be dreamt irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity and background. Good education and good location where innovation can flourish helps, but achievement in many cases is independent of origins, ancestral or national.
The third is that there are opportunities in the bottom of the pyramid for wealth creation, the famous management principle of the late Professor C K Prahalad.
Whether it is Wal-Mart or the cellular phone, profits are being made at a low price point and by enlarging the size of the market. This is the reason why we see such growth -- and the doubling of millionaires -- in China, India and Brazil, the three fastest growing economies with large populations.
To turn to the worries, there is a disconnection between wealth creation and employment generation. Many billionaires and their activities are in the financial sector, or in the IT or in entertainment. As the rich get richer, the poor may not get poorer, our classical worry. But they may simply be untouched.
Wealth generation may not be based on sweat and tears, but it may result in plain exclusion. There seems to be a real problem here with the 'inclusive growth' model that we advocate in the developing world, whether our PM or President Lula of Brazil.
No easy conclusions for me then. Who said that to understand wealth was easy. But one positive point. I remember the old Italian saying that there are three and only three ways for you to become really rich: A. You inherit it; B. You marry it; or C. You steal it. No longer. You can earn it too.
B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at email@example.com
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh