A city that finds hope in squalor

Kate Bystrova

Arena Books

Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi

Rana Dasgupta, Canongate, 2014, 457 pp,
ISBN 085-7-860-02-X


In the last decade, Delhi has moved from quiet colonial capital to a vast and teeming 21st-century metropolis – but, writes Dasgupta: “There is no reason why this crowded city’s evolution should follow that of New York, London or Paris.”

Capital is the story of a country used and savaged by a brute capitalism, which has churned out a generation that is deeply divided. Weaving together more than a century of history with interviews, observations and family history, Dasgupta presents us with an intoxicating literary portrait of one of this century’s fastest-growing megalopolises. But Capital is no mere feat of travel writing – its story is far darker and more complex. Dasgupta, who was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010 for his debut novel Solo, allows us to see Delhi through the eyes of its people – billionaires and slum dwellers, drug dealers and call centre workers, playboys and Sufi mystics. The fantastically unequal distribution of wealth is a maelstrom resultant from the thrust of capitalism onto this once tranquil city. And, while some have prospered, others have lost everything.

Capital is Dasgupta’s first foray into non-fiction and it retains the lyricism of his previous work, saturating every element of his tale with vivid colour. In the introductory chapter, aptly titled ‘Landscape’, Delhi is presented as a menagerie of animals, vehicles and people; a city where everything is thrown together in a style reminiscent of Josh Kirby’s illustrations – elephants lumber home in the night along highways heaving with angry but optimistic cars; stray one-eyed dogs skulk amid gridlocked Mercedes and rickshaws, hoping to find a meal but stumbling only upon the makeshift beds of slum dwellers, balanced on the concrete slabs that separate one lane of immobile traffic from the next. Faceless buildings flank the roads, their fronts having been torn off to make room for the expansion of the heaving, capricious highway. Looking up from the street you can see lights and desks, and office workers going about their business – because this is normal. It isn’t just a road, it’s a city; it’s Delhi.

India’s recent 20-year-long economic boom unceremoniously plunged the residents of Delhi into a chaos in which the old slums and markets were torn asunder and high-rises, luxury offices and shopping malls erected in their stead. The transformation was rapid and unforgiving.

Delhi’s facelift, completed just in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, has not held up well. The roofs are sliding from the rusty stadiums, their car parks cracked and empty; the walls set up to better divide the traffic have instead collapsed into it; and the thousands of trees planted to bring metaphoric significance to the concrete streets have long since withered away. A disappointing legacy for an event that had cost US$14 billion – 40 times its original budget (with Games toilet paper racking up $80 per roll) – and failed to deliver on its development promises.

“Time in Delhi is macabre,” Dasgupta writes, “it is a fast-dissolving time that makes bus stops leak and apartment blocks crumble even before they are finished.”

Dasgupta visits camps set up to accommodate the labourers who came to work on the infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games, “where workers and their families sleep in windowless corrugated iron shacks, and there are ten toilets for about 3,000 people… With the monsoon rains, the whole place is under water”. He is still haunted by the experience when he speaks with a young businessman, who responds: “I’m sure if I were to see that I would feel the same… But if I saw those people, I am sure I would also feel contempt.”

Even those who present themselves as secular, who send their children to American universities and dream of establishing legacies that will benefit millions – citing the Rockerfeller Foundation as inspiration – even they scorn the impoverished workers manufacturing their companies’ wares and refuse to visit Muslim areas past nightfall. One businessman describes the city’s patronage mindset: “It all depends on politics. You can have a billion but if you have no connections, it doesn’t mean anything. My family has been building connections for two generations and we know everyone. We know people in every political party, we never suffer when the government changes.”

Westerners imagine the process of an economy ‘emerging’ as being smooth and gradual, uniform – not the stark segregation of the ultra-rich and the utterly penniless that is present in this city. The people featuring in Dasgupta’s story are the corrupt beneficiaries of India’s economic boom, those who’ve fallen through the cracks and into Delhi’s swelling poverty-stricken underclass, and everybody in between.

Today’s India, and Delhi in particular, is the result of the 1947 Partition that rent apart its syncretic society, destroying its spiritual and erudite ideals and replacing them with wealth and power. “The first blow to Delhi’s culture came with the British,” laments Sadia, a writer from one of Delhi’s old and august Muslim families, “and then with the influx of Punjabis who came in after Partition.”

Through conversations with his own family members as well as strangers, Dasgupta recalls the sheer violence that accompanied the split – which was characterised by murder, exile, the wrenching apart of faiths and communities, and saw the murder of hundreds of Hindus and Muslims. In the years that followed, long-established communities, like many of the country’s monuments, were left to crumble. “This is why the city seems so emotionally broken.”

“We have no beauty to leave our children,” adds Sadia.

But a strange quality of hope and ambition permeates even those at the bottom rungs of the ladder – after all, one day they might be the ones at the top. And why not, when money has historically landed on people independent of intelligence and hard work? Looking at it this way, the hopes of being on the receiving end of a low-probability, high-value windfall run high. It is this American Dream-like attitude that props up those who have a monopoly on wealth in a country where 30 per cent of the population is destitute.

“One might think that a place of inequalities as entrenched as Delhi’s would breed democratic yearnings, but it is not the case,” reads Capital. “Delhi’s fantasies are feudal.”

The stereotype of the young Delhi male paints him as aggressive, with little regard for social structures like community or law, and fiercely protective of his property – among which he lists the women in his life. In fact, writes Dasgupta, there is a “low-level, but widespread, war against women whose new mobility made them not only the icons of India’s social and economic changes but also the scapegoats”. As he speaks with one man, the grandfather of an interviewee, Dasgupta thinks again that men who were adults before Partition seem able to love women more fully than their sons and grandsons.

It isn’t the people he meets that he holds to account, but the culture that allows such overwhelming divides to thrive. So Dasgupta uses pseudonyms for those that he interviews, recording the confessions of the unrepentant and absolving them simultaneously through anonymity. “Corruption does not stem primarily from wicked or greedy individuals; it comes from destroyed social relations,” he writes.

Past and present climb on top of one another in Dasgupta’s Delhi, the various perspectives and nuances mixing together to form a new palette with which he paints the personal details of his interviewees, the broad strokes of wealth and stature that colour and divide Delhi.

At its heart, Capital is an affectionate account of a strange, chaotic and, yes, corrupt city that has packed its streets densely and in doing so obscured the horizon. It’s about Delhi, but it is also about the rest of the world, the 140 or so nations that formed out of empires and Soviet agglomerates after 1900 and the Second World War. As Dasgupta writes towards the close of his book: “It is not extraordinary. It is the story of our age.”

About the author:

Kate Bystrova is the features editor of Global - The International Briefing


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