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The migrant-turned-Dilliwalla Rana Dasgupta spent nearly five years working on his portrait of the capital city. Having spent the first decade of the 21st century living and writing in Delhi, Dasgupta told the crowd at Jaipur Literature Festival, he looked up from his second work of fiction and found himself in a changed place.

“A new culture of money had become very evident in the city," Dasgupta said, about Delhi in 2010 compared to ten10 years previously. “There were inner changes too, the way children related to their parents, relationships of kinship and marriage, all these we’re changing."

Delhi had always been a mercurial place for a migrant who had previously lived in New York, he said, “I was always unable to answer the question that foreigners would pose, ‘What’s it like living in that city’".

The opening pages of Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi describe something of the confusion that Dasgupta felt, in a Delhi sculpted by a new and assured financial elite, represented by the “farmhouses" they built to the South of the city: “In no other Indian metropolis does the urban elite bask in such pastoral tranquility. This is an idiosyncrasy of the capital. It is striking in fact how Delhi’s rich, quintessentially a metropolitan set of people, who have made their money by tirelessly networking in the capital’s many clubs and corridors, eschew the urbane," he writes.

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Dasgupta manages to represent this financial elite’s tendency to create homes that look like five star hotels, decorated with untrammelled opulence, without sounding either patronizing or snobbish, but still with enough humour to give away his opinion of some of the most egregious design features. This, he says, was a conscious choice. “The mention of the new rich provokes a smirk among the cultural elite in the city," he said. “I reserved those kind of judgments because I didn’t know what to think about those things. It is not clear to me anymore what good taste is. It may be that Russian oligarchs have good taste. These were a vibrant, rising group of people that had a lot to contribute."

While there are many books that have tracked Delhi’s history of destruction and reincarnation, notably, as William Dalrymple, the session moderator, pointed out, his own portrait of Delhi, City of Djinns, most of them have dealt in some measure with the City’s Mughal past. Dasgupta deliberately avoids this, focusing instead on the psychology of the generation that have inherited the city and are making their mark on it today. Behind the rise of the new affluent, Dasgupta said, is the darker backdrop of a community that has been in a state of trauma for centuries. He uses Partition as a short hand for this trauma, but acknowledges that the violence and the paranoia that lives in the consciousness of Delhities, and particularly within Punjabi culture—has existed for far longer.

“What is condescendingly called Punjabi culture, meaning loud or materialistic, is not actually Punjabi culture. It’s a post-traumatic culture. The people for whom these things proved not to avert the catastrophe turned to embrace more tangible objectives. There’s a persistent paranoia about resources. 1947 was just a catastrophic confirmation of the paranoia. So there’s an idea now that you consume in order to save things."

The reckless consumption of scarce resources in Delhi, notably water, is a reflection of that fact that its citizens are comfortable with the notion of fragility and unwilling to invest in the long term, Dasgupta said. “There’s a sense of wanting to begin again, that things are temporary and that they decline. The future or water supply is under threat, but who has time to worry about that, by then it will all have crumbled anyway-- that’s the sense of fragility."

Other themes than underpin the citywide sense of trauma, Dasgupta said, were a gender war being waged against women and an innate reliance on corruption. While both themes were worked into the book early in the process of writing, they have since become media buzzwords, he said. “When I was writing it, I thought what I was describing was going to be treated as mad foreign observations because the level of violence that I felt would not be taken seriously," Dasgupta told the audience. “Then the events of the last year made this theme current. There’s a low level war going on against women to punish them for being out of the house, professionally, socially, sexually. I suspect it is happening all over India."

Peculiar to Delhi though, Dasgupta said, is its weak sense of itself as a cohesive whole. “Delhi has a very weak idea of the collective but a strong idea of ‘the clan’. Classes are often very protective; they see the collective as an external, threatening and bad place. Unlike Bombay, where you feel everyone feels a part of this thing together, Delhi people are not in this Delhi thing together, they are against each other, they’d like to annihilate each other. I feel personally corrupted in Delhi, it corrupts me."

And yet, he insisted that he is a migrant, who has chosen to make Delhi his home for 14 years and something has kept him living in the city despite its apparent hostility. Perhaps it is the emerging bohemian collection of writers and artists, a group of people who moved to Delhi from all over the country, in search of sexual or cultural freedom that wouldn’t be available elsewhere in India. “Delhi was anonymous, the rents were cheap and the emergence of the art scene there has been an important phenomenon."

And there was the recent election, in which the upset of traditional politics seemed to mark an impatience with the status quo and a new sense of a citizen’s collective movement. “To me it was a very exciting moment," Dasgupta said. “I don’t know what will come of it but this statement is incredibly refreshing." His sudden enthusiasm is reflected in the final lines of the book, in which the author looks over the vast expanse of the city, taking in a rare and beautiful view of the Yamuna river.

“The horizon is open," he writes, “and it is a relief. I realise how consumed my being has become by the internal drama of my dense adopted city. I have forgotten expansiveness. This megapolis, where everything is vast, offers little opportunity to see further than across the street. Everything is blocked off. Your eyes forget how to focus on the infinite."

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