Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi | Rana Dasgupta

March is the prettiest month," begins Rana Dasgupta’s sprawling, discursive account of Delhi’s energetic embrace of capitalist rhythms, “bringing flawless blooms to the dour frangipanis." As first lines go, it is pretty enough, and, despite its inversions and adjustments, the nod to the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, is unmissable.

By beginning this way, Dasgupta is saying something about his own study of the city of Delhi. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month" famously utilized an inversion of its own, forever deadening Geoffrey Chaucer’s “fair April with his showers sweet" of The Canterbury Tales. Eliot’s finest work is, among other things, a response to the fragrant spirit of poets like Chaucer and, later, Romantics like William Wordsworth. For he could no longer see the Europe they saw.

Dasgupta’s account is in part a response to the champions of Delhi’s particularized adoption of neoliberal capitalism—all those Friedmanesque accounts of India’s sudden and immutable rise that crowded bookshops until a year or two ago. He wants to tell the stories that have been hidden away: how the city’s newly fashioned physical scape has been wrought, and to whose benefit, the means employed in this sudden accumulation of wealth, the fissures it engenders, the imbalances it rests upon, the social stylings it spawns, and the often-overwhelming anxieties that the system embeds in even its greatest beneficiaries.

Capital—A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi: HarperCollins, 496 pages Rs799
Capital—A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi: HarperCollins, 496 pages Rs799

To my mind, this manner of coursing through history benefits the analysis significantly. There is a marked tendency, especially among writers who have spent significant parts of the last two decades writing abroad, to paint 1991 as a fault-line unlike any India has known. To them, liberalization is the pivotal cleavage, when in fact the encounter with modernity—“liberalization", in our discourse, is a proxy for the onset of modernity—is a complex and continuous process. The outward dimensions of wealth and capitalist endeavour that have so transformed the variegated urban spaces of India are used by these writers to excavate a new definition of Indianness, or even a new definition of India. Yet any such new definition must rely on, as Marshall Berman wrote, “numerous nostalgic myths of pre-modern Paradise Lost".

Dasgupta does not fall into this trap, given that he is writing about the city most transformed by the opening of the Indian economy. As in his fiction, he collapses boundaries of time and space with aplomb, finding continuity in the modalities of today with the grievances, understandings and myths of the past.

Take, for instance, the prevailing truism regarding one of the things Dasgupta is most anxious to investigate: the rough-edged Delhi male, always on the verge of violence, with little regard for social structures like community or law, fiercely protective of his property, in which category he includes the women in his life.

Conventional “outsider" wisdom assigns such attitudes to the ubiquity of Punjabis in the city, ignoring that this same people’s culture, when imagined away from its expression in Delhi and a couple of other urban centres, is widely admired for its poetry, its syncretism, its generosity and its devotion to peace.

In one of the most illuminating sections of the book, Dasgupta uses another truism—that the Partition refugees who populate the city have shaped indelibly the current culture—but only as a starting point, talking to people of various classes and communities, about the past and the present, to fashion his own understanding.

This is a curious book: The “portrait" in the subtitle is most likely a carefully chosen descriptor. At times Dasgupta makes the kind of assertion you could only call a broad brushstroke. At others the sable brush is out, and intimate and lengthy interviews are used to support a nuanced point. Throughout the book, Dasgupta is keen to give voice to as many citizens of Delhi as he can. For the most part, this works very well, because he takes pains to gather perspectives and experiences from across the social spectrum, from rich divorcees to those whose homes were razed during the Commonwealth Games constructions, to metal traders in Sadar Bazar. This grants a pretty compelling insight into the varied business of survival in the cruel capital.

But this has an unintended effect. Even as he tells us about venal business practices, family breakdowns, religious violence, corporatized exploitation, sons who brandish their fathers’ names like weapons at parties, he shrouds Delhi’s most successful—which perhaps corresponds directly with its most corrupt—in the very secrecy that has allowed them to thrive generation after generation. Just as we don’t know the name of the hospital that caused so much grief, we don’t know the identity of the wife-beating mother-son duo, or the victim of the 1984 violence against Sikhs. It is a curious effect, tarnishing and absolving both city and its denizens at the same time.

While this book has been characterized as the story of Delhi’s rich, it is not quite that. It is about the city’s management of the unique maelstrom capitalism creates. In much of the book, the rich are present only in effect. You hear, from another’s account, how the elite exercise their control over the various cities, sub-cities and secluded universes that comprise the capital of India. Yet it is also an oddly affectionate account of a city that provides various forms and avenues of nourishment for its people. It is this ability to nourish that has for a thousand years granted my home its fractured charm. And it doesn’t give a damn what you think.

Prayaag Akbar is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian.