How to conquer Delhi and other tales

Those in power in any city weave stories. Those that grab power are the ones who disregard these tales

Those who live in New Delhi may be utterly oblivious to it. But to somebody who comes into the city from the outside, and even if the streets be familiar to their eyes, there is something about this city that is intended to exude power. It attracts power. It is built to include the powerful and exclude the powerless. 

The architecture of this place and the demeanour of those who walk with authority here is such that it is designed to awe challengers, both from within and outside, into submission—unless you are part of a well-lubricated “system" that has its own machinations. Pretty much every road has a tale to tell. Each brick on every monument seems to hold secrets. And everybody you meet here is “someone" or knows “somebody". 

Outsiders like me from Mumbai are often told Delhi is as Machiavellian a place as it can get—and that the only way to live and thrive here is either on the back of deception or brute force. Was it by design? Was it an accident? What is it about this city that attracts power and the powerful? As tales go, how much more fantastical can it get? 

But when you think about it for a moment, stories exist around each city. Why, for instance, is Mumbai the financial capital of the country? I am most amused when newbies to the city are introduced to the so-called “entrepreneurial" culture that seeps through its pores. 

But, as stories go, apparently, every tenant in Asia’s largest ghetto that is Dharavi is an entrepreneur or a gangster. And those who luck out get to become Amitabh Bachchan. What a slick story to tell white people clicking pictures on a tour of the third world. 

A three-hour drive away from Mumbai is Pune. It is apparently the cultural and academic capital of the state. People there apparently appreciate the arts, pore over history and expend enormous amounts of time in the academia. 

Then there is Bengaluru. By all accounts, every creature who inhabits this part of the world either lives in a garage and is at work on a start-up in the mould of Silicon Valley or is a software billionaire. And so on and so forth. 

These were among a bunch of questions playing on my mind as my flight touched down on the tarmac in New Delhi, a city I am familiar with but, like all “Bombay Boys" are, am wary of. Once here, as I weaved my way with my colleague to a lovely colonial place in the heart of the city where I intend to stay put for a few days, there is nothing anybody can say or argue that will change my mind that there is no place better built to be the capital of India than this one. Like I said earlier, it is designed to shock and awe outsiders into submission. 

This raises a question. What is it about a city that gives birth to stories around it? 

It was inevitable then that the mind turn to that staggering work of intellectual ferocity which is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, an Israeli historian. It is a tour de force first published in 2014. He is the kind of man who can wander the lanes and bylanes of themes as diverse as history, philosophy, politics, biology and deploy all of it to understand the nature of contemporary discourse and attempt to look at the future. 

Harari proposes an interesting hypothesis that is the subject of much debate and scrutiny. By all accounts, humans are among the weakest of all species. By any which yardstick, it was only on the back of a genetic mutation that we may have come to dominate the planet. The most dominant theory is that it is our ability to converse and deploy language to communicate. 

Harari’s research into diverse themes though show that this isn’t true. Language, he argues, is an ability various creatures possess. These include green monkeys, eagles, whales, elephants and, for that matter, even Einstein. Literally put, what is it Einstein can phonetically convey that a parrot cannot? 

Having said that, he proposes while language is a given, what humans have is an ability other creatures do not possess. The ability to gossip. “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping... It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat." 

“The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex combinations)." 

Rigorous field and clinical trials by zoologists back his thesis as well. It suggests many species of animals that can deploy language and use it well. But because the complexities are such, beyond the number explained above, they will not buy into what is fiction or fantastical. These animals, as we humans condescendingly describe them, are therefore condemned to the forests they originally inhabited or zoos so that humans may gawk at them. 

In the historical scheme of things, Harari proposes that humans figured they are the weakest, and if they have to grow, they must cooperate with each other. And how can that be done? You take someone’s “word" for it. 

This “someone" is the one who possesses the ability to convey the “word" or the “message" in the most forceful manner. This is the master storyteller, or the best gossip monger. By way of analogy and to put things into perspective, he argues “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven." 

But any individual who belongs to the species called Homo sapiens can do just that. So far, so good. 

Before diving any deeper into the hypothesis though, consider the import of the word “cooperate". Put simply, the word of the anointed leader is the truth and nothing but the truth. 

Extrapolate this leader’s words into a tribe of say a few million people. And a few million people can constitute a nation; in India’s case, there are over a billion. What is a nation? How do you wield control over a nation? In a brief talk that does not do justice to his book, Harari offers a peek into what lies behind his hypothesis: 

“...in the religious field, humans cooperate by believing in the same fictions. Millions of people come together to build a cathedral or a mosque or fight in a crusade or a jihad, because they all believe in the same stories about God and heaven and hell. But what I want to emphasize is that exactly the same mechanism underlies all other forms of mass-scale human cooperation, not only in the religious field. 

“Take, for example, the legal field. Most legal systems today in the world are based on a belief in human rights. But what are human rights? Human rights, just like god and heaven, are just a story that we've invented. They are not an objective reality; they are not some biological effect about Homo sapiens. 

“Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won't find any rights. The only place you find rights are in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they're still just fictional stories that we've invented. 

“The same is true of the political field. The most important factors in modern politics are states and nations. But what are states and nations? They are not an objective reality. A mountain is an objective reality. You can see it, you can touch it, you can even smell it. But a nation or a state, like Israel or Iran or France or Germany, this is just a story that we've invented and became extremely attached to." 

And that brings me back to Delhi and the power this city ostensibly exudes. It is just a fable. There is nothing extraordinary here. Once you’ve gotten past the shock and the awe, the only reason this city exists as the capital is because it is home to the best gossip mongers in India. 

The architecture and the demeanour with which Delhi’s elite carry themselves lend the gossip credence. But to sift through who is what, you’ve got to navigate the hierarchy embedded in the system. 

1. People who really matter 

The crème-de-la-crème of the civil services, these are the ones who take complex decisions. They comprise barely 5% of the population and work maniacal hours. Getting across to them is difficult, they are rarely in the public eye, they know the country and its people, are supremely intelligent creatures that have to walk a thin line that does not upset the political interests of the ruling dispensation or the long-term interests of the country, even as they ignore noises from the vocal few who scream on primetime television every evening, pontificate about policy in 140 characters on Twitter every minute and light candles for all that has gone wrong. If it weren’t for them, 1.3 billion people would come to a standstill. 

2. People who matter 

These comprise the ruling dispensation. They are the face and are more amenable to conversing. The trouble is, their narrative is dictated by the ideologies they represent and may not necessarily be the entire truth. These comprise another 5%. But make no mistakes. These are supremely intelligent creatures, know and understand not just Delhi, but every inch of the country, what to mouth and when, but above all else, they understand the psyche of people. 

3. People who used to matter 

Very interesting bunch these. Once upon a time, these were the people who used to be among the “People who really matter". They have a deep understanding of history and the nuances of why the nature of the current discourse is the way it is. Roughly, these may be about 10% of the influential. Engaging with them is not easy for various reasons. 

They have stories to tell of where the minefields are, whom to engage with and whom to avoid. But you and I don’t matter to them. Experience has taught them that those who get to their living rooms in their retirement years are there for selfish reasons—usually lobbyists seeking to curry favours from the existing dispensation or the nosey ones like me seeking background notes. But in their heads, they know the “real India" does not have access to their living rooms. 

Instead the “real India" lives in places where the issues are different—like getting access to maybe two square meals a day and water. Their minds are still ticking away at that and how they may be of assistance to their contemporaries. 

But that said, there is no taking away from that they understand the complexities of governance. They have complete faith in the contemporaries at work now and will go out of their way to assist them. To earn their trust takes time and convincing. It is worth knocking at their doors and cultivating their faith. 

4. People who don’t matter 

80% of Delhi’s so-called elite comprise this bunch. They can be found all over. They wear swanky clothes, can be seen at various clubs and like the good life. They are on call for the lazy journalist when a “quote" is called for or an angry television anchor may need somebody to yell at. They populate think tanks of all kinds and can talk glib about pretty much everything under the sun on what the prime minister ought to do. They visit exotic countries as part of the Indian delegation, inevitably on “paid study tours" by embassies of various countries or the think tanks they represent, and are usually good for nothing. 

Politely put, all flatulence and no substance. Best avoided because they drink expensive scotch, insist you pay the bill and provide no quality gossip. Best watched for free on television with angry anchors egging them on. 

Those who come to take the citadels of the narrative in Delhi are the ones who seem to have figured out how to navigate this system. These fall in Category II. People who matter, aka politicians.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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