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How the Filthy Rich Live in Rising Asia

Capital: The Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta (Penguin)

The novelist and critic U. R. Ananthamurthy once said that India lives simultaneously in the twelfth and twenty-first centuries. He might have added: and all the centuries in between. No city better exemplifies Ananthamurthy’s maxim than the country’s capital, Delhi. The three port cities of Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai were given shape by the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whereas Delhi, which lies deep in the interior, has been a center of political and economic power for close to a thousand years. And perhaps even longer: some of the action of the epic Mahabharata is said to have taken place close to what is now Delhi.

Judged by this deep history, my own acquaintance with Delhi is insubstantial; but by the standards of an individual’s life span, it is slightly more than modest. I was born and raised in Dehradun, a sub-Himalayan town five hours drive north of the capital. I visited Delhi often as a boy. In 1974, I moved there to go to university. My years as a student coincided with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency—whose atmosphere of fear and intimidation I recall vividly—and the victory of the first non-Congress government in independent India. I returned to Delhi in 1989 to work as a scholar, and I was witness to the alarming rise of religious conflict in and around the capital, and the state’s loosening of its formerly tight rein on the economy. Later I moved to Bangalore, but I still visit the capital four or five times a year. It is hard to resist the city’s fabulously beautiful monuments and its Indian classical music scene—but it repels me with the cold, hard individualism of its inhabitants, who seem much more within and unto themselves than the warm-hearted hillmen of my own hometown, or the garrulous Bengalis of Kolkata, a city in which I have also spent long periods.

The history and heritage of Delhi are encoded in, among other things, its road signs. This must be the only city in the world to have them in four languages—English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu—each with its own script. These different languages denote differences of religion, ethnicity, and class. English stands for the Christian conquerors who moved here from Kolkata in 1912 and built a grand edifice of buildings and bungalows, the so-called “Lutyens’ Delhi.” The Hindi stands in part for the nationalist elite, who moved into the white man’s offices and homes after Independence, and in part for the ordinary (and usually Hindu) speaker of what is North India’s, and now Delhi’s, most commonly spoken language. Urdu denotes the pre-colonial past, when Muslim rulers professed to speak Persian but their subjects elaborated a vernacular hybrid known for its subtle humor and its lyrical poetry. Punjabi (written in the Gurmukhi script) is the language of the Sikhs, who have had a long presence in Delhi, as workers, traders, rebels, and refugees.

The Mughal city of Delhi was built alongside the west bank of the River Yamuna. The British city lies immediately to its south. Over the years, however, Delhi has grown massively in size. Farmland to the east of the river gave way to rows upon rows of apartment buildings. The city has also steadily expanded toward the south and west, where ancient villages now lie surrounded sometimes by shining corporate offices and malls, sometimes by automobile factories and shanty towns. At Independence in 1947, the three major Indian cities were Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. Now Delhi has overtaken them all. A United Nations report on urbanization, released this past July, estimates that the greater metropolitan area contains some 25 million people. Only Tokyo among the world’s cities has more.

Delhi is a center of culture and language, but also of wealth and power. Rana Dasgupta’s new book is decidedly oriented toward the latter. Sikhs figure in passing (as in the pogrom against them in 1984), the decline of Urdu is commented on, and the architectural conceits of the Mughals and the British do not pass unnoticed. Yet the focus of Capital is clearly captured in its punning title: this is the political capital of India, but also the place where much economic capital is gathered and spent. The Delhi of this book is seen and described as a hub of intrigue and influence, and, even more so, of money and things.

Dasgupta was born and raised outside India. His mother was British, his father a Bengali. In December 2000, he moved to Delhi. He arrived at a time of churning, as a previously closed and inward-looking society was opening out to the world. The principal vector of this change was economic. As tariff barriers were dismantled, as the state loosened its stranglehold on production and distribution, there emerged many new ways to make money and to spend it.

Dasgupta came to India in his late twenties. He wished to become a writer, and began by publishing two works of fiction. But increasingly the lifestyle and the mentalities of his new neighbors engaged him. This book, whose core consists of extended interviews with Delhi’s rich, is the result. Dasgupta’s subjects come from a variety of backgrounds: investing in, and reaping large profits from, such sectors as automobile parts, business process outsourcing, real estate, corporatized hospitals, and metal trading.

There is a view, an increasingly common view, that capitalism is a superior economic system because it values talent and skill. But the people interviewed by Dasgupta acquired their money “by a combination of elements—luck and connections, brute force and cunning—that had nothing individual at all. Anyone else could have done the same thing.” In some parts of India—such as Bangalore and Chennai—there may indeed be a more creative side to capitalism, with wealth being generated through individual enterprise and technical innovation. But in Delhi the capitalism is decidedly of the cronyist variety. The entrepreneurs with whom Dasgupta conversed work in sectors where access to state power is crucial. Contacts are assiduously cultivated with officials and politicians who have the ability to fix or get around laws and regulations.

The most profitable resource, of course, is land. Under an archaic colonial law, the state has the power to acquire land from a particular group of individuals and transfer it to another. Technically, the acquisition has to be done for a “public purpose.” But the law also allows the re-classification of land once acquired. So a plot taken over for a school or a temple may be re-designated as suitable for commerce and business, with the entrepreneurs and the officials sharing the profits from the uses to which it can now be put.

Some commentators have compared India to the United States, in that both are large, ecologically diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious democracies. This may have been somewhat true in the twentieth century, but Dasgupta persuasively argues that the India now emerging may perhaps have more similarities to Russia. Both countries have moved from a state-centered economy to a system that claims to be “free-market” but is in fact based on close connections between individual entrepreneurs and individual politicians. Post-Soviet Russia and contemporary India, he rightly observes, have both witnessed “the emergence of a class of oligarchs who used the political system to take control of their countries’ essential resources.”

The shadow of Marx hangs over this book, with Dasgupta using his profiles to reflect more broadly on the beauty and savagery of capitalism, its zest and drive, its haste and amorality. But where Marx marveled at the technological and architectural creations of his nineteenth-century capitalists, their twenty-first-century counterparts in Dasgupta’s account do not, in aesthetic terms, come up to scratch. The book starts with an arresting description of a Delhi “farmhouse” whose tacky, overdone interior is described with a novelist’s eye: “Velvet lampshades in high-frequency colours hang from the high ceiling. Designer couches are clustered here and there around crystal tables. On the walls hang enormous canvasses painted with the kind of energetic soft porn you see on posters from DJ dance nights.”

Dasgupta’s descriptions are laced with sarcasm. Thus, unlike the rich in downtown Mumbai or New York, who live amid the bustle and clamor of city streets, the Delhi rich “like to wake up looking at empty, manicured lawns stretching away to walls topped with barbed wire.” He writes witheringly of the vulgarity of their homes, cars, and clothes, their mindless craving for all things foreign. A fashion designer told him: “Ask a woman in Delhi why she carries a Louis Vuitton bag, and she’ll tell you that’s the bag you’re supposed to carry. Ask a woman in Japan, and she’ll tell you the whole history of Louis Vuitton.” (The designer himself, although he made his name and career in Delhi, now spends most of his time in Paris.)

The global city is ugly in more than aesthetic terms. One consequence of economic liberalization is that more women can now leave their homes and get to work. Some can even start their own businesses. This has provoked a patriarchal backlash, manifest in spectacular incidents of rape, and in a more everyday fashion in sneers and taunts in buses and trains, and unsolicited advances in bars and offices. Contemporary Delhi has become the epicenter of “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 Dasgupta notes: “[V]iolence against women in the changing world of post-liberalization India came not just from a minority of uncultured misfits. It came from the mainstream, and from every social class.”

One reason that there is so much violence and crime is the incompetence of the Indian police. Underpaid, poorly trained, overworked, and invariably overweight, when a conflict breaks out the police tend to side with owners against workers, with realtors against slum dwellers, and—not least—with men against women. On more peaceful days, the police look for ways to make some cash. One night Dasgupta offers an apparently lost woman a lift. Two constables leap out from the shadows and take him to the police station. Knowing the reputation of the building and its inhabitants, he should have been scared and confused. (I know I would have been.) Instead the writer is

actually a bit fascinated by this place, which is the most dilapidated seat of state power imaginable. Wires spill out of empty light sockets. There is a cardboard ceiling, in which holes have been rudely cut for the spinning fans to protrude. The walls are covered in phone numbers written at screwy angles and, behind every chair, dirty brown clouds where heads have leant. Someone has put up a sticker above a desk saying “Sexi Hot Boy.” In a corner of a room is a shrine with statues of various gods.

Capital is principally a book about the wealthy and the well-connected of Delhi. Yet there are some telling pages on the Anglophone middle class, and on the generational changes within it. The parents preferred the security of government jobs and arranged marriages. Their children embrace private-sector employment, since the “corporation often seemed to be life-giving in a way that the family was not, and many of them turned to it for entirely non-professional needs, including, simply, a place to be away from the family home.”

Capital also contains vivid descriptions of the uncertain lives of Delhi’s poor, who construct, spontaneously, a slum on a patch of open space, then have to vacate it as the land attracts the attention of developers and mall owners. This shifting and insecure population provides the maids, cooks, chauffeurs, and gardeners who work to sustain the lifestyles of the rich. Reading Dasgupta on Delhi’s urban underclass recalled for me what Eduardo Galeano once wrote of their Latin American counterparts, who likewise “sell newspapers they will never read, sew clothes they cannot wear, polish cars they will never own and construct buildings where they will never live.”

Avarice and inequality breed anger. And so Delhi has the most intense road rage of any city I have known. Dasgupta captures the impatience of car owners brilliantly:

Waiting at a traffic light is not empty time. On the contrary. It is in this ceasefire that the anxiety of the battlefield suddenly erupts. Drivers are racked with apprehension. They light cigarettes, curse, tap the steering wheel, honk impotently. The wait is intense and unbearable.

Finally, the lights turn to green. And, at that point, the engines of the cars out front—rearing, straining, irrepressible—stall.

A furious wall of horns starts up behind them—the light is green, the promise made to us is denied, it is too awful, we always knew the world would turn out to be a swindle … —until the dead engines are cranked into life once more, and the swarm moves off. 

For the rich, the roads of Delhi are a theater for, on the one hand, their impatience, and, on the other hand, their Lamborghinis and Ferraris. For the poor, the city’s roads serve sometimes as their bedrooms and living rooms, their storage cupboards and basements. Driving home one evening, Dasgupta noticed “people climbing up to retrieve sacks of beddings from the roofs where they threw them in the morning. There is hardly a tree crook, hardly a concrete niche that is not stuffed with the clothes and plastic bottles of Delhi’s street dwellers. Cloth bags hang from every protrusion on every wall. Tarpaulin and bamboo poles saved from dismantled lean-tos are lashed into the tops of trees, ready for another building.”

Dasgupta’s narrative advances in three different registers. There are the excerpts from interviews with businessmen and fixers, these revealing as well as chilling. There are the author’s own interpretations and glosses, where the analysis is often original and the writing always outstanding. And there are the bland historical summaries of how the city was conceived by the Mughals and by the British, and how it was shaped—and mis-shaped—by the policies of India’s two longest serving prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Dasgupta’s understanding of modern Indian history is, alas, shaky. He several times credits Manmohan Singh with sole authorship of the economic reforms of 1991, without mentioning their real architect, P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was prime minister at the time. He assumes that the now-sharp divide between Hindi and Urdu (once cognate languages) began with the Indian Constitution of 1950, whereas in fact the separation had been steadily fueled since the late nineteenth century onward. He writes acutely, and accurately, of the brash, bullying style of Punjabi entrepreneurs, but then claims that “the nativist movements of the west and south [of India] were specifically designed to protect local economies from the onslaught of businessmen from the north.” As it happens, the “nativist” movements of the south were opposed to the imposition of Hindi as the sole national language, whereas those of the west (as in the notorious Shiv Sena of Mumbai) were aimed at clerks from South India and laborers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In neither case were Punjabi businessmen the target.

Dasgupta is unreliable even on matters of literary history. He writes that after Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997, “suddenly it seemed that all over this unliterary city young people were writing books and movies.” This cultural efflorescence, he suggests, is one of the few positive effects of globalization. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, that is to say, in enclosed, self-reliant, sturdily socialist India, Delhi was home to—and provided the inspiration for—superbly gifted writers. They included Khushwant Singh, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, all prolific and widely published in the West. There was also an active literary culture in the other languages of the city—Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. Earlier, in the 1940s, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press had published Ahmed Ali’s wonderful novel Twilight in Delhi. This was never an unliterary city.

The historical excursions in Capital are unconvincing. The author perhaps thought them necessary to provide a more rounded portrait of the city, but the real heart of the book lies in the stories of twenty-first-century Delhi, the Delhi in which Dasgupta lives and whose changing character he writes about with a sharp intelligence and in marvelously evocative prose.

The dominant themes in Capital are greed, corruption, hubris, and violence. Delhi is a harsh place. Yet Dasgupta sees hope in the moralizing vision of social activists. He writes with admiration of a highly educated woman who, instead of parlaying her degrees and social connections into a sinecure in the corporate sector, works with slum dwellers to get them access to cooking fuel and voter cards, spending her days pleading with and occasionally hectoring unfeeling state officials. In such encounters Dasgupta sees another side of Delhi: “the desire to live in a more tender society; the desire for a loftier idea of human relations, for something other, indeed, than self-interest; the desire for a respite from the world’s most conspicuous cruelty.” 

Dasgupta generously allows that even the wealthiest and most powerful—or the most arrogant and unfeeling—of the city’s residents have a core of humanity always present in them. He is struck by

how many women from the richest families, women who treated their inferiors with deliberate fear and contempt, devoted their spare time to caring for stray dogs; taking out food and blankets for them, taking them to the vet when they were injured, taking them into their homes when they were sick. You couldn’t help feeling, watching such women, that human beings were endowed with a specific quantum of sympathy, and if its expression were entirely blocked in one direction, it had to emerge from another. 

He ends his book with an account of walks that he took with a pioneering environmental historian who explained to him the functional beauties of Delhi’s pre- modern water system. This was based on conservation and democratic use, with the retention of rainwater through an intricate network of tanks and canals. Before the British came, the life of the town was centered around the river Yamuna, with festivals and water games. The modern city has turned its back on the river, treating it only as a sink for its wastes. Meanwhile it has built over the tanks that earlier (and wiser) citizens had constructed. To meet their ever-growing needs, Delhi’s residents forage deep under the ground, and as the aquifers dry up, they go farther and farther into the interior in search of water. 

For pragmatic and aesthetic reasons, pre-modern Indian cities were usually sited along rivers. But the Yamuna River that flows past Delhi is now biologically and spiritually dead. Dasgupta’s guide tells him that “the Seine can never be ruined as the Yamuna has been, because the whole of Paris is built for people to look at.” Then he adds: “If our Prime Minister had to immerse himself in the Yamuna every year, it would be a lot cleaner than it is now.” The walk with the environmentalist takes him beyond the city’s northernmost extremities. There they find “the Yamuna: blue, tranquil, magnificent,” not “the black, sludgy channel we have been following all day.” This is “the primordial river, clear and fecund,” the river as it once was and—were Delhi’s rulers and citizens to listen to the warnings of history and nature—may be again.