Book Talk: Rana Dasgupta on a ‘vastly under-imagined Delhi’

February 24, 2014

Rana Dasgupta’s first non-fiction book is an investigation into what makes Delhi a city of unequal transformation, salted with ambition, aggression and misogyny. “Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi” takes its shape from an “outsider’s” anxiety about not being able to understand a city that is primarily the by-product of refugees from India’s partition in 1947.

Dasgupta, 42, was born and raised in England, and belongs to a family of migrants whose roots are in the Lahore of British India, now Pakistan. In 2000, he flew to Delhi after quitting a marketing job in New York and fell “into one of the great churns of the age”.

The book, more than 400 pages long, documents personal lives of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, especially the “flourishing bourgeoisie” of Delhi, beginning about a decade after India liberalized its economy in 1991.

In a phone interview with India Insight, Dasgupta talked about writing about Delhi’s super rich, the “war against women” in India, the lack of successful women entrepreneurs, and a city that is “vastly underimagined”. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: The title of your book is a financial term. Would it be fair to say that your book looks at Delhi largely through the sphere of money?

A: Money is important to the people who live here. It’s important as a way of understanding what’s going on in the last 20 years. So if one doesn’t address the issue of money head-on, then there’s lots of things one misses. But it’s not only about money because I think how much people earn doesn’t tell you as much about them as we think it does. It’s also about the culture and the history into which this moment of globalization has descended.

Q: How would you compare Delhi with other major cities of the world?

A: Delhi is massively defined and structured by historical traumas, especially that of the partition which created the city in 1947. It gives Delhi a different sense from other Indian cities and from other cities around the world. It’s a place where many people drifted over the last three decades in order to move closer to politics, especially the business people who needed to be close to politics. So, for that reason it has a real flavour of political hacking and hustling, which gives it an aggressive and corrupt atmosphere that we know.

Q: The “flourishing bourgeoisie” is the subject of your book. Is it an attempt to give the rich a platform to speak about themselves?

A: No. It’s important to know who this class of people is. What is happening in emerging countries is that the people who are arriving to affluence there have a very different picture of what kind of the world they would like to live in and what they think capitalism is than people in America and Europe. The preoccupation with these people is simply because they have the new power in the world and they’re going to change the global system, and who they are and what they want is globally significant.

Q: But why write about the lives of those who may not hesitate to talk about their wealth otherwise?

A: Some people in the book are extremely wealthy. They come from business families who don’t speak publicly at all. They wished to remain very much in the background, they don’t want their money to attract attention, except among their friends, weddings…

But there’s a lot of stuff that’s still very buried in families. For instance, marital relationships are complex at this time in India’s changing society. The book documents divorces in which we see how changing ideas of money and property and men and women cause marriages to explode. These are not things you know well if you’re talking to people at parties.

Q: Women entrepreneurs are absent in your book, except one who starts her business because of family problems. Is there a dearth of stories about successful women entrepreneurs in Delhi?

A: Possibly. A book like this can’t share every kind of person. I could point out some of the absences myself. There are rather few Muslims in the book. There are no politicians in the book. I don’t think it’s necessary that the role of a book like this (is) to be representative of everything.

Women have succeeded well in the corporate world. But … many of the resources of family businesses are still controlled by men. Even though of course as the woman you’re talking about in the book…some of these families have relaxed their rules.

Q: You talk about the “war against women”. The book has been released two years after the Delhi gang rape. Yet, a woman’s voice is missing.

A: The woman (in the book) who describes domestic violence that she receives in her marriage is …quite representative of many women’s experiences of violence in the city.

One can’t have every kind of experience when you write it firsthand. What I am trying to add to current debates is also a level of analysis. We heard a lot of voices about rape … in the last two years. But I don’t think much has been said that really helps us understand what’s going on, which is why the chapters on sexual violence are really quite analytical and historical relating it to partition and also to many other aspects of the culture of this place.

Q: What made you write a book on Delhi when so much has been written on it already?

A: What I wanted to do in this book is to talk about the Delhi that I had lived in, which is the Delhi after 2000, which I think was difficult for me to understand not just because I was an outsider, but it was just difficult to understand. People who’d lived here all their lives expressed frequent bewilderment at what was going on around them. I don’t know a book that’s really tried to analyze this world more. Delhi to me felt vastly underimagined, not the opposite.

Q: The chapter on the bureaucratic couple leading an honest life is quite fascinating. Did you have a hard time finding honest civil servants?

A: It was sort of the opposite. That is to say that I found corrupt bureaucrats who didn’t want to tell me anything for obvious reasons. In fact, the people who were kind of easily available and wanted to talk about how things were in depth were people who didn’t have anything to hide. So there is a reverse selection going on in this process where people who really are part of the system were not talked to.

Q: In hindsight, is there anything that could have been part of the book? May be the changing political landscape of the city.

A: I am satisfied with its integrity. Major things happened in the city since I stopped writing it. But I don’t really feel it invalidates much. The book expresses an anxiety about values, about what kind of society we are building which in a way has become a mainstream anxiety which is expressed in the last collection. Whatever we think happened in the last few weeks. That election was an election on values and in a way the book reads an interesting prehistory to that event.

Q: Which is your favourite book on Delhi?

A: I deliberately steered clear of a lot so I didn’t want to replicate any. But I did read William Dalrymple’s book “City of Djinns” … which I thought was very nice. One of the writers who has given me powerful images of the state of the city that I never saw is Anita Desai who writes beautifully about civil lines, walled city, between the 30’s and 60’s, and filled in for me a lot of gaps of what the city might have felt like or looked like.

The book was released in India on February 7, Harper Collins.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert  at @bobbymacReports and Ankush @Ankush_patrakar| Disclaimer: This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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