Drawing on over a year of interviews, Rana Dasgupta has painted a comprehensive portrait of 21st-century Delhi, a dusty city in the arid north Indian plains, capital of the world’s largest democracy and, as the centre of Indian business and politics, nexus for an increasing flow of global capital. The successful author of the linked short-story collection Tokyo Cancelled and the novel Solo, Dasgupta’s first work of non-fiction is not only a writerly portrait of an urban entity, but an example of how writers choose to navigate the line between sociology, journalism, ethnography and story in creating a portrait of a place. Think Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Peter Ackroyd’s London and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
A resident of Delhi for 14 years, and the son of a Bengali father and British mother, Dasgupta brings the valuable perspective of an insider-outsider to a contemporary emerging city in the first decade of the new century, a time of immense transition for India and its capital. More compelling than most portraits of place, Capital is as much a portrait of an idea – the effects of global capital on people and values – as the double-meaning of its title suggests.
Arriving in early 2000, nine years after the liberalization of the Indian economy, Dasgupta takes us on a vivid journey through a city in the throes of change, narrated through the voices of its disparate residents and interspersed with the reflections of the author.
Built on the banks of the Yamuna river, Delhi was once home to the Mughals and became the seat of British power when the Empire transferred the government from Calcutta in 1911, and then the capital of an independent India in 1947. A broad expanse of 17 million residents, the city is deftly viewed from Dasgupta’s car and through quiet conversations in living rooms, mall food courts and hotel lobbies with billionaire businessmen, housewives, artists and residents of the city’s slums.
Through these varied conversations, an image begins to emerge. An image of a place experiencing increasingly extreme wealth inequality, where a very small percentage have access to vast amounts of capital. As its residents navigate the resulting new social norms, an increasingly visible and violent anger is manifest.
One of the key arenas where the tension between values and money plays out is in gender relations and violence against women. Dasgupta is astute in his descriptions of the effects of the loss of male status, including a revealing interview with Sukhvinder, an upper-middle class divorcee, the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband (a much needed testimony to debunk the myth that violence against women in Delhi – known as the rape capital of India, especially so in the past five years – is largely the result of the frustrations of lower-class migrants to city). “One was put in mind less of sex than of retribution, extermination and war. And that was just the point. What was going on in Delhi was precisely that: 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.”
The new-found flow of capital also finds a fraught outlet in health care, and the rise of corporate hospitals where doctors are often pressured to make revenue targets by selling procedures without diagnosis – a dark and unsettling world where revenue maximization trumps medical judgment and ethics. Or in the slums of Bhalswa, where Dasgupta speaks with residents who provide the labour force for the city, feeding the unequal flow of capital into the hands of the city’s elite: “In many respects the poor who laboured here were not just ‘India’s’ poor. They belonged to the world. By the early twenty-first century, in fact, it could be said that much of the global economy was running off the desperation of the Asian countryside.”
Like all good portraits, the writing is fluid and expansive, with a novelist’s insight. There is much value to be found in Dasgupta’s Delhi, but at times the balance between intimate and insightful conversations with Delhiites and analysis feels a bit off, and consecutive interviews trump the author’s own voice at the risk of becoming a sociological survey. These passages read more like transcript, as in the health-care chapter where a conversation with three individuals in the canteen of a corporate hospital runs upward of 10 pages, and could have benefited from more synthesis with Dasgupta’s thoughts.
Of these interviews, one of the most interesting is with Mickey Chopra, a 28-year-old billionaire whose family at one point controlled 19 percent of Indian liquor retail. A member of the city’s new super elite, complete with bodyguards and SUVs, he’s representative of that perfect political-commercial nexus and the concentration of capital amongst the very few. It’s a Delhi I’ve seen, and one I grew up with, but one that hasn’t often been parsed out so clearly in print. “The emerging class’s embrace of naked money, as a principle and as a style, equipped it very well for success, not only in the new India, but in the rest of the world too, which broadly was following suit.”
Despite the occasional transcript-like passage, the strength of Dasgupta’s portrait of Delhi, and the new India, is precisely in his linking it to global capitalism. Certain critics suggested Capital was a portrait of Asian capitalism gone astray, a catastrophe narrative. But Dasgupta is level and clear in illustrating that the interpretation of capitalism is different in different countries, and his portrait of Delhi is not scenes of a primitive capitalism struggling to catch up with the west. “We had always imagined that Russia was global capitalism’s primitive past. Perhaps it was its future.” So too India?