On opening Rana Dasgupta’s reflections on Delhi, I wondered which image of the capital I would find among its pages. Would it be that of resplendent Chandni Chowk, buoyed by magnificent Mughal architecture, offering up an array of unmatched cultural experiences? Would it be the city on leafy Sansad Marg, the heart of Indian government for over a century, the scene of political and bureaucratic machinations? Or would it be the Delhi of teeming Dhaula Kuan, the inevitable crossroads for thousands, and more recently witness to the suffering of a young woman that rocked the conscience of a nation?
Dasgupta’s Delhi is about none of these visions in particular and yet touches upon all of them. The “capital” of the title is undoubtedly a reference to the capital city; it also signifies the material conditions that structure life in that city. Dasgupta draws an unflinching portrait of the “new Indian middle class”, a tiny economic elite that locates itself between and apart from the miniscule “super elite” and the masses. Connections between the lived experiences of these different classes are layered: Rakesh who has lofty aspirations to grow his empire of automotive products to a personal fortune of a billion dollars; the army of servants serving him and his family who make this possible; the bureaucrats and politicians who facilitated the illegal construction of palatial “farmhouses” like the one he owns, and medieval sultans who dreamed their own dreams of glory at the very the spot where Rakesh now lives. These intertwined lives and voices, separated over space and time, are reflected in every story and on every page in the book.
This collection of anecdotes and reflections includes personal histories, memories of the partitioning of the subcontinent and reminiscences of a Delhi which buzzed with new aspirations albeit with a gentler pace of life just a decade ago. The year 2000 is the temporal anchor for the book as it is the year that the British-born author of Indian ancestry arrived in Delhi. The book not only reaches back in time but also stretches out into the future as it recounts the political, economic and social upheavals of a city in the throes of globalism. The city described in the book has given up its character for the trappings of materialism, “in which everything is old even when it is new, in which everything is always already lost to decay and obsolescence.” Islands of wealth and privilege rule every aspect of life. Capital begets capital, be it economic, political, or social. Entrepreneurs like Raman Roy and Manish Arora flourish in the opportunities that liberalisation created. Individuals like Siddhartha and Ramesh turn their elementary English education into careers in the nascent services sector. Everyone is in survival mode, whether they are driving on the road, keeping the “undesirables” out of their residential enclaves, or finding a safe place to sleep without being run over by errant drivers. For those who cannot keep up, the city turns into an unending nightmare. Challenges to cultural and social mores are reflected in violent expressions of gendered and familial relationships. And for many, the retreat of the state in favour of corporations has unpleasant consequences when least expected.
Dasgupta’s narrative style is a heady blend of historical sketches, personal reflections, and first-person accounts. The movement of the narrative across space, time, and characters locates the reader in the eye of a storm, sometimes raging, sometimes spent, all with the panoramic vision of hindsight. However, Dasgupta, himself a novelist, is particularly successful when describing moments of quiet and deep feeling, capturing the sensory experience of being in the moment with an individual or in a place of memory. These vivid portraits create a mosaic of life experienced by the new urban middle class, tempered by the realities of life for the masses on its periphery.