Capital: Marking the Marks of Woe in Delhi

Dr Shamsad Mortuza 27 February,2016
Dr Shamsad Mortuza

The title of Rana Dasgupta’s book is deceptively simple, yet remarkably appropriate. Ostensibly, it is a book about the ‘Capital’ of India, Delhi. Then again, it is a critique of political economy of India; it is Dasgupta’s Das Kapital. Rana Daskapital, the joke went at the Hay! Ever since India chose to embrace the principles of free enterprise and open markets in 1991, Rana Dasgupta observes, the social fabric of Delhi has begun to come apart. Delhi — developed under the fond eyes of the Mughals and made a capital again by the British at the expense of Calcutta-Kolkata — stood the test of time. It remained a witness both to prosperity and to violence. The seeming harmony in which the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have learned to live together after the Partition in 1947 is based on hushed-up narratives of violence. Now, Dasgupta feels, the liberalisation of economy has unleashed forces that are affecting the very basic human foundations of Delhi. He notices a mutant version of anger and avarice in the metamorphosis of the capital. Based on which, Dasgupta proffers a second thesis: The aggressive pursuit of wealth by the immigrants contributed further to the deterioration of various social norms in Delhi. No wonder, the subtitle of the book is “A portrait of twenty-first century India.” These theses, albeit interesting, demand serious critical engagement. It is over-simplistic and does not really take into consideration the multiple layering of the issues into account. Not everyone in Delhi can be driven by greed, for example. Dasgupta’s method of writing is part journalistic, part ethnographic. He interviews billionaires and bureaucrats, drug dealers and metal traders, slum dwellers and psychoanalysts to forge his narrative about capitalist transformation of Delhi. This method of writing falls under the category of auto-ethnography. Carolyn Ellis defined auto-ethnography as “research, writing, story, and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, and political.” The literary portrait of Delhi is thus theoretically informed and objectively researched. Having lived in different cities, Dasgupta returned to Delhi at the end of 2000, to finish his novel that he could not write while working as a corporate consultant in New York. He grew up in England, where his parents had the difficult experience that is common to the migrants of their generation. Dasgupta came to Delhi “with one suitcase and a box of notes and articles” (36) to be with the woman he loved, hoping that he would be able to convince her to bring her back to “sparkling Manhattan.” He returned to “the beautiful city” in which his father would “borrow a bike and ride ...on those enormous, empty roads” (31); a city to which his father never could return, giving his a sense of incompleteness. His plan for a short creative outing lasted way longer than he expected. In these years, he has experienced “an all-consuming plunge” (36) in a city that he both loves and hates. Dasgupta found Delhi going through an interesting phase that can be identified as a “vortex of prophecy and possibility.” He was sucked in by “the churns of the age,” by the charms of witnessing “the turbulent preparation” of the city for becoming a megacity. His experience of living in the West made him realise that the economic boom was but a phase that each megacity goes through in its developmental matrix. The future that he foresees contradicts the development myth that Delhi exudes. Dasgupta’s first novel, Tokyo Cancelled (Harper Collins, 2005) explored the impact of globalisation in the manner of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His second novel Solo (2009), which earned him the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, depicts the daydream of a 100-year-old Bulgarian man. Capital started as a long essay that he was commissioned to write for Granta. He then expanded it into a survey of the nouveau riche, the money-hungry bourgeoisie. His visit to an automobile store gives him an interesting insight into the new craze for expensive cars. He wonders where these sports cars could be driven given the gridlock that plagues Delhi. The answer was baffling. The car owners, he was told by the pretty sales representative, gather at night and drive these fancy cars in the street near the PM residence. The noise is so loud that it keeps the PM awake at night. “So he calls us to complain, but obviously there’s nothing we can do,” the salesgirl tells him. “As I drive away, I cannot help thinking of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tossing and turning in bed, his snowy hair unturbaned on the pillow, his dreams interrupted by the rich boys’ Ferraris screaming up and down the roads outside. Manmohan Singh is of course the man who, long ago, as Finance Minister, opened up the economy and set the course for a new market elite.” Dasgupta is very good at detecting irony. He has a knack of expressing it in powerful language backed by his keen sense of observation. But the irony is, he is not the only one. The post-traumatic behavior responsible for the barbarism that Dasgupta notices is not unique to Delhi. As a Dhakaite, I can see glimpses of Capital in Dhaka.

The writer is a Professor of English (DU)

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