Wealth and Power in Modern India, New Republic
 

Book Review of “Capital: The Eruption of Delhi”, Rana Dasgupta, Penguin Press.

I

The novelist and critic U. R. Ananthamurthy once said that India lives simultaneously in the twelfth and the 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 18th and 19th centuries. On the other hand, Delhi, which lies deep in the interior, has been a centre of political and economic power for close to a thousand years. And perhaps even longer: for some of the action of the epic Mahabharatha is said to have taken close to what is now Delhi.

Judged by this deep history my acquaintance with Delhi is insubstantial; by the standards of an individual’s life span, 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, this time as a working academic. Now, 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. In 1994, I shifted to Bangalore, but still visit my nation’s capital four or five times a year.

At an everyday level, Delhi appeals to me because of its fabulously beautiful monuments, and the active (Indian) classical music scene. And it repels me because of the cold, hard, individualism of its inhabitants, who seem much more within and unto themselves than the warm-hearted hillmen of my own home town, or the garrulous Bengalis of Kolkata, a city I have also spent long periods in.

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 their own script besides.

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 ‘Lutyen’s 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 the (Muslim) rulers professed to speak Persian, but whose subjects elaborated a vernacular hybrid (Urdu) known for its subtle humour 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.

Delhi is a centre of culture and language, but also of wealth and power. Rana Dasgupta’s new book is decidedly oriented towards the latter dyad. Sikhs figure in passing (as in the pogrom against them in 1984), the decline of Urdu is commented on, 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. Delhi is here seen and described as a centre of intrigue and influence, and, even more so, of money and commodities.

Dasgupta was born and raised outside India. His mother was British, his father, Bengali. In December 2000, he moved to Delhi for personal reasons. 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 relocated to India when he was in his late twenties. He wished to become a writer, and began by publishing two works of fiction. But increasingly the lifestyle and mentalities of his new neighbours engaged him. Thus this book, whose core consists of extended interviews with Delhi’s rich. Dasgupta’s interviewees come from a variety of backgrounds: investing in, and reaping large profits from, such sectors as automobile parts, business process outsourcing, real estate, corporatised 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. However, 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—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 whom Dasgupta conversed with 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 is, of course, land. Under an archaic colonial law, the state has the powers 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 temple is re-designated as suitable for commerce and business, with the entrepreneur and the officials sharing the profits from the uses to which it can now be put.

Some commentators (myself included) have previously compared India to the United States. Both are large, ecologically diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious democracies. This may have been somewhat true in the 20th century. But, as Dasgupta persuasively argues, the India now emerging may perhaps have more similarities to Russia. Both countries have moved from an state-centered economy to a system that claims to be ‘free-market’, but in fact is based on close connections between individual entrepreneurs and individual politicians. Post-Soviet Russia, and contemporary India, 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 Karl Marx hangs over this book, with Dasgupta using his profiles to meditate more broadly on the beauty and savagery of capitalism, its zest and drive, its haste and amorality. But where Marx marvelled at the technological and architectural creations of his 19th century capitalists, their 21st century counterparts whom Dasgupta writes about do not, in aesthetic terms, come up to scratch. The book starts with an arresting description of a Delhi ‘farmhouse’, whose over-done 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 amidst the bustle and clamour 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 bus and trains, and unsolicited advances in bars and offices.

21st century Delhi has become the epicentre 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, ‘violence against women in the changing world of post-liberalisation India came not just from a minority of uncultured misfits. It came from the mainstream, and from every social class’.

One reason 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 capitalists 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.) 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’.

II

Capital is principally a book about the wealthy and well-connected of Delhi. There are however some telling pages on the Anglophone middle class, and the generational changes within. 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 cannot 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 up 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 theatre for, on the one hand, their impatience, and, on the other hand, their newly acquired 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’.

III

The narrative of Capital works in three different registers. There are the excerpts from interviews of 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 finally, 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 shaky. He several times credits Manmohan Singh with sole authorship of the economic reforms of 1991, without mentioning their real architect, the Prime Minister at the time, P. V. Narasimha Rao. 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 fuelled from the late 19th century onwards. He writes acutely, and accurately, of the brash, bullying style of Punjabi entrepreneurs, then claims that ‘the nativist movements of the west and south 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 against 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 labourers 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—some superbly gifted writers. They included Khushwant Singh, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Anita Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, 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.

IV

The historical excursions in Capital are unconvincing. The author or publisher perhaps thought them necessary to provide a more rounded portrait of the city. The real heart of the book lies in the stories of 21st century Delhi, the Delhi in which Dasgupta lives and whose changing character he writes about with a sharp intelligence and in such marvellously evocative prose.

The dominant themes in Capital are greed, corruption, hubris, and violence. Yet, Dasgupta sees hope in the moralizing vision of social activists. He writes with admiration of a highly educated woman who, instead of parleying her degrees and social connections to join the corporate sector, works with slum dwellers to get them access to cooking fuel and voter cards, spending her days pleading 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’. He 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’.

Capital ends with walks the author took with an pioneering environmental historian, who explained to him the functional beauties of Delhi’s premodern 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 build 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 aquifers dry up, go further and further into the interior in search of water.

For pragmatic and aesthetic reasons, premodern Indian cities were usually sited along rivers. However, the Yamuna which 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 them 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.

WEALTH AND POWER IN MODERN INDIA
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in the New Republic, October 2014)

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