Dominic Davies: Capital, A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi (Review)

Rana Dasgupta (2014), Capital, A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, 1st edition, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 512pp.

In the last few years, anglophone writing about India has turned, with astonishing frequency, to a new and highly readable genre. Acclaimed historian and writer William Dalrymple, who has written extensively on Indian history and politics, has called this “India’s new wave of non-fiction”. A wave of non-fiction indeed; it appears that the anglophone Indian novel, once so towering in its public, academic and always global prominence, apparently doesn’t cut it anymore. Casting an eye back down this genealogy, it has produced some truly worthy modern classics: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981), Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain (1978), her daughter, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), to name but a few. Many of these authors are still writing, and the argument here is certainly not to pronounce the ‘death’ of the anglophone Indian novel. Rather, it is to speculate on the recent glut of non-fictional texts, and ask why, if the fictional novel so adequately satiated the global market’s appetite for writing about India in the twentieth century, we now need a new genre?

Rana Dasgupta’s Capital, A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi (2014) answers this question. Dasgupta’s non-fictional narrative, wonderfully literary in places, shows this relatively new genre at its best. Having said this, at first glance there isn’t much to distinguish it from the—and I use that ugly word again here—‘glut’ of other recent anglophone non-fiction writing about the subcontinent. This is not to deny that many of these texts are indeed brilliant explorations of contemporary India and a delight to read. However, I am suspicious of the repetitive and formulaic marketing strategy often employed for this genre. Consider the titles of some recent examples: Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables: A History of an Enchanted City (2010); Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombays Dance Bars (2011); Pavan Varma’s Being Indian: Inside the Real India (2011); Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nations Remaking (2012); Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India (2012); Aman Sethi’s A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi (2012); or Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum (2013).

I present this long list because, by placing these titles side by side, some curious patterns come to the fore. Note how all of them are comprised of two clauses separated by a colon, as if one titular proclamation is not enough. The first clause grabs the reader’s attention, and is usually constructed around some sort of catchy allusion to the book’s area of focus. Whereas most novels would stop there, leaving something of their content to the imagination of the prospective reader, these non-fictional texts must further clarify their specific projects with a second clause. These subtitles are more problematic. Many of them are concerned with the positionality of the text, repeatedly framing it—quite literally, if we observe the recurring use of the word ‘portrait’—as looking into India from a location that is, albeit implicitly, outside of it. There is something uneasily imperial about this spatial arrangement. Non-fictional texts seem keen to yield their unique and, by the very nature of the genre, documentary-style knowledge up to an outsider looking in, exploiting a Western reader’s fascination with an exoticised subcontinent in order to shift copies off shelves. Even William Dalrymple himself is guilty of these titular ingredients: the Orientalist and imperial connotations of the title of his own non-fictional book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2006), are so overt that he could be having a joke at his Western reader’s expense.

Dasgupta, too, is guilty of this formula, cramming the word ‘portrait’ into the subtitle of his own non-fictional work. Of course, it is quite likely that for Dasgupta, as for many of these authors, this titular framing is foisted on him by his publisher. The irony is that whilst these titles suggest an steadily increasing attempt to flog ‘India’ to a foreign market, it is the subcontinent’s dramatic shift from a quasi-socialist to a fully-fledged neoliberal economy that is the subject of almost all of these non-fictional texts, Dasgupta’s included. Furthermore, and as a glance back at our list of titles demonstrates, almost all of these books are concerned with the rise of India’s cities. Mumbai and Delhi, especially, have become the geographical and demographic manifestations of the subcontinent’s new laissez-faire economic policies. If one buys (forgive the pun) the basis of the materialist critique as  belief in the direct connection between socioeconomic circumstances and the genre and form of cultural texts, then the recent proliferation of non-fictional writing can be seen as a superstructural attempt to get to grips with the unique dimensions of India’s recent economic boom. Fictional narratives may have served India well up until now, but there is something about the new complexity of urban environments such as Delhi and Mumbai that demands a journalistic strand to be woven into the literary one. The stories emerging from these city spaces are, perhaps, just too astonishing in and of themselves to be fictionalized; or to turn this on its head, it is important for authors to convey to their readers that these stories are true—‘you couldn’t make this stuff up,’ they seem to cry.

Towards the end of Capital, A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, Dasgupta’s momentary musing on ‘mangoes’ allegorizes this very process. These exotic delicacies, he argues, “are surely the most literary fruit”, a quality inherent in their apparent absurdity. Harvested in the spring and distributed through the city “in the blinding heat of Delhi’s May”, the juiciness of the thirst-quenching mango is nothing short of “a miracle”.

That merciless nature should supply such consolation for its own ravages, that it should display simultaneously such brute impact and such subtle deliquescence, is literary already. (pp.287-8)

Dasgupta’s latest book is full of unbelievable stories that are ‘literary already’, not despite their factuality but because of it. From the accounts of ridiculous lifestyles and reports of absurdly serendipitous encounters, to detours through historical legacies and fascinating cultural traits, twenty-first century Delhi doesn’t need to be fictionalised. Like the mango, the stories are juicy enough in and of themselves—they simply need to be documented and recounted.

Despite this self-assessment, to take Dasgupta at his own reading would be to lose sight of his undoubted literary skill. Though at first it appears anecdotal in content, the power of Capital’s narrative is that these individual stories build, cumulatively, as the book progresses, mapping out a variety of different city spaces and their respective inhabitants until suddenly one realises that it is an interconnected survey of magnificent breadth and depth. Many of the chapters are comprised of interviews, as successful entrepreneurs—from car dealers to pimps to land redevelopers—relate their individual life stories in their own words. The result is a series of non-fictional first person narratives hauntingly reminiscent of Aravind Adiga’s cutthroat protagonist, Balram Halwai, in his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger (2008). These are then framed by Dasgupta’s personal and compellingly written takes on the historical and socioeconomic circumstances that enabled these ‘characters’ to accumulate such masses of capital.

There is, however, another character present throughout all of these accounts: the city itself. All of Dasgupta’s interviews take place in different locales across twenty-first century Delhi, described with deft analysis that links the individual stories to the urban space itself. He meets successful businessmen in their swanky apartments, segregated by compound walls from the poverty of the streets; he chats with middle-class women in the air conditioned restaurants of Delhi’s new airport-style malls. But despite the text’s self-professed focus on the emergent middle class, Dasgupta’s text forces its readers to acknowledge, even if only through the margins of its narrative, that such glittering wealth cannot and does not exist without the simultaneous production of extreme poverty. After all, in the twenty-first century, half of Delhi’s inhabitants—many millions of people—live in slums. In this way, Capital produces a sort of textual map of an unevenly developed city, one riddled with some of the most extreme social and economic divides existing in the world today. But implicit in this mapping project is the conclusion that, no matter how much the new middle class attempt to remove themselves from this surrounding poverty (building high walls, installing state-of-the-art security fences, even constructing their own water tanks and sewage systems), these extremes are deeply imbricated with one another.

Indeed, this map of the city is far from a static or mundane two dimensional representation. In a troubling but powerful metaphor, Dasgupta paints a portrait of the city as a living organism, expanding, contracting then expanding again, breathing and spluttering on the fumes of its incessant traffic. The physical manifestations of cyclical capital accumulation appear as a sort of relentlessly multiplying bacterium seen through a microscope. Rural Indians desperate for work construct informal housing on the city’s outskirts. As the city grows, this land becomes valuable. Thus the slum dwellers are dispossessed and their housing demolished to be replaced by new, deluxe, high rise flats and malls. The evicted slum dwellers move further outwards, to areas where new rural Indians are also arriving. Soon, these plots of land too become valuable, and the brutal process begins all over again. Both the appetites of capital and The Capital are insatiable. The city of Delhi is the physical, infrastructural manifestation of capital accumulation. Dasgupta has captured, with brilliance and horror in equal measure, the way in which the infiltration of a ruthless neoliberal ethic into twenty-first century India gives shape to its cities, and how the physical layout of these cities in turn perpetuates, through the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty, the individualist ideology of a hyper-capitalist society.

It is for this reason that I wish Dasgupta had been bold enough to simplify the title of his new book, retaining only that first, highly provocative word, Capital. The word’s ability to simultaneously signify a physical urban environment and an accelerated economic system is Dasgupta’s most poignant insight. His narrative weaves and slips along that semantic hinge with interrogative nuance, whilst assimilating these complexities into a broader picture of what he believes is the city of the future. Postcolonial Delhi has not followed the same trajectories of industrialisation and urbanisation that gave shape to European cities. Capitalism in twenty-first century India is a new breed of the socioeconomic system, one that is in many ways still in its infancy. That is why the intertextual implications of the snappier title are so perfectly suited to the book’s content. Of course, when writing Das Kapital, Marx could never have imagined quite how fluid, versatile and self-perpetuating capital could become; but he would have read Dasgupta’s latest book with fascination. He might, however, have also read the potential for revolution in Dasgupta’s portrait. There is another intertext referenced by Capital, A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, that was published in English translation only a month before it: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014). For if there is a study to confirm Piketty’s thesis that capitalism results in increasingly aggressive unequal distributions of wealth, it is Dasgupta’s. Piketty argues that such inequality will inevitably lead to social and economic instability, and the Delhi presented by Dasgupta seems to be on the brink of something: if not revolution, then apocalypse.

When Dasgupta first started living in and writing about Delhi, he found that there were “very few codes with which to order the data-chaos around us.” He therefore set out to capture “the rhythm, the history, the mesh, from which a city’s lineaments might emerge” (p.45). In this project he has been remarkably successful. But as he quite rightly observes, his is “just as much a book about the global system itself”. He has shown how the non-fictional literary narrative form may give us ways to make sense, not only of India, but of cross-national capital itself.


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