Capital: A Portrait of Delhi in the Twenty-First Century is not the book by Rana Dasgupta I was expecting ro read first – I have been eyeing both his novels Tokyo Cancelled and Solo for a while now without quite getting around to read either of them. But then I saw is most recent, a non-fiction book on Delhi and the economic boom it experienced since the early 1990s and thought it might make a nice follow-up to Sebastian Lörscher’s graphic journey Making Friends in Bangalore which I read recently. Which it did, precisely by being a very different kind of book.
This is not a travel book – Dasgupta, whose father moved from India to Britain, moved from Britain to India in 2000 and has been living there ever since, all of which makes for a strangely convoluted inside/outside perspective which would be very interesting in itself. But while the author does give us a brief overview of his family history, and consistently brings his own subjectivity into the foreground, putting the many interviews he has led into context and never letting us forget that we are getting an individual perspective on India’s rise to economic power, Dasgupta’s aims are more ambitious than just a narrative of his own experiences.
The main part of Capital consists of Delhi natives telling of their lives – Rana Dasgupta has talked to a large number of people for this book, mostly those who have profited by the recent boom, India’s new “middle class” (although, as Dagupta points out, it consists of only about 10% of India’s total population and is middle only compared to an even smaller section being even richer). He focuses on those people because his main interest lies in India’s so-called “emergence” as an economic global player, and it is that new middle class which instigated the boom and which profits from it. But Capital does not treat this boom as an isolated event, the book is also interested in the causes and consequences of that rise to wealth and power – for the causes, Dasgupta recapitulates a lot of Indian history from 1857 onwards and then ties it back into the present again by interviewing people who are in some kind connected to that history and can testify to the way it leaves its mark on contemporary India, thus letting past and present illuminate each other. And this in turn, he uses to examine the consequences of the exploding wealth on both individuals and society – sometimes drawing parallels (as when he notes that an Indian entrepreneur behaves in Africa very much like British Imperialists did in India), sometimes remarking on the way traditions helped expedite India’s “emergence” (as when the skill set Indian merchant families developed in forming advantageous connections came in handy with the globalization of business) but most often mourning traditions and knowledge that have been lost from former times.
It becomes clear very soon that Dasgupta is deeply skeptical about the improvements that India’s “emergence” has brought to the general populace; he interviews several people from outside the middle classes that have experienced the poverty and deprivation the boom as brought for the many along with the wealth it brought for the few. And even when he talks to those few, the author never loses sight of the swath of destruction the boom has cut through Indian society, the devastation and despair it has left in its wake. And not only does it become increasingly clear that the misery caused is every bit as mind-bogglingly huge as the wealth created, it turns out that many of the people who have become extremely rich are not even particularly happy with their wealth, plagued from a nagging suspicion that they did not really earn it and desperately looking for anything that would justify their sudden affluence. But even as Dasgupta chronicles the misery and injustice the sudden wealth has brought, he keeps an open mind for the positive side of the changes – time and again, the reader can feel the author’s admiration for the limitless energy and boundless enthusiasm of India’s new entrepreneurs. The way they are open for new ideas and often come up with completely new and unexpected solutions for problems constitutes some glimmer of hope in the otherwise rather bleak picture Capital paints, the hope that from their inventiveness and originality might rise yet unthought-of ways to deal with the increasing amount of problems globalization has brought with it.
All of this would have been very interesting to read on its own, but it’s not what makes Capital such an outstanding book. What distinguishes from other essays or journalism on the subject is that Dasgupta brings a novelist’s sensibility to it – which is not mean to say that Capital was a work of fiction (not more than anything written and narrated is, in any case), or that it “reads like a novel” (it does not) but rather that the book was constructed and written by someone conscious of form and language. This is made clear from the start by the ironic reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, continues in the way in which Dasgupta threads his book through with recurring themes and motifs, but is most striking in the way he crystallizes all the complex history and economics into a single place, a single city, how he makes Delhi the focal point of an analysis that seeks to not only capture the state of contemporary India but nothing less than the present state of the world. And I do not only mean that he does it, but indeed how he does it, for a large part of the reason he succeeds so well in this ambitious project (as well, at least, as anyone can with something so inherently impossible – Rana Dasgupta’s own endeavour with Capital has more than a bit of the madcap schemes several of his interview partners are hedging) lies not in his covincing argument, the extensively researched data and the sharp analysis but in the way he manages to capture Delhi’s atmosphere in his descriptions, from the throngs of people in the streets to the desolate wasteland of development areas, from the misery of the slums to the cool and isolated places where the rich isolate themselves from the masses. Capital captures both the ugliness and the beauty of Delhi, and by embedding his interviews and analysis into dense, atmospheric descriptions manages to both heighten his argument and give more definition to his descriptions, thus transcending the regionalism of his immediate subject into not just a picture of present-day India but of the current state of the world.
Rana Dasgupta might not be quite up there with William T. Vollmann, but like the latter’s Seven Dreams, Capital is an example of how fiction authors tackle non-fiction in creative and imaginative ways, and it might be interesting to look out for other authors who have done similar projects (and maybe re-read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which could be argued was the first book in that vein).