Delhi for the Twenty-first Century

Two amazing books! A debut novel, and you know how much I like those, Three Bargains by Tania Malik and a debut non-fiction by Rana Dasgupta, his third book the previous two being Solo and Tokyo Cancelled.

To start with the non-fiction: Capital, quite an arresting title and one that I feel I ought to be writing in CAPITALS! This is a masterpiece, a tour de force, I cannot praise it too highly, not least because I was fairly (or unfairly perhaps?) luke-warm about his fiction. I gave Solo the benefit of the doubt, first novel maybe needed stronger editor, and the second I panned. The idea was not fresh, had been done better (by Chaucer and Boccaccio for a start) anyway I was not particularly impressed. So when my daughter-in-law gave me CAPITAL I was mildly surprised and stuck it way down the pile of “to be read soon” books.

But I soon got down the pile and picked up the book. It looks handsome enough, so I settled down to read. scan0010 Was I gripped? Held stationary, unable to put it down? Transfixed by the characters, the stories and by, above all the city, Delhi? Yes, yes and yes!

Rana Dasgupta now lives in Delhi, he had interviewed some of the richest and some of the poorest people living side by side in this strangely functioning, dysfunctional city. There is black and white: people, money, markets, housing – pretty much everything you can think of has its open and legal aspect, and its hidden and illegal aspect. Mirroring this in a mild way is the fact that most of the people he meets are given different identities, only a few, marked with an asterisk, have their own names.

So to start with the people. CAPITAL is not only about Delhi today, but about how it arrived at itself today. So obviously, there is a lot about the British Raj, and preceding that The East India Company, preceding them the Mughals and so on, and so on each rasing the city to the ground and rebuilding in their own fashion. But post the arrival and the influx of white people there was a gradual and deliberate subjugation of the native “black” people.

[Please understand that I am not using this term in a derogatory manner, perish the thought. I am using the term in a metaphorical sense, so that the metaphor can carry forward through the economy, education, language etc.]

Eventually, having moved the capital city from Calcutta to Delhi, and built the now famous administrative centre around New Delhi, the British Raj then proceeded to educate along British lines, so that English became the first language of politics, money and business.

There is a lot about language in this book, because if you take away a person’s language you also take away their history, their identity and their culture. However, even after the British left, and after Partition, there were and still are, an enormous number of exceedingly fluent English speakers in India. Hungry for jobs and enterprising.

Some of the richest people that Rana Dasgupta interviewed had profited from this very diversity of language, in the newest enclave of Delhi, there arose from the wasteland (more about that later) a gleaming modern business centre called Gurgaon. Soon, these towering skyscrapers were branded with international labels from companies outsourcing back-office workers to the Indian sub-continent where labour was cheaper and the workforce spoke ENGLISH! Maybe not perfectly, but well enough to deal with customer services, and because of the time differences around the world, could offer a 24/7 answering service which is now demanded by the ever-wakefulness of the business community.

So what was wrong with that? Well, perhaps nothing if you ignore the slicing of the money flowing into the top management, who take their share with maybe a questionable “little extra” which is squirrelled away off-shore and the middle man who does the same, so that at the sharp end where the work is actually being done – the workforce is being paid slightly less on account of the slicing going on above them, but also because some of them are still “paying” the middlemen for having been given the job in the first place…no wonder some of the people in this book have had their identities altered unrecognisably!

CAPITAL goes on in great detail about how these systems work. But on the other hand Rana Dasgupta also meets a woman who has made a personal crusade out of exposing and protecting some of the slum dwellers. Why are there slum dwellers in this expanding city? Go back to Partition, lots of refugees; consider the dwindling agriculture, more refugees; consider mechanised industry, more refugees. Each wave of in-comers in search of employment settle, develop and build small enclaves, but then space is required for the new interstate highway, a new residential development or whatever (ironically this new development will often mean employment for the self-same evacuees); the bulldozers come in and the settlers go to the next space, often having been tricked out of some cash to pay for new housing…which turns out to be non existent. Their cash has disappeared into the black economy.

The same is true in every business transaction: buying a house, buying an office block, renting – real estate comes in both white money and black money. Whatever the price of the purchase, some of it (not a little, but quite a lot) has to be in cash.

But in all this, and lots more of the same enthralling details, there is in this book also a gem of a chapter. A walk with Anupam Mishra*. The chapter is entitled Abstract. It tells the story of Delhi’s water supply. I could hardly read, tears simply poured down my face. Not only is this beautiful writing, poetic and glorious but also it brings us face to face with what will be, in no short a time, a global catastrophe. We have not considered the history of water, not in our cities nor in our countryside and we will be punished for it if we do not wake up soon.

You will know, if you read my blog, that things often move me to tears. It doesn’t mean that I am shallow, what it does mean though is that when I am reading I am right there in the moment. If I say that when I am reading about The War of the Roses and the telephone rings I nearly jump out of my skin, you will get the idea.

scan0011The second book, also handed to me by my daughter-in-law, Three Bargains which I read before CAPITAL, is a marvellous read. You simply love the characters, live with them and understand their frustrations, loves, disappointments and triumphs. The reason though for linking this with the blog about CAPITAL is that it is a fictional description which almost exactly mirrors the development of Gurgaon, though with darker twists of fortune and revenge. A great debut, more please.

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Filed under BOOK REVIEWS, Culture, Environment, Modern History, Travel, Uncategorized

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