Sayan Chaudhuri is currently pursuing Ph.D in the Centre for English Studies, JNU, New Delhi. The paper submitted is a slightly modified chapter from the MPhil dissertation of the author, which attempted to study how certain works of English-language narrative nonfiction were critically responding to and attempting to represent the complexity of post-liberalisation India.
This paper will conduct a close reading of Capital (2014) by Rana Dasgupta to examine how the narrative attempts to embody the complex framing of Delhi as a globalizing city. The study will particularly focus on Dasgupta's methodology as a chronicler or biographer of the city: specifically, how he attempts to tease out the mediations between particular lived experiences and the generalized framings of the urban imaginary in post-liberalisation India.
Keywords: globalisation; post-liberalisation India; Delhi; urban studies.
I. Theorising the City
Capital (2014) by Rana Dasgupta follows a rich line of writing on the city in India. Vinay Lal, in the introduction to the two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City (2013), notes that although “the city in India is emerging as the site of great ferment, certainly agitating the minds of the country’s novelists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and policy planners, it is well to recall that the city in India is as old as Indian civilisation” (Lal xv). Lal’s anthology collects writing from across disciplines and contexts, providing a sense of the varied imaginings of the urban. Lal’s attempt is to put together writings on the modern Indian city which focus on the city “as a site of imagination, as a nodal point for contestations over modernity, and as a location of specific cultural phenomena”--writings formally traversing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry (Lal xlvi). To begin to study the city as a crucial trope in post-liberalisation India requires both an acknowledgment of the primacy of the city in the historical imagining of India itself as well as an acknowledgment of the diversity of aesthetic forms which have continually imagined the city. The city in the present inevitably borrows its energies and anxieties from the city in the past.
Gyan Prakash looks at how the city emerges as a crucial symbol for modernity in nationalist imagination: although Gandhi’s reclamation of the village as preserving the essential identity of India as opposed to the city as a symbol of corrupt Western modernity found resonance in nationalist discourse, it was eventually forsaken for Nehru’s emphasis on the city as the beacon of the future (Prakash 3). Prakash argues that such a binary is more complicated than it seems: both Gandhi and Nehru were, in some sense, influenced by the “refashioning” logic of modernity and produced “cross-hatched” conceptions of the city and the village (Prakash 4). If Gandhi argued that the ideal village would foster independence of spirit and not be a backward place where people lived in “dirt and darkness”, Nehru argued that urbanising villages does not imply luring people away to towns and cities (Prakash 4-5). The village and the city were posited as different stages of development in the planning of the nation-state, but if history is any indication, the idea of stages does not merely consist of spatial and technological divisions, but is refracted through “power” (Prakash 5). The narrative of the city, if seen only through the lens of modernization, reductively foregrounds merely the “theme of development, of transition from tradition to modernity, as a stage in historical evolution”--how does one articulate the “experience of the city” within such a template? (Prakash 5). Instead, the city, according to Prakash, has to be seen through its “practices, memories, and desires”, through its manifold stagings and articulations, “to bring into view spaces of power and difference suppressed by the historicist discourse of the nation” (Prakash 6). This, in part, involves a revised orientation to the frame of modernity itself.
Narratives of modernity, William Mazzarella argues, frequently lapse into narratives of disenchantment, inevitably prompting:
a kind of return of the repressed, whether in the form of a grand revolutionary reversal or a more inconclusive, but no less subversive, 'haunting' of the deathly abstractions of modern knowledge by the vitally embodied energies they both require and deny…[the] ideological discourse of modernity not only represses and demonizes the affective but also romantically fetishizes it - particularly insofar as it can be located at the receding horizon of a savage disappearing world, an anthropological other in the classic sense. (Mazzarella 295)
Mazzarella proposes that the study of modernity should be reoriented towards the thinking of affect--a terrain which is “presubjective without being presocial”--as it will lead towards a “way of apprehending social life that does not start with the bounded, intentional subject while at the same time foregrounding embodiment and sensuous life” (Mazzarella 292). Modernity is constantly mediated by affect: if, on the other hand, affect is considered as merely produced through immediacies, as preceding mediation, narratives of modernity inevitably create a hierarchy between a rationalised, modern, disenchanted order as the inevitable logic of the future and the ethnic, primitive, rural order as preceding modernity and thus relegated to the status of an anthropological relic. The processes through which subjective responses to rational constructions of the urban are formed involve mediations which are affective and embodied, and cannot be entirely determined by the logic of planning and development. As Mazzarella states, the category of the local (such as ethnic identity) and the non-local (such as citizenship) are distinguishable in discourse, but “politics in practice always involves...a mediation between, on the one hand, claims to local and finite identification and, on the other, an aspiration to universal relevance” (Mazzarella 305).
The city in post-liberalisation India emerges as a crucial index for development and growth: the tropes of “consumption” and “modernity” have been synonymous with the urban (Lal xxxv). Such tropes, as Nandy argues, invent and imagine the city through certain metaphors: the city as allowing for an expansion of the self; the city as the alternative to the village; and the city as haunted by its own contestations (Nandy 298-301). These metaphors contain both spatial and temporal dimensions: the city as temporally superseding the rustic, the traditional, the old; the city as extending and organising and developing space. The articulation of such metaphors is not merely to describe the urban, but also to imagine the potential of the urban. A fair amount of contemporary English-language nonfiction has taken on the task of imagining the city, a task inevitably fraught with the author's personal motivations and biases. The autobiographical emphasis in recent texts such as Maximum City (2004) by Suketu Mehta, Calcutta (2013) by Amit Chaudhuri, and the series on short biographies of cities brought out by Aleph Book Company, perhaps attempt to self-reflexively foreground the problem: the evaluation of a city is, in part, an evaluation of the author’s own anxieties, aspirations, and desire to locate herself within the city. Dasgupta’s narrative of Delhi is distinct in its focus on the transformation of the city within the frame of economic liberalisation--the focus, however, broadens to looking at Delhi as produced within global systems of power. Capital, as a title, is explicitly revealing of the focus of the book. Delhi, as the political capital of India, serves as an index for larger impulses transforming India; Delhi, at the same time, is transforming within the logic of global capitalism.
Dasgupta’s narrative constantly veers from the particular to the general: most chapters, for instance, begin with details of encounters and interviews, but gradually move towards theoretical claims attempting to rationalise the details. The interviews, although distinguishable by content, are represented in a similar register: earnestly self-justifying, desperately insistent, and slightly unhinged. Dasgupta is hardly present in the interviews; it is unclear how he encourages conversation: the interviewees appear surprisingly effusive as a consequence. The distinctions between specific contexts are offered by the interpretive frames punctuating the narrative: it is implied that the content of the interviews have meanings determined by metanarratives of partition, patriarchy, and of course, global capitalism. This leads to a peculiar incongruity: the details of the narrative appear richly effusive, suggesting subjective meanings beyond specific determinations, but the narrative is held together with a set of determinate conclusions about Delhi as a globalising city. Dasgupta's narrative presents complicated relations between the particular and the general, the personal and the impersonal–how are these relations to be understood? It might not be too far-fetched to consider the narrative as a physical embodiment of the city as Dasgupta experiences it: in other words, any representation of Delhi in the twenty-first century has to be layered, disturbed, spilling over the edges. The subtitle of the book--“[a] portrait of twenty-first century Delhi”--gives a sense of the aesthetic orientation of the narrative: the description of appearances, the layering of spatial and temporal dimensions of the urban, and the eventual framing into a whole. In this essay, I will look at two crucial aspects of Dasgupta's narrative: the interviews, filled with details and digressions, evoking a sense of the energies and anxieties of those who lay claim to the city in various ways; and the historical contexts Dasgupta finds lurking behind the idiosyncrasies of the present.
II. Wealth, Ambition, and Risk
Rana Dasgupta, who grew up in England, arrives in Delhi a decade after economic liberalisation and in his own estimate, “that decade before [his] arrival had been devoted mainly to what you could call changes to its ‘software’, while its ‘hardware’ remained relatively untouched” (Dasgupta 36-37). Dasgupta uses such a metaphor precisely to contrast the past with what was to happen in the subsequent decade: “the furious tearing-down of all that hardware in the pursuit of globalism” (Dasgupta 37). By hardware, Dasgupta seems to refer to not just the architecture of the city, but the structuring of experience in the city. The narrative is, in part, an exploration of what makes Delhi vulnerable to such a rapid dismantling of older forms of living--the fragility, the traumas, the heedlessness. Dasgupta finds Delhi intensely promising on arrival: he finds artists and intellectuals furiously exploring the potential of the newness Delhi was being ushered into. There were rich critical debates on how a cosmopolitan public was to to be imagined, how global capitalism was to be translated and adapted in Delhi’s context to prevent irresponsible consumption of public resources, how art and literature were to creatively articulate the possibilities of the city. The gestating potential, according to Dasgupta, is not just left unrealised, but is “taken over by more dismal energies” a decade later: “[money] ruled this place as it did not even the ‘materialistic’ West, and the new lifestyle that we saw emerging around us was a spiritless, degraded copy of what Western societies had developed...office blocks, apartment blocks, shopping malls and, all around, the millions who never entered any of them except, perhaps, to sweep the floors” (Dasgupta 43). Such an evaluation sounds harsh and absolute, but it provides Dasgupta an origin for his narrative: what did people have to do with these changes, how was the city imagined by those living through the reshaping of the city? As Dasgupta writes, “I resolved to start with them, with the torrent of Delhi’s inner life, and to seek there the rhythm, the history, the mesh, from which a city’s lineaments might emerge” (Dasgupta 45).
The city’s lineaments emerges through particular encounters, desires, and traumas; but Dasgupta also begins to discover that the city is not merely produced through those it contains, but is mediated through “global systems”: “indeed, the book I began to write felt like a report from the global future: for it seemed to be in those ‘emerging’ centres like this, which missed out on international capitalism’s mid-twentieth-century – its moment of greatest inclusiveness and hope – that one could best observe the most recent layer of global time” (Dasgupta 45-46). Globalisation, as Cameron and Palan argue, is “explicitly a story of temporal change”: the idea that the “world is becoming more global” is a ruse to rationalise specific policies aimed towards accelerating capitalist expansion, spatial reorganisation of the city, and consumerist frames (Cameron and Palan 57). Delhi, Dasgupta begins to discover, is prey to a determining logic--its impulses are not entirely its own. The global city, as Saskia Sassen has theorised, are cities which function as “highly concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy”, “as key locations for finance and for specialized service firms, which have replaced manufacturing as the leading economic sectors”, “as sites of production, including the production of innovations, in these leading industries; and finally, “as markets for the products and innovations produced” (Sassen 3-4). Such cities, Sassen notes, are cropping up across asymmetric national frames, across both the first-world and the third-world, thus consolidating the logic of global systems. Dasgupta throws up a curious problem: Delhi’s story could be told as a particular account of global capitalism, but such an account would contain its own idiosyncrasies, its own anomalies. Dasgupta finds that Delhi, "with its aspiring classes desperately trying to lift themselves out of the pathetic condition of the city into a more dependable and self-sufficient world of private electricity supplies and private security” is not the template of the global city that was either desired or expected (Dasgupta 439). To make sense of such a situation, Dasgupta suggests, is perhaps to confront a devastating conclusion: that Delhi does not represent “some backward stage of world history…[instead it] is the world’s future” (Dasgupta 439). How does Dasgupta begin to make sense of the troubled mediations between global impulses and particular idiosyncrasies?
Aihwa Ong argues that the emphasis on “globalization” to rationalise urban impulses across contexts and histories might gloss over particular variations. The schematic perspective that “there is a single system of capitalist domination, and a set of unified effects of regular causal factors that can foment nearly identical problems and responses in different global sites” might fail to “enrich our understanding of particular challenges and solutions on the ground” (Ong 6-7). Ong, instead, uses the concept of “worldling”--a set of “projects and practices that instantiate the world in formation”--to emphasise emergence, uncertainty, and experimentation (Ong 11). Although Dasgupta begins his narratives with metaphors of emergence, with a hopeful anticipation of Delhi’s potential resistance to the repercussions of globalisation, his conclusions are far more fatalistic. His conclusions, it seems, follows from the kind of evidence he gathers, the people he interviews: the rich, the ambitious, the power brokers of the city.
The narrative begins with Rakesh, a businessman owning multiple manufacturing organisations, belonging to a family of traders. Dasgupta's representational choices are striking. Rakesh is introduced through a highly suggestive description of his house: “The building is like two space stations, one glass and one stone, crossing over each other. One of them floats free of the earth, a shining bridge to nowhere, its underside glinting with landing beacons” (Dasgupta 1). Dasgupta does not merely evoke a sense of magnitude, but the metaphor of a house as a space station suggests the symbolic separation of such a building from what is considered worldly and mundane. Such a separation, however, does not seem to produce a meaningful identity: the “shining bridge to nowhere” paradoxically evokes a sense of a prominent yet vacuous enterprise. Rakesh earnestly speaks of his economic ambition, his sense of responsibility, and draws attention to the magnitude of his business: there is the simultaneous evocation of work as spectacle and work as vocation. Rakesh finally ends his self-narration with a seemingly ironic admission: “I'm nice. I'm not ruthless, frankly, I'm not ruthless. That's probably a drawback I have. I should be ruthless” (Dasgupta 16). The drive to have a ruthless disposition is prompted by Rakesh’s ambition to accumulate wealth, control proceedings--the drive, however, has to counteract values of ‘kindness’ and ‘humility’, intrinsic to Rakesh’s familial identity. It is unclear what prompts Rakesh to speak with such confidence --Dasgupta is neither visible as a speaker in the sequence nor does he describe his observations while listening to Rakesh. Dasgupta seems to be setting up a template for how the young rich in the city express themselves. The subsequent interviews in the narrative follow a remarkably similar pattern.
First, these characters construct the past in a certain way--rooted in family histories, older business cultures–which emphasise their sense of lineage but also demonstrate the superiority of the present. The past has to be necessarily acknowledged but provides a redundant vision for the world–the present, instead, constantly verges towards the future, the modern, the infinitely possible. Second, these characters display remarkable self-confidence: they do not hesitate to stake their claims on a futuristic vision of the city, glossing over existing social contradictions. And third, and perhaps most interestingly, they attempt to distance themselves from potential caricatures of themselves as ruthless and heartless–money, for them, produces possibilities for social change.
A striking example of such a character type in the narrative is Rahul, an inheritor of a large family business, who emphatically justifies his need to make money using a rather curious argument:
Look at the businessmen around you. Here. They build obscene houses. [...] Then there will be endless property disputes. And then what?....What is their vision of life? You make money, then you die. [...] I'm going to change the world with my money. Which is why I need to make so much. (Dasgupta 223)
Rahul projects himself as moving beyond self-interest: money is not merely meant for personal accumulation, but a way to invest in the world, to stake a claim in the future. Dasgupta frames Rahul’s interview with a tremendous amount of irony; although Rahul speaks with apparent uninterrupted gusto, Dasgupta subtly inserts a couple of observational comments to orient the reader. Rahul, at one point, notes with deliberate self-deprecation how he feels he is rapidly ageing owing to his immense ambition. Dasgupta’s subsequent observation is both comical and incisive: “It is as if Rahul feels he has made a Faustian bargain with his family firm…[it] will suck out all his youth...[but]... it will give him enormous productive power” (Dasgupta 222). To pursue the metaphor further, the Faustian bargain is, of course, with the frame of endless capitalist accumulation. Dasgupta hints at the perplexity of the problem: why does Rahul want to enter this bargain to begin with? The interview ends with a sense of contrast. Rahul clarifies that his ambition to change the world is not necessarily a charitable one, directed towards benefitting those less privileged than himself, and distinguishes between his personal and professional ethics: “I did go to a liberal American college, and that’s what I am in my heart. But when I’m running the company, I’m the stereotypically evil capitalist. I’m like a character from Hard Times. I order people about” (Dasgupta 223). Dasgupta mentions that his meeting with Rahul was preceded by a rather bleak experience: he visited a camp set up for labourers working on the infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games and found that the labourers and their families are being forced to survive in unhealthy, dehumanizing conditions of living. In a rare display of conversational intervention, Dasgupta mentions this experience to Rahul, who responds with a rather peculiar conviction: “I’m sure if I were to see that I would feel the same… [but] if I saw those people, I am sure I would also feel contempt” (Dasgupta 224). The narrative shows how Rahul’s consistency of capitalist zeal and sense of entitlement ironically results in a profound inconsistency: his vision of the future and his grand plans for developing society never move beyond the ambit of self-interest.
The discourse of development in contemporary India, as Aditya Nigam provocatively argues, is dominantly framed in terms of the desire to consume: desire in need of constant replenishment, desire which will run into crisis if not reproduced (Nigam 2-3). The desire to consume is perpetuated through an “elaborate network of systems, processes, apparatuses and relations that keep working in order to produce the individual as consumer” (Nigam 3). Economies do not produce for definable human needs as much as abstract monoliths such as the ‘Gross Domestic Product’ or ‘Sensex’--the ambition to produce, develop, and innovate is measured in terms of quantitative data, which are strangely reified despite not being commonly understood or translated (Nigam 3). Characters such as Rakesh and Rahul are represented, in their own words, as having a sense of disproportionate agency to desire, own, and control the development of the city. However, they paradoxically appear to be automatons within an already created discourse, merely repeating what is assumed to be self-evident: the desirability of development. Development in twenty-first century urban India, as Nigam puts it, “is a story of the production of the 'consumer' so that something called 'the economy' can flourish -- which, incidentally, has very little to do with people being fed and clothed” (Nigam 5). Dasgupta’s subtle ironic observations do not interrupt the strong assertion of such a position by the characters interviewed, but attempt to draw attention to the cracks in the position: what does the relentless pursuit of making money do to the emotional, social, and familial lives of such people?
Towards the end of the narrative, Dasgupta interviews Anurag, who puts on an air of self-importance as he discusses his economic ambitions but is, in fact, partially living off his father since his own business collapsed. Anurag takes Dasgupta to a park instead of a restaurant and shares an odd, intimate moment, displaying a sense of vulnerability:
I’m not so crazy about restaurants [..] I’m more comfortable out here. There’s a beautiful dog here who comes to see me. Black and white [...] It used to make me feel better when I had too many problems. Family, money, girlfriend. (Dasgupta 408)
Anurag comes across as alternately stoic and desperate, speculating on the numerous economic investments he can possibly benefit from yet never certain whether such acts are meaningful to begin with. His ambition to earn money is expectedly justified in terms of value to his immediate society. In his own words, “I want to change things. I want to show people how to live. That’s why I need 1000 crores”” (Dasgupta 412). Such a seemingly oxymoronic admission--the desire to improve or reform a money-minded world through more money--appears commonsensical to Anurag and the rest of the young businessmen Dasgupta interviews. Dasgupta, although initially perplexed by this position unanimously held by young entrepreneurs, finally arrives at an evaluation: “Delhi is obsessed with money, it is the only language it understands, and to buy myself out of its vulgarity and its money-mindedness, I need lots of money” (Dasgupta 412). It is unclear why such a self-defeating logic continues to systematically influence the preferences and choices of even those who are undermined by it--not all enterprising young businessmen have an equally successful trajectory after all. One of the characters Dasgupta interviews, Puneet, admits to losing out on the economic possibilities offered by the liberalised frame: he begins to trade different commodities and make money rapidly, following which his business is clamped down by the police owing to another businessman conspiratorially reporting against him, and in the process, his romantic partner leaves him for the son of a cabinet minister with greater economic and political leverage (Dasgupta 382-83). Although Puneet seems to lament the loss of his economic wealth while explaining why he could not integrate himself within the power elite of the city, he admits to finding a spiritual turn in his thinking about aspiration, which strangely makes him attractive to his colleagues. He describes the shift in his temperament:
My ego has been broken down. I’m celibate. My rich friends come to me to find peace. They admire me, because part of them wants to be living the spiritual life like I am, dude. (Dasgupta 389)
Puneet, in fact, frequently visits a “guru” or a spiritual leader to purify himself from the corruption of a modern ego-driven world--but, on being prodded by Dasgupta on what he would do if he managed to reclaim his wealth, unabashedly asserts, that he would have materialist impulses.
Puneet seems to be oblivious to the contradictory nature of his assertions--but perhaps, as Dasgupta hints, Puneet’s statements should not be seen as a contradiction. The quest for the spiritual, in Puneet’s case, is not antithetical to the quest for the material: both are interpreted as modes of acquiring control over one’s immediate surroundings. The quest for control is, in part, a reaction to the ubiquity of risk marking the economic framing of the city. Stories of both success and failure, in the estimation of the characters themselves, are measured in terms of investment and returns: there is never any certainty about what really pays off. There is always risk, potentially destructive.
Ulrich Beck argues that “[in] advanced modernity the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risk” owing to the emphatic surge towards greater production and consumption of resources, unleashing all kinds of fatal hazards and threats, capable of wiping off the human race itself (Beck 19). Such fatalist logic, however, is kept at bay by the simultaneous emphasis on the management of risk through various institutional modes (Beck 19). Risk is both produced and contained within the frame of global capitalism: Dasgupta’s narrative presents a set of examples of those who are beneficiaries of risky ventures, resulting in no less than massive consumption of natural resources and the displacement and exploitation of non-propertied, socially and economically marginalised peoples--but, much to their dismay, are never immune to risk themselves. The primacy of risk in the context of Delhi, however, is not merely attributable to the frame of global capitalism and the constant need to produce wealth, but also local histories. Delhi has its own peculiar idiosyncrasies, which Dasgupta begins to unearth in the course of the narrative.
III. Histories and Traumas
The chapterization of the narrative does not follow any identifiable temporal or thematic logic: the chapters are abruptly divided, moving from one set of experiences and observations to another set, giving the sense of an unwieldy, sprawling narrative. As I have suggested before, the formal organisation of the narrative is perhaps reflective of the difficulty of representing the subject matter: Dasgupta’s choice to not neatly divide contexts, but instead layer different contexts and histories over each other, evokes a sense of Delhi as a city with no clear edges. It is doubtful, in fact, to ascertain whether Dasgupta has a clear purpose in mind while navigating through different social spaces. It is as if he chances upon them, discovers them in a rather revealing state--each context explicitly reveals itself as Dasgupta wanders around the city and the reader is left to speculate what kinds of investigation or preparation preceded the discovery of each context. Even in the evocation of history, Dasgupta does not offer any systematic account of history: for instance, in the second chapter titled 1991, referring to the year the economy began to be liberalised, is almost entirely about Nehruvian socialism and how it both gained and lost popularity over a few decades. Dasgupta’s framing of the chapter, however, is through an epigraph quoting “Indira, a jewellery designer”:
I’m very proud to be an Indian. When I was a kid and people would ask me where I was from I would be embarrassed to say I was from India. But something changed in the nineties. Now I’m very proud to say I’m from here. In those days there was nothing, you know, and the place was so dirty. Now we have BMWs on the streets. By the time I’m fifty it will really have arrived. (Dasgupta 49)
The emphasis on the modern and the contemporary produces a certain simplistic version of the past, where it is relegated to being embarrassing or undesirable, deliberately glossing over what the past specifically contained. Dasgupta notes how the Nehruvian vision of economy, despite its failures, “continued to enjoy an almost theological prestige” for a large part of the four decades following independence, owing to its “lofty, Brahminical conception, which disdained money-making and worldly vanity” and instead constructed the nation itself as the “proper object of aspiration” (Dasgupta 55). The shift from such a framing of the nation to the contemporary, although rationalised through shifts in social and political perceptions, is not as clean a shift as it is made out to be: history lurks behind the contemporary, springing up despite systematic attempts to repress it. History, as Dasgupta shows, also has to be excavated and analysed for it to make sense in the contemporary.
The eighth chapter, for instance, is entirely devoted to the rumination of Delhi as a city in ruins through history: from the Mughal period to the times of British colonialism to post-independence India. There have been many shifts of regime in Delhi, dismantling and renewing Delhi, which produces a peculiar experience of “living in the aftermath” of an older order--and Dasgupta shows how such a perception persists despite the contemporary construction of Delhi as the index of a “fast-growing and dizzyingly populous nation” (Dasgupta 154). Delhi’s writers, Dasgupta notes, have consistently presented a portrait of desolation--Delhi has been described as a “city of ruins”--and have “directed their creativity to expressing that particular spiritual emancipation that comes from being cut off from one’s past”. This is a particularly ironic statement in the context of the narrative. Being cut off can have very different resonances, as Deb suggests: on the one hand, one’s location within a transforming landscape can provoke an intense imagining of the past, frequently expressed as powerful nostalgia; on the other hand, the inevitable logic of development might cut one off from the very possibility of imagining the past. Mirza Ghalib, who was writing both before and after the siege of Delhi by the British in 1857, particularly lamented the attack on cultural institutions, the ransacking of libraries and the physical destruction of books--Urdu literature was at stake, and by extension, a mode of imagining and representing the world was threatened. Dasgupta does not consciously locate himself within a tradition of writing responding to loss and desolation, but the analogy is obvious: even in a single decade of living in Delhi, he experiences a drastic movement from cultural possibility to the complete closure of possibility. Although the trajectory of Dasgupta’s narrative follows the same logic as he ascribes to the historical representation of Delhi, he is alert to the particularity of his time: the representation of the contemporary in the twenty-first century, Dasgupta implies, is unable to access even the imagining of the past. The access to the past is partially through language, and Delhi’s cultural memory was heavily reliant on the Urdu language: as Sadia Dehlvi, a character in Dasgupta’s narrative mourns,
How can you expect Delhi to care about its own history when no one can read the languages it is written in? Its entire history is written in Urdu and Persian. The government deliberately killed Urdu after 1947 because they treated it as a Muslim language. But Urdu had nothing to do with religion: it was the language of Delhi, of everyone in Delhi. (Dasgupta 160)
Sadia Dehlvi, whose family used to run a publishing house, publishing magazines in Urdu and Hindi, admits to the impossibility of reviving an older literary ethos and instead chooses to focus on her spiritual goals: “I am not interested in trying to revive the family business. That era has gone….I am happy to focus on what is inside me and to write on spirituality, ours is a wonderful city, a modern city: I don’t want to be negative. But our soul is affected. Something has snapped. I can’t identify it” (Dasgupta 160). The metaphor of spiritual emancipation is ironic in the contemporary: emancipation is mediated by loss of meaning and value, but more enigmatically, by the inability to identify the nature of such a loss. The contexts of Dehlvi and young aspirational young entrepreneurs are clearly distinct--the former inhabits a context strongly mediated by the past and the latter is strongly driven towards the future--but a rather tenuous, enigmatic similarity emerges: the experience of a visceral loss. Dasgupta’s narrative attempts a contextualisation of such a loss--whether it is the imagining of a state premised on socialist ideals, or a cultural ethos exploring value and meaning in human enterprise, or the imagining of society as cosmopolitan--but as various characters draw attention to the difficulty of identifying the exact nature of such a loss, it seems that a crucial problem is with the absence of a vocabulary to articulate the sense of a loss. Dasgupta, in the course of the narrative, does not explore the differences in linguistic idioms through which Delhi might be imagined: his choice to translate and represent characters across contexts in the same register--a prosaic, earnest, self-justifying one--serves to homogenise the characters within a general idiom. This obviously helps Dasgupta move towards a general conclusion: that Delhi’s reimagining through global capitalism produces an idiom marked by not just the rhetoric of economic ambition, but a simultaneous self-renewal and forgetting. The sense of enigmatic loss, perhaps, suggests a structural disconnect from the material bases of the past: how does one remember the past in a constantly self-justifying present? This problem is terribly complex, of course, and Dasgupta’s attempt to find a categorical conclusion is complicated by the imprecise responses of those he interviews. Even if global capitalism is the general frame within which a kind of collective forgetting takes place, Dasgupta draws attention to how there is a particular historical and psychological condition abetting such a process: the negotiation with trauma.
The tenth chapter, pointing out the centrality of the experience of partition in the post-independent imagining of India, begins with an offhand observation, which assumes metaphoric potential as the chapter proceeds:
The car honks merrily as it approaches the main intersection, as if there were only ten other cars on the streets, as if such signals were not entirely drowned in the hubbub. Having broadcast its alert, it then drives serenely, and without looking, into the furious path of 16 million people and their traffic. (Dasgupta 186)
The car serves as a metaphor for a kind of casual yet devastating presumption: that one can drive towards one's ambition without taking notice of the plethora of competing interests scattered across one's path, inviting collisions one is simply not prepared for. Such collisions might breed violence--violence which is not as much consciously planned as spontaneously produced. The partition of British sub-continental territory into two separate nation-states, India and Pakistan, did not just produce massive communal violence--"Muslims in what became India, and Hindus and Sikhs in what became Pakistan, were cut down in their houses and in the streets" -- but also resulted in a logic of segregation influencing the habitation of the cityspace (Dasgupta 189). Dasgupta notes how it is difficult to find satisfying reasons to explain the magnitude of such violence--even though there have always been tensions between religious communities, partially fuelled by ruling powers, the “overwhelming memory of pre-Partition culture in North India is not one of enmity…[but] rather of inter-religious respect and harmony” (Dasgupta 190-91). The violence of partition, analogous to civil wars and genocides in other parts of the world, can be seen as a fantasy for the annihilation of communities with unequal claims to the newly constructed nation-state--the structure of such violence is not just targeted against a community, but also “against its reproductive potential: not only indiscriminate slaughter but also the repeated exposure of unborn foetuses, the ceremonial display of castrated penises...and rape on a colossal scale, whose purpose was genetic subjugation” (Dasgupta 190). Dasgupta compares such a process to a ritual of infinite purification to mould oneself to narrow identitarian claims of citizenship and belonging--infinite because its “true theatre was not external but in the self” (Dasgupta 191). The loss of an older, shared culture is implicit in this process: when Hindus killed Muslims, they killed the influence of Islam in their notion of cultural identity, the “Islam they carried within themselves” (Dasgupta 191). Dasgupta suggests that the sense of intangible, psychic loss experienced by people across contemporary contexts is perhaps an inheritance of a post-Partition consciousness, one marked by the emphasis on survival and the necessary sacrifice of a love directed towards other communities, a “love which had become, in the modern world, forbidden” (Dasgupta 191).
It is perhaps contentious to make general claims about a massive transformative event such as Partition and it is unclear what kind of ethnographic evidence Dasgupta relies on. His representational style, however, has tremendous affective resonance: he clearly draws attention to how the murky admission of loss is partially a problem of belonging to a society. For all the confidence people have in the primacy of the contemporary or the modern, there are always unacknowledged anxieties about a past that has been supplanted or hastily overtaken. The problem is located in the contemporary through the interviews--not in any straightforward way, but through moments of indecision and uncertainty puncturing fairly consistent self-justificatory assertions--and the problem is historicised through a psychological account of how the transition to a modern state is mired in a violence directed towards not just those who have to be excluded or forgotten or annihilated, but towards one’s self. Dasgupta argues that “Partition, more than anything else, marks the birth of what can be recognised as contemporary Delhi culture” and that “[even] those who were born long after Partition, even those, such as myself, who arrived in Delhi from other places and histories, find themselves, before long, taking on the post-traumatic tics which are so prominent in the city’s behaviour” (Dasgupta 193). Such a claim is difficult to empirically demonstrate, but Dasgupta’s narrative judges and expresses the post-traumatic tics in the behaviour of those who inhabit the city: the narrative suggests that the loss of a sense of history frequently manifests as the loss of self and language.
To return to the metaphor of the car “serenely” driving into the “furious path of 16 million people”, it is perhaps a terribly apt metaphor for both the logic of historical conquest and laying hegemonic claim to demarcated spaces (the city and the nation-state) as well as the capitalist impulses driving the contemporary. Dasgupta notes how cars frequently carry the signatures of their users, as words or messages posted on the back windows of cars, to perhaps resist the “anonymity of the vehicular ocean”: the signatures range from the personable (“Sunita and Rakesh”) to the confrontational (“I drive like this to PISS YOU OFF!) to the symbolic (swords suggesting Sikh martial valour) (Dasgupta 196). Cars turn into projections of one’s assumed personas or identities, to distinguish oneself from an unclear and perhaps anonymous sense of community. The car, in its own way, also lays claim to the city. The private automobile provided the user with a “mobile, but private space” and a “sense of control” and rapidly began to transform into “an instrument of domination”: “[sitting] behind the steering wheel brought out a part of the self that we did not quite know ourselves” (Nigam 8-9). As the need for the automobile begins to appear “natural”, the consequences get displaced from mainstream narratives of the city: the ruthless destruction of settlements for the urban poor, the massive environmental degradation, the physical congestion of the streets. Dasgupta shows how such distortions of narrative are particularly ironic given how the experience of the city is drastically different: the recuperation of history and alternative claims to the city is dependent on the recuperation of experience itself. The narrative, as has been mentioned before, moves towards rather fatalistic conclusions; but, despite its own intentions to provide a kind of closure, it prompts an important question: what does such a recuperation do?
IV. Resistance: Possibilities and Limitations
One of the recurrent motifs in the narrative is the need for control within an economic juggernaut that seems to be perpetually spilling out of control: such a need, as has been suggested, is tied up with narrow constructions of identity. The violent assertion and desperate protection of identity is frequently a reaction to threat: the need to constantly amass wealth in a risky economic terrain, the need to displace ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities from visible bastions of power in an increasingly competitive social and political terrain. The most visible threat to existing structures of power, in Dasgupta’s narrative, emerges from his interviews of women: women from different ends of the economic spectrum. Dasgupta draws attention to how the “capital was defined, increasingly, by a hyper-aggressive masculinity, which seemed to lose all constraint in the years after 1991” manifesting in an exaggerated sense of one’s sense of entitlement. The sense of entitlement, although aggravated by global capitalism, emerges from older structures of domination, particularly patriarchy. In such a context, the stories of characters such as Sukhvinder, who leaves her husband after years of abuse and policing, and Meenakshi, who tirelessly works towards improving the conditions of working-class people living in Bhalswa colony, a slum settlement, provide important counterpoints to the masculinist bias inflecting everyday encounters in the city. Sukhvinder, who works in her father’s business, had liberal expectations from her husband, Dhruv--she wanted to smoke, drink, and have a social life--and although he initially accepted her terms, both Dhruv and his mother restricted her mobility, constantly policed her activities, did not allow her to have possessions which were arbitrarily considered inauspicious in a Hindu Brahmin house (for instance, an amulet given to Sukhvinder by her Muslim friend) and even physically abused her. As Sukhvinder herself suggests, her initial resilience to survive the marriage implied an acceptance of the abusive terms of the marriage--abuse which is not merely physical in nature, but regularly experienced through the lack of even basic care:
You know the moment at which I really lost respect for him? [...] One night I woke up, and I couldn’t breathe and I was panicking. I shook Dhruv awake and asked him to pass me my inhaler, which was on his side of the bed. But he refused to get it, and I passed out. After that there was no going back. (Dasgupta 131-32)
Dasgupta does not attempt to rhetorically portray Sukhvinder in either sympathetic or glorifying terms--he represents her story through her words and more importantly, her evaluations. Sukhvinder, after leaving her husband, chooses to forgive him and not slap a legal case against him--the symbolism of such a gesture is troubled and ambivalent, and Dasgupta’s suspension of judgment invites the reader to interpret the gesture. The chapter containing Sukhvinder’s story abruptly begins with a brief anecdote about how a man told Dasgupta about how he suspected his wife to be having an affair because she suspected him of the same--Dasgupta notes how he is entitled to think in such terms as a “form of revenge” (Dasgupta 115). Sukhvinder’s story responds to this anecdote, to the presumption that how Sukhvinder, as someone’s wife, thinks and behaves, is already framed within the idiom of male entitlement.
Meenakshi’s story stands out in the narrative as a distinct alternative to the imagining of the urban by those who easily or even resignedly accept the liberalised frame: Meenakshi tirelessly works to mobilise working-class people in Bhalswa colony, a slum in Delhi. Meenakshi finds pride in the fact that even the women in Bhalswa colony have fought the police; she earnestly asserts the need to constantly question and struggle against societal boundaries and hierarchies; she is certain about how she doesn’t “want to be in a capitalist world, simply earning money and looking at my life like a bank balance” (Dasgupta 256). Dasgupta is moved by Meenakshi, but his admiration for her energy and labour is beset with a slight cynicism: “It refreshes me to hear her talk…[she] reminds me of what I love in the friends I have here: a fierce intelligence searching for a better arrangement of the world…[this] too is Delhi culture, but is what you would call the city’s minor culture. It rarely rises to the surface” (Dasgupta 255). It seems Dasgupta does not find enough radical or transformative possibility in the city’s minor culture--it is clear there are practical impediments given the sheer force of capitalist development, but it remains to be asked whether it is possible to encourage alternative voices to thrive, bring them to the surface, let them challenge dominant presumptions of what is desirable or acceptable. Dasgupta’s narrative, it seems, frequently slips into a tone of defeatism: this is rather disappointing since the narrative throws up possibilities for critiquing the presumptions of global capitalism. Perhaps the problem is with Dasgupta’s vantage-point: although he represents the various characters laying claim to the city, it is not clear what kinds of material contexts Dasgupta himself inhabits. There is no pure neutral vantage-point from which one can disinterestedly ruminate about the character of Delhi--or can one?
Dasgupta’s narrative, interestingly enough, ends with an image of possibility: the possibility to see beyond narrow material confines. If, on the one hand, the narrative critiques the logic of economic expansion and exposes the self-indulgent, hierarchical, and ultimately narrow scope of such a vision; on the other hand, the narrative throws up the possibility for a different vision of expansion, an expansion of cosmopolitan community, equality, and the struggle against hegemonic power. The latter has an aesthetic and utopian dimension quite contrary to the first kind: it involves the ability to see beyond one’s sense of material limitation. Towards the end of the narrative, Dasgupta meets Anupam, who is described as one of the few people who can remain “entirely unconstrained by how a particular problem has been dealt with before, who can imagine a myriad of ways in which the world might be differently organised” and can “transcend the general self-involvement and see immediately, in the adjacent and particular, the planetary extension” (Dasgupta 421-22). Anupam takes Dasgupta across stretches of the Yamuna bank, showing how older efficient water systems have been corrupted by modern urban planning, and finally takes him to a spot where the river is surprisingly “clear and fecund” (Dasgupta 447). Dasgupta experiences a profound moment of aesthetic reappraisal:
The horizon is open, and it is a relief. I realise how consumed my being has become by the internal drama of my dense adopted city. I have forgotten expansiveness. This megapolis, where everything is vast, somehow offers little opportunity to see further than across the street. (Dasgupta 448)
The narrative, it seems, ends with an acknowledgement that the imagining of alternatives and resistance requires a crucial shift in vantage-point: a shift which involves a simultaneous aesthetic and political reconsideration, but a shift difficult to identify or experience within the dominant framing of the city. Dasgupta does not know how such a shift might transpire, so it is perhaps fitting that Anupam has the final word in the narrative: “I’m glad you could see this…[now] you realise why Delhi is here. It is one of the beautiful places of the earth” (Dasgupta 448).
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