Book review: Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, by Rana Dasgupta

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm

Capital: The Eruption of Delhi
by Rana Dasgupta
4.5 stars

David Wilson

Welcome to Delhi, the Indian capital with a population of 16 million. In his third book, Commonwealth prize-winning observer Rana Dasgupta uses the mega-city as a vehicle for examining a key trend: the growth of the global elite.

Since the economic floodgates opened in 1991, cash has poured into India, especially Delhi. Capital documents the city's epic transformation, charting its advancement from a rural backwater to the heart of the new middle class.

No other city better embodies the dynamic yet disruptive bent of the global economy's rise over the past 20 years, according to Dasgupta, who moved to Delhi from New York in 2000, lured by the love of a woman and planning to finish a novel.

"I had no intention of staying in Delhi: I had passed through it a few times during childhood visits to Calcutta, and remembered it as a polluted, charmless sprawl. I had no doubt I could convince my beloved to forsake it for sparkling Manhattan," he writes. Alas, he got stuck in the city that fascinated and appalled him.

Its crass tycoons, worth billions of dollars, have sucked up much of the cash. The wealthy gun their darkened cars through the unpaved streets while the pedestrian masses fret. Women, in particular, are scared, thanks to rampant sex crime fuelled by resentment towards female workplace success.

The rich in their gated communities may support charity, but resent the pittance they pay their staff. The scandal of a maid who asks for her 2,000 rupees (HK$265) monthly wage to be raised to 3,000 rupees is discussed over 3,000-rupee dinners, Dasgupta writes.

Bosses never need to worry about where the next workers will come from, he adds. They can pay nearly nothing and demand maximum toil.

Escape - by getting rich - is tough unless you somehow make the right political links. Even then, you need a small fortune stashed away because money only comes to money. Social mobility barely exists in the disaster-zone bastion of rampant capitalism.

Some tourists wonder when hellish Delhi will mature, like Paris and New York. Never, according to Dasgupta, whose explanation of how the West achieved some stability is intriguing.

The model of cohesive government was apparently already familiar to Christian societies before it existed. Cue a secular translation of widely held spiritual assumptions - no metaphysical U-turn required.

"This is not the case where I am: many even of the most Westernised of my co-citizens find the singular eye of the Western state excessively pedantic and tiring, and find relief in India's more paradoxical multitude of authorities." Clearly, order would just be too boring for Delhi people.

Either way, Dasgupta, whose father was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his services to his adopted country, writes superbly. Whether addressing politics or the furious inanity of Delhi go-getters, he shows observational acuity worthy of Don DeLillo.

"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 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," he writes.

His edgy, visionary masterpiece teems with passages worth quoting. Their impact is anchored in relevance - a growing Marxian sense that capitalism has spun out of control, crushing culture and compassion. Capital powerfully embodies the case for social justice - a radical redress of the balance.