Tuesday 19 August 2014


‘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’- Anurag, ex-businessman 

Frankly, I was somehow too intimidated to pick up any work of fiction (Solo and Tokyo Cancelled) by Rana Dasgupta inspite of all the praise and awards. But since I have developed a penchant for non-fiction and books related to my favorite city -Delhi,  I promptly went for to hear him soon after the formal launch of his first non-fiction work-Capital (published by Fourth Estate, 2014) at one of the leading literary festival being held in the capital regularly over the last few years. As I was approaching the auditorium I saw a respected senior journalist working with the sponsor of the festival coming out of the auditorium and when I told him that I was going to listen to Rana Dasgupta he sarcastically remarked that –‘woh dilli ki history kya likhengay? Unko to abhi 10 saal bhi nahin huay dilli mein aaye huay’ (How can he write a history of Delhi when he has not been here for even 10 years). I just smiled and when he was out of sight, quickly bought my copy and entered the auditorium. The panelists were excellent but unfortunately they never come about to discuss the book. The author himself seemed a bit out of sorts but I somehow managed to get my copy signed. As I started reading the book, the senior journalist’s words kept coming back to me. How much time do you need to spend in a city to grasp its culture, its essence? Can it be quantified? Surely it will vary from person to person depending upon his experiences and sensitivity to the surroundings. Fortunately the book in not a history of Delhi. As it says on the cover that it is ‘A portrait of Twenty-first century Delhi’. Giving a brief background, it brings us face to face with the current reality of the capital with all its anxieties and warts. However the first thing which strikes you about the book is the gorgeous cover (by Aditya Pande). Surely one of the best I have seen in the last one year. Through a series of meetings with a variety of people –Businessmen , IT professionals, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, divorcees, NGO workers, slum dwellers, bureaucrats, drug peddlers and even a godman, Dasgupta tries to make sense of modern day Delhi and what drives it? What is the reason behind the hustle and the tendency for manipulation of rules which have come to define Delhi? The picture which emerges of the city is not pretty. The worst off are obviously those at the bottom of the Pyramid –the slum dwellers, most of whom moved to the city looking for greener pastures and now find themselves  stuck between the false promises of resettlement by successive governments and a past they can’t go back to, having sold their property in the villages. In Bhalswa colony, a slum which is located close to the garbage collection pit in the north of the city there is no water to drink. ’The water in the reservoir is salty. And the groundwater here tastes of acid because of the chemicals from the trash pile seep deep into the ground. It is so toxic that even mosquitoes can’t survive in it. It’s pure acid, and it burns. The kids all have rashes from bathing in it, and the women have terrible inflammations.’

At the other end of the spectrum are the business men who have made most of the opening of the Indian economy in 1991 and now reside in what is popularly called as a ‘farmhouse.’ Nothing is farmed here, of course. They have come to epitomize the lives of the city’s rich and well-connected, whose astonishing parties, car collections, sculpture gardens and loping Australian wildlife would be inconceivable except in the context of such fantastic estates’. However, as any Dilliwala would know the author soon realizes that it takes the right connection and networking (‘At times one can feel, it is true, that this city’s motto is: I network, therefore I am’) to break into the world of these elites. But once he is in, then everything is open. Soon we realize that inspite of all the material comforts they have to face their own anxieties caught as they are between fierce ambitions (Mickey, a businessman, wants to ship farmers from Punjab to work on African plantations he is planning to buy) and failing marriages. In between we meet bureaucrats (‘Delhi is being taken over by contractors who know how to manipulate these systems and bureaucrats are willing to sell themselves because they come from deprived backgrounds’), drug dealers ( ‘Nothing works without drugs in Delhi, so so without me there was no party’),a godman (‘Go away and lead your life. Stop making fun of me’) and victims of negligence of private hospitals (‘They are money machines. They are about revenue maximization, pure and simple’).

Even though the author takes a one-dimensional view at times ,having spent a considerable amount of my life in Delhi I can easily say that most of these things are true and the city keeps you at edge most of the time . However, my love for the city does not diminish. I guess it has something to do with the history of Delhi which has left us with beautiful architecture and so many heritage sites and there is always something new to  explore and  some dedicated groups (like INTACH ,AKT) have ensured that at least a majority of these landmark sites are decently maintained.

Also I recommend that with all the talk regarding cleaning of Yamunna, whoever is involved in the project should read the last chapter of the book where the author travels along the bank of the river with Anupam, a seventy years old resident of Delhi, and they trace the history of the river from the Mughal times to its present status. It is a tragic tale of how the city has turned its back on the river ever since the British came and it has been a downhill journey for the river ever since. It is in our favor that we restore the river to its lost glory on priority and  add to the beauty of the capital.  

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