Capital: A portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi by Rana Dasgupta, book review

Liberalisation and growth have changed the fabric of India's great city of contrasts

Burhan Wazir
Friday 07 March 2014 01:00
Comments
Scene from a mall: young high-earners in Delhi are testing the limits of traditional Indian family life
Scene from a mall: young high-earners in Delhi are testing the limits of traditional Indian family life

A British-Indian writer who has published two novels, Rana Dasgupta initially moved to Delhi in 2001 to write fiction. Instead, he began to chronicle the city's shifting geography and the daily lives of the citizens he encountered. Throughout this exploration of present-day Delhi, Capital sets a scholarly and sympathetic tone. Dasgupta meets Delhiites in villas, restaurants, bars, offices and parks. His subjects are as varied as the city's upper and lower classes, men and women, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims; property magnates, money launderers, technology entrepreneurs and activists working to uplift Delhi's slum areas.

In all his interactions, Dasgupta finds a system rife with abuse and disappointment. In 1996, Indian billionaires drew their fortunes from less than one per cent of national income. By 2008, that share had grown to 22 per cent. Much of Delhi's new-found wealth has been created by government contracts for property development, infrastructure, mining and telecoms. The city has invariably created a small middle class, but Delhi's working poor have suffered the most. Before liberalisation, 70 per cent of the city's factory workers were in full time employment. A decade later, 70 to 80 per cent found themselves in temporary employment.

"India Rising", "India, Inc." and "Superpower India" are all terms regularly employed to describe the dramatic transformation of the Indian success story in the last two decades. Deregulation and its associated freedoms have helped lift a few hundred million Indians out of unfathomable poverty. But the boom has also revealed deep anxieties at the heart of the country's super-engine. The creation of a market economy has curtailed the rights of the poor. Capitalism has also encouraged wholesale corruption.

In Delhi, a city of nearly 17 million residents, a young, income-rich and ambitious workforce is also testing the limits of traditional Indian family life. Men and women opt for careers and independence before marriage and children. A similar story can be found in cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, but nowhere are the contrasts between aspirations and reality so acute as in Delhi, where around 200,000 to 300,000 migrants, mainly farmers, settle each year, according to government figures.

In 1993, British journalist William Dalrymple wrote of his six-year stay in Delhi in the infectious memoir, City of Djinns. Dalrymple's Delhi is the heart of multiple empires, its vessels fuelled by wealth, exotic foods, literature and art.

The Delhi of 20 years later offers little such comfort to those living within its borders. Its once mighty Mughal architecture has faded. Infrastructure built for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 is already crumbling and water resources have been squandered. In the 1970s, the number of Delhiites living in slums numbered 20,000. Temporary or makeshift abodes now provide shelter for nearly half the population.

Capital is a remarkable and exhaustive account of a primordial free-zone whose assets are being stripped by the wealthy.

Primary healthcare, education and a fair minimum wage all remain unobtainable for most of the population. A city which once gave hope to millions after the violence of India's partition in 1947 now only serves the rich.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in