Capital – How Eco Lib has Changed Delhi

As a kid I stayed in Delhi for three years. Later – many years later – I went to Delhi to join my first job and start my career fulltime. A few years later, when I came to Bangalore to join another company, I missed Delhi dearly. Materially, Delhi didn’t give me anything more than Bangalore. I was earning more in the IT city and I felt I had more job prospects here than in Delhi; still there was something about Delhi I missed.

Maybe it was the affection you have for a place where you have spent a slice of your childhood. In later years, as I got more used to Bangalore, I stopped missing Delhi as much, but that soft spot for Delhi didn’t completely die out, not even when the capital city made news for wrong reasons. The soft spot has survived Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait Of A Twenty First Century Delhi…too.

Delhi is a city of migrants from myriad places and backgrounds, but even by Delhi standards, Dasgupta is an unusual migrant to the city. Unlike other migrants, who come to the city from different parts of India, Dasgupta migrated to Delhi from New York after leaving his job with a marketing company to be with the woman he loved and also write the book he had been trying to for some time.

Returning to Delhi was a journey reverse to the one his father had undertaken many decades ago and a few years after India’s Independence – to go to Germany and then to England and settle down there. (Rana Dasgupta was born in England to an English mother and Bengali father.)

A study of how Delhi has changed since economic liberalization (in 1991 when India opened its markets to the world), Capital starts on an autobiographical note and then moves on to its subject – Delhi- exploring each and every facet of the historical city through its past, present and lives of its denizens…going from the birth of the city (Shahajahanabad) through its years as capital of Colonial and post-Independence India to the turbulent later decades which shaped the culture and ethos of the city.

Dasgupta starts on a very optimistic note visiting lives of people who have tremendously benefitted from the economic liberalization – and then gradually settles into a tone critical of the economic phenomenon…chapter after chapter as the book peels one layer after another off the city – violence, misogyny, lust for wealth, rich poor divide, a predatory health care system – everything that’s bad about Delhi – leaving you feel as if there is nothing good – has been traced back to eco lib.

Capital reminded me of something someone had told me many years ago: that behind everything there is an economic reason. Dasgupta has traced back all the changes that he believes have come to Delhi in recent years to the economic phenomenon in 1991, analyzing the reasons behind some of the bizarre things that happened in the city in recent past. The Nirbhaya incident was in the future when the book was written, but do you still remember the Nathari killings or the Manu Sharma murder case?

Dasgupta attributes the aggressive culture that Delhi is known for to the wounds inflicted by Partition. He says the Punjabis who migrated to Delhi during or post Partition lost almost everything to the large scale killing, arsons and pillaging that took place during the riots triggered by Partition. So much (including their women) was snatched away from the migrants during Partition that they were left feeling emasculated, castrated, unmanly.

This feeling of masculine deficiency, Dasgupta says, manifested itself in a warrior ethos…as a compensatory emotion…which outlasted the Partition generation and is also found in their children. This warrior ethos expresses itself through over aggression leading to different forms of violent behavior.

It is also responsible for the success of Delhi’s business class, according to Dasgupta. By unleashing economic opportunities, eco lib has had an incendiary effect on the warrior ethos of Delhi’s business class resulting in expansive business ambitions and projects unthinkable in the pre eco lib days.

But these humongous business successes have not come from types of businesses that are idea driven, like IT where Bangalore rules the roost, but businesses dealing in areas where there are government regulations – where bribes, political connections, muscle power and big money call the shots.

Where Capital…has impressed me is despite being a book on a city it manages to avoid becoming local. Delhi has been dealt with as a reflection of global problems – poor rich divide, life style and environmental issues, corruption – everything that is local and yet global.