A search for the soul of Delhi can only be a wild goose chase. For the very idea of our capital city having a soul would be scoffed at by those who see it only as a temporary workplace, never a “native place”. However, it does deserve to be deconstructed and understood, not just pilloried, for what it does today, Bharat will do tomorrow. Rana Dasgupta gives the city a biography it deserves, rising above journalistic eclecticism (though there’s that, too) to tease out its idiosyncracies, its pathos and its relentless materialism. He finds the reasons why so many migrant workers, refugees and government employees prolong their stay in the belief that going back to the Rest of India is like joining a losing team.
A sybaritic lifestyle in a farmhouse kicks off an exploration of “the members of the flourishing bourgeoisie that is the subject of this book”. He goes on to meet successful tycoons who came as partition refugees and built empires from scratch, only to have second generation wastrels squander it all away. Then, as if to demonstrate that such Richie Rich characters are only a small minority in Delhi, he is off to meet some memorable others.
There is a gay fashion designer at peace with his place in the city. A psychotic man who claims to be a deal-maker for the Gandhi family but enjoys his drinks in the company of a stray dog and a drunken watchman, like a character in a Russian novel. These are the kind of tales that a writer of semi-foreign origin can access, and this is what he gives a citizen who might wonder about what lies below the flyovers that rule his commuting life.
The author calls the city a place where languages come to die, forgetting to pay tribute to English and Hindi, which, spoken in myriad accents, are its binding force. No doubt he was mesmerised by Sadia Dehlvi, mourning the death of Urdu, the language on which her family once built a publishing empire.
After giving us a historical sense of a city built by the Mughals and the British to serve their own ends, Dasgupta has this searing perspective to offer: “By its winners and losers, by the culture of those who arrived and those who left, it is Partition, more than anything else that marks the birth of what can be recognised as contemporary Delhi culture… This is why the city seems so emotionally broken — and so threatening — to those who arrive from other Indian cities.” He’s probably right.
Once the reader is hooked, she has to be tolerant when the author wanders off into familiar headline territory. We don’t really need his rapid-reader overview of the Commonwealth Games scam or the Nithari shame (for which he hops over to Noida for no particular reason). We don’t really need a walk down the banks of the Yamuna to join the dots that usually come to us in news snippets. We are bemused when he uses the ubiquitous “Rama” car stickers as a peg to elaborate on the appeal of the epic to Delhi, the “martial power, the fantasy he holds of Hindu recovery”. But we are impressed when he offers some kind of explanation for road rage, rape and murders like those of Jessica Lal: that they are provoked by a “sense of historical castration” unleashed by Partition.
But where Dasgupta scores is in writing about the parallel economy, which the media never touches, because it is by its very nature elusive, undocumented. This is where he treads fearlessly, giving us fascinating glimpses into property and other deals. As in: “Delhi did not in general attract businesspeople with startling ideas… the people who were pulled into Delhi those years were those who needed to hack into the political establishment in order for their business to work.”
Without the mandatory hauling off to the police station for an imaginary misdeed, one wouldn’t feel that the author has really prowled the streets or had an authentic Delhi moment. Still, the book could have done with profiles of a typical Delhi politician, a super-rich doctor (instead of anguished patients who narrate their experiences at the hands of a private hospital), a slum lord, for these are the ruthlessly exploitative people who have irreversibly changed the character of what was once a “bureaucratic village” into a crime capital.