Changing values in Indian cities

Capital – A Portrait of twenty-first Century Delh

Rana Dasgupta, author of Capital – A Portrait of twenty-first Century Delhi

Changing values in Indian cities

27 January 2014

By Sailesh Ram

Many cities in Asia have changed out of almost all recognition and in doing so have prompted some to believe that ‘Asian values’ have either been lost or at best, compromised.

This idea surfaced at the Jaipur Literature Festival during a discussion between William Dalrymple, co-director of the Festival and Rana Dasgupta, a British-born novelist, whose first work of non-fiction, Capital – A Portrait of twenty-first Century Delhi, will be published in the UK in May.

More than 20 years ago, when Dalrymple lived in Delhi, he published a book about the city called City of Djinns. He felt that Dasgupta’s work seemed to have parallels to the content of recent novels by Mohsin Hamid and Tash Aw.

A once proud, cultured, and quite distinct elite who embodied certain values, had been swept aside by a group of people for whom money and material possessions were far more important.

Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia charts the unlikely ascent of a man, who with little education or sophistication, becomes fabulously wealthy and enjoys all its accoutrements, but never appears to develop any sense of refinement.

The book is written in the parody of self-help books, popular in Asia, that allegedly help people to become rich.

Similarly, Aw in Five Star Billionaire, shows what happens when Malaysian immigrants arrive in China to make their fortunes.

Dasgupta said that his non-fiction book had parallels to what those novelists had written about in terms of changing value systems in cities and the subsequent corrupting influences.

He explained that there had been a belief that Asia would emerge differently to the West because it had an ancient set of values established over thousands of years.

These, it was often argued, would prevent Asia from rampant greed and materialism, but in practice, it had not done anything of the sort.

“There has been a capitalist explosion,” said Dasgupta at the talk. “Earlier there was a belief that Asian values and Indian values were derived from a civilisation that was superior to the West.”

Essentially Asian values had failed to check the rise of materialism and corruption, he said. He added the idealism and hope of these cities, when they emerged from the yoke of colonialism, had dissipated and floundered as other values were better rewarded.

“A bridge back to the past was reinvented by writers, philosophers and thinkers but was lost in this moment of fast change,” said Dasgupta.

He felt compelled to write about Delhi, his home, because of the incredible changes that had taken place over the last few decades, describing it as a “period of “intensity” and “trauma”.

“It changed inner relationships between children and parents and men and women so I wanted to look at what had changed in the lives of these people in this decade of immense intensity,” he added.

Capital is made up of a series of interviews with Indians who have prospered and created wealth, sometimes in quite dizzying proportions.

“Their development is not that different to what has happened in Russia,” he pointed out.

For some, a nexus of political connections, money and corruption has helped to smooth their ascent,

But Dasgupta felt it was a global phenomenon, rather than simply being limited to Delhi or India.

The old idea of wealth and good taste had once been dictated by the British.

“The Rolls-Royces or Bentleys of the English aristocracy were what represented good taste,” said Dasgupta. “Now it is the image of the gangster.”

There was a prevailing sense that all was lost, but Dasgupta said his subjects had proved more cultured and sensitive than he thought on first impressions.

He welcomed the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had fought on a ticket of anti-corruption and radical change in Delhi. A new party formed just over year ago, it took the reigns of the local administration in the city after it won the second highest number of seats in the city elections.

What had most encouraged and impressed both Dasgupta and Dalrymple was the flourishing arts scene in Delhi which has really taken off in the last 10 years, and the fact that the two writers, as outsiders, had found a place within it.

“Rents are cheap, there is space outside the city and there is a group of artists in Delhi who can do the work they want to,” said Dasgupta, who had first come to the city in 2000.

In that sense, it could be argued that old values are beginning to reassert themselves after a period of tumult and tension and that the future is not as bleak as some might paint it.

Rana Dasgupta was in conversation with Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian on 12 March at Asia House.

Sailesh Ram is the founder and editor of, an online magazine dedicated to South Asian Arts. He is the former editor of Eastern Eye (2009-2012) and has had work published in The Independent and is a published novelist and scriptwriter. You can follow him on Twitter @asianculturevul or on Facebook. For more of his stories on the Jaipur Literature Festival go to