‘Hyperconsumerism has led to cultural despair in Delhi’

Rana Dasgupta discusses his book with Amelia Gentleman at Asia House

Rana Dasgupta discusses his book with Amelia Gentleman at Asia House

‘Hyperconsumerism has led to cultural despair in Delhi’

19 March 2014

By Naomi Canton

Delhi is a city that has lost its values and been ruined by rampant consumerism, claims British Indian author Rana Dasgupta in his latest book Capital.

Dasgupta was at Asia House in conversation with Amelia Gentleman, social affairs writer for The Guardian and former Delhi Correspondent for The International Herald Tribune.

Gentleman described Dasgupta’s first non-fiction book as engaging accounts of conversations the 42-year-old had had with Delhi residents of different socio-economic classes in which he persuaded them to open up about what’s wrong with the city.

UK-born author Dasgupta moved to Delhi in 2000 and still lives there. In the book he speaks about how the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s released a lot of optimism and high hopes. “That optimism was also based on an economic boom and rising property prices,” he said.

But the euphoria Indians across the world had held about their nation in the early part of the 21st century, epitomised in the phrase ‘India Shining’, came crashing down when corruption scandals emerged in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games on such an enormous scale that the press could not contain its outrage. The middle-classes “realised they were not running this place and instead there was a tiny political business nexus that was drawing out large amounts of money and controlling things,” Dasgupta said.

The high-profile 2012 Delhi rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman – known as Braveheart –  focused the attention of the middle-classes on all that was wrong with India. The country then entered a period of introspection. This book is an expression of anxiety about Delhi and its values, he explained.

Characters in his book include a Delhi multi-millionaire who has a Teppanyaki restaurant, spa and cigar room inside his home. Meanwhile half the population of the city live in slums.

“I had been living in Delhi for a decade and I felt like the city of Delhi had become something that had not been prepared for in previous versions of Indian cities,” Dasgupta said.

He explained how capitalism had taken hold of the city. “People who a generation ago were living in poverty and illiteracy were now buying houses. It would be dishonest not to talk about the immense devastation brought by the system of capitalism,” he added. He spoke of a  “spiritual and cultural despair” now prevalent in Delhi even among the very wealthy, despite the city’s rapid urbanisation and the upgrade in lifestyle the middle classes had experienced. “The gloom set in in 2008 to 2009,” he said.

“When I started writing the book the kind of criticism I was making of Delhi was anathema to Indians,” he said. By the time the book was published this year his own discontent had become mainstream, he added.

“William Dalrymple’s book City of Djinns is more positive about the city as it was published in 1993 and so showed Delhi in a much quainter gentler time,” he explained.

He then pointed out that India’s traditional chai stalls, where backpackers could get a cup of chai for Rs 3 to Rs 5 (3p-5p), had vanished from central Delhi and “were only in small towns now, “as Delhi aimed to become a “world city.” “Food and vegetables that were staples before have also been lost,” he said.

“Delhi is a cash economy. The richest people in that city are rich not because of their salaries but because of their family businesses, political corruption and other things that generate cash. There are hardly any credit card transactions in Delhi. People stash cash in jewellery and property,” he added.

The book talks about the “unsophisticated hyperconsumerism of Asia” which Dasgupta puts down to India, China and Russia having suffered enormous traumas in the 20th century. The Partition of India had deprived Delhi of all of its property and wealth while China and Russia both had massive-scale famines. All three nations’ economies were kept shut off until relatively recently.

Capital by Rana Dasgupta

“If you deprive people of certain kinds of resources for a long time they become paranoid. People used to have to queue for all kinds or resources so mobility at a green light is a resource,” he said trying to explain the notorious aggressive driving in the capital.

“Delhi was born out of the Partition of Punjab. It is the capital city and over the last 40 years, people from across the country have been drifting there to do business by political hacking so it is a city of hustlers. It’s a place where people come to bypass regulations because they know that the thing they want they can’t easily get.”

Half a million migrants move to Delhi every year.

“Consumerism in India will not follow the Western path,” he said. In the West it had led to greater levels of equality in society but “these forces are not currently present in India,” he said referring to the immense fear of communism that had been at force in the West post WWII that “provided very prescient reason for the elite to give away concessions.”

“The fear of communism and democratising forces are not currently present in India.  The elites in India are under very little revolutionary pressure. There is little prospect of the classes reuniting,” he said.  He conceded that the Maoist movement in India had led to some concessions for the rural poor but nothing on the scale that would bring similar levels of equality to what is currently seen in the West. “Delhi has always refused to house its poor. Half the population of Delhi is in unofficial housing but that includes rich people too. There are millions of people in makeshift homes,” he added. “People in Delhi are very feudal that way.”

As for the high-profile media attention on the 2012 gang rape, he said: “Rape has been present in India for a long time but it has been mainly a domestic scenario. That one case was one of many cases. There is a particular history of male insecurity over attempts to break the patriarchal power,” he added.

“The ideal in India is that a woman lives with her husband and in-laws but in today’s world women work and there are dual incomes but the man still wants to control her. The status of Indian women in the home is being called into question by women working,” he said.

He said whilst the focus on that rape had led to a number of changes in India including more sensitivity from the press in covering sexual abuse, it had also led to a collapse of confidence in what Indian culture is.

“There is not anything in history that can illustrate what will happen. It’s conceivable there will be catastrophic outcomes. Water is one and it could divide the classes violently,” he said.

But he did have some kind words for the city, which has a population of 17 million. “It’s very chaotic, the energy is enormous and incredibly magnetic and when I come to England I am bored. One of the things I like most about Delhi is its people.” He pointed out it had given him a a community without which he  would not have been able to write books.

“India is not a failed state,” he continued. “It has a strong sense of its own culture. It has a very sophisticated and educated people. It has very high or is it low thresholds for disorder? I suspect it contains the resources within it to solve these problems and the Indian diaspora care about it and would want to help solve these problems. The Indian Government’s revenues from taxes is less than Norway which has a population of five million so it’s not a surprise that the Government can’t solve that many problems.”

He added there was a new crop of educated entrepreneurs in India who would rather do something than wait for the Indian Government to act.

Dasgupta was born in Canterbury, England to an Indian father and English mother and he moved to Delhi in 2000 when he was in his late 20s.

A graduate from Balliol College, Oxford, his second novel Solo (2009) was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.


Rana Dasgupta signs copies of Capital at Asia House

Rana Dasgupta signs copies of his book Capital at Asia House


The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival runs from 6 – 21 May, 2014. Tickets are now on sale and can be booked here.

Don’t miss the Opening Night on 6 May when Hanif Kureishi will talk about his latest novel The Last Word. For more information click here.

As India prepares for its General Election in a few weeks Mukulika Banerjee will talk about her latest book Why India Votes on 30 April. For more information click here.

To read an interview that Rana Dasgupta gave to Sailesh Ram at the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival click here.