“I’ve lived in Delhi for 11 years, and I find that when people who come through say, ‘What’s it like to live here?’ I have never been able to give an answer to that question that measures up to the intensity of the way I feel about living in the city.”
In October the acclaimed fiction writer Rana Dasgupta, best known for his 2009 novel Solo, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, gave a talk at the University of Toronto on the book he is currently working on, a non-fiction piece on Delhi. It’s the city where he’s written for over a decade, where he lives with his wife and daughter, and a city that, without this book, he says, would continue to confound him.
“I feel that the city I’m living in hasn’t actually been discovered yet. It’s all around me and 16 million other people. We inhabit it every day and we are bombarded by stimuli, but we haven’t actually imagined it.”
While the book is a work of non-fiction, Dasgupta says it will use the techniques of fiction to tell the stories of the extreme, outlandish, and compelling personalities that Delhi seems to produce.
That is not to say that the Delhi he is writing is “hidden” or “exotic.” He’s not looking to sensationalize.
“It is the unknown in a more philosophical understanding of the city, which is to say, ‘How do we invent a city out of these things that we already know?’ We know that there are very rich people and very poor people, but how do we make this into a city in a literary sense?”
The project in part arises out of Dasgupta’s desire to codify the city, to make it known to himself and his fellow Delhiites in the way that the highly codified cities — like Paris and New York — are known to us, even if we have never been there. We know them through stories, through literature and film, television and song, and these stories form a code through which we read the city — even when we do visit there.
That’s not so for Delhi, Dasgupta says.
“I feel that we’re reading Delhi raw. It’s just raw stimulus that we’re not able to code. That’s partly why it feels so overwhelming and tiring.”
His current non-fiction undertaking is what Dasgupta calls a “project of imagination.”
“I think it’s important because we — we being the people who live in that country — don’t know who we are, really. We don’t know the first thing about who we share the country with, what those people must think about, how different issues connect together.”
Connect: the word comes up often in his talk. With his Delhi book he is trying to do what “serious” (his word) writers of Indian fiction are now trying to do with the novel. The post-colonial project no longer motivates. The new question: “How do we connect everything in this economic and political reality?”
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When I meet with Dasgupta after his lecture, I put to him the question of why not fiction if what he is trying to do is the same as his novelist peers. He replies that he wants this book to be more direct than his last book — direct both in its purpose and its style. The raw material he is working with includes 18 months of interviews. The result he is aiming for sounds like reportage — “This is the person I met and this is what he said and this is how he lived” — all filtered through Dasgupta’s unfolding relationship with the city.
He also doesn’t want to give his readers the alibi of fiction: “This guy may be entertaining,” he explains, referring to one of the people whose stories he tells. “And maybe you would have enjoyed reading about him in a fictional format, but that’s not why I’m telling you about him. I’m telling you about him because he’s in your world and he wishes to make claims on your world, and somehow your picture of your world has to accommodate him.”
The specifics of how Dasgupta will codify Delhi will have to be examined once the book is complete. In the process of writing, he has come to see Delhi as an emblem of the 21st century. He makes a compelling case for that position and its implications, which he has begun to share.
India, much like Russia, came to capitalism late, though they are two of the four BRIC economies (along with Brazil and China) outpacing the former industrialized heavyweights and expected to overtake the G7 by 2027.
“So the book is interested partly in the new persona of the emerging economy.” The other part? “A meditation on the 21st century.”
If Delhi is unlike the highly codified New York, it did initially remind Dasgupta of a former version of the Empire City, that of the 1920s with its robber barons and sudden, illegitimate wealth, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers who built New York as a way to legitimize the capital they had accumulated. You build the Met so that you can be seen in your box in the “golden horseshoe,” whether you like opera or not.
Success in Gilded Age New York was also understood to be in competition with the cities of Europe: buy Europe’s art treasures and bring over the best European orchestras and soloists. The status of the robber baron was tied to the status of his city.
“I thought that’s a natural future for this place: Asia is taking over from the West, and we’re going to have these kinds of amazing buildings and all this kind of stuff. None of this has happened. So the question is: Has it not happened because Delhi remains completely immature and still hasn’t caught up, and it’s that whole thing of the West being the vanguard and everyone else doing the same thing but a bit later? Or is it that this is a hypermodern state already, it’s a fully mature 21st-century city, in which case, what does that mean?
There is no Delhi Opera House, nor does Dasgupta believe there will be one in the near future.
“I think the Delhi elite are not going to build an opera house in Delhi, partly because they’re not very interested in opera, but they can go to the Met themselves anytime they want. ‘It’s already been built. We don’t have to do it again. Our kids go to Harvard.’ There is this sense that the infrastructure of their lives already exists.”
Equally, “If Americans were to build New York now, they wouldn’t do it. We are in a different cycle in the global economy, which is of much faster returns on investment.” Who today starts digging with a mind to the building having a 200-year or a 300-year return on investment? “One of the reasons I feel Delhi exposes the 21st century better than Europe or America is that in a place like Europe, you’re drawing on those older temporalities a lot.”
After his talk, as we are finishing our coffees, Dasgupta admits that had he been living in Bangalore, he might be writing a book about Bangalore — though he does believe that Delhi is especially suited to a discussion of our age.
“The image I have in my head is it’s a kind of place where the surface of the earth has broken open, and one can see the precise churn of the 21st century.”
As we get up to leave and put on our scarves and jackets, we begin to chat about how he has enjoyed interviewing his subjects. He compares the role of an interviewer to that of an analyst. As much of our discussion has been given over to financial and economic matters, I make the wrong connection.
“Like a financial analyst?” I ask.
“No,” he laughs, “like a psychoanalyst.”
That may be the most apt description of his current project: to psychoanalyze his city, and through it, his time.