At the Heart of the Storm: Rana Dasgupta’s Capital

Rana Dasgupta's CapitalAlex Tickell, a member of the Planned Violence Working Group, Lecturer in English at the Open University and director of the Postcolonial Literatures Research Group, offers a thought on Rana Dasgupta’s new book-length study of twenty-first century Delhi, Capital (Canongate Books Ltd, 2014).

It was too often assumed that the inner life of an apparently prospering population should be as smooth as its external measures, but the accelerated changes of this emerging-world metropolis were often experienced as a violent and bewildering storm. Even as people made more money, things made less sense. (p. 45)

There is a point at the start of Rana Dasgupta’s new study of contemporary Delhi, Capital, in which the author reflects on the city’s immediate past, describing its recent post-millennial history as a period in which the intensity of change has ‘contorted’ daily life and pulled people between ‘exhilaration and horror’. Indeed, Delhi’s speed of change at the millennium recalls nothing more clearly than the line from the Communist Manifesto describing nineteenth-century capitalism’s unstoppable, annihilating force: ‘all fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air’.

The reference is apt but also inaccurate, because the very project of globalised modernity in contemporary India is both strangely familiar and yet without precedent. To make the old claims (so effectively critiqued by Dipesh Chakrabarty) that India’s modernity is somehow comparable to the great urban expansions of nineteenth-century Europe, or the technological pace of early twentieth-century global cities is to miss the point of Dasgupta’s rewarding and perceptively diagnostic account of Delhi as the epicentre of the New India. If Delhi is now synonymous with a kind of modernity, Dasgupta argues, it is the modernity of a possible global future:

But the book I began to write was only in part a book about Delhi. It was just as much a book about the global system itself. I did not feel that the scenes I witnessed around me were of concern only to this place. Nor did I feel that they were scenes of a ‘primitive’ part of the system, which was struggling to ‘catch up’ with the advanced West. They felt, rather, to be hypermodern scenes which were replicated, with some variations, elsewhere on the rockface of contemporary global capitalism. Indeed, the book I began to write felt like a report from the global future: for it seemed to be in those ‘emerging’ centres like this, which missed out on international capitalism’s mid-twentieth-century — its moment of greatest inclusiveness and hope — that one could best observe the most recent layer of global time. (pp. 45-6)

—Alex Tickell

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