Culture & Conversation

Delhi: capital of capitals

Another middle class man chauffered through the streets of New Delhi

Another middle class man chauffered through the streets of New Delhi

Capital: A Portrait of Delhi in the Twenty-first Century, by Rana Dasgupta, Canongate Books

Writing about a city that has been the subject not just of modern literary narratives but also of erudite works from centuries past by Urdu and Persian poets such as Ghalib, Mir and Amir Khusrow could not have been easy.

With diverse characters – from rich businessmen to aspirational, middle-class youth and call-centre agents, Dasgupta portrays, Delhi’s transformational and often contradictory modernity in original ways.

Capital reinvents Delhi as an imaginative site of memory, aspirations and desire for its residents.  The centre of the nascent Indian economy at independence, it was the showcase of India’s first Prime Minister Nehru’s dream of a modern, multilingual, secular and progressive India, a dream that has waxed and waned in recent years.   The Delhi of old is nostalgically evoked through the memories of family members.

Now, urban planners seek to reconstruct Delhi as a space of capital accumulation, also with limited success. They are not quite successful because of the inchoate nature of India’s political and economic life.  Each chapter begins with an anecdote exploring how Delhi’s residents cope with the contradictions inherent in the consumer economy’s growing importance: corruption brought by corporate health care, the anxieties created by women’s changing role in the family as they step out of the home to work, and the post-911 drive to identify India as a U.S. ally in the new world order.

Delhi is the product of many waves of destruction by foreign invaders – Greeks, Persians, Mughals, Mongals, the Delhi Sultanate, British, and others, most of them rebuilding the capital in their own fashion. The city is thus represented in poetry and narrative with a sense of loss, almost of desolation. A chapter on Delhi’s history opens with a quote from the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar evoking this sentiment.

British architect Edwin Lutyen’s imprint on the city is also discussed.  In 1912, the British Empire recast New Delhi as the capital of their South Asian empire, replacing Calcutta. In Delhi, government buildings and tree-lined streets were designed by Luytens to symbolize the British Raj’s imperial visions.

These decaying colonial landmarks are now kept alive by those Indians who “live straitened lives in wings of divided mansions, maintaining their status with occasional outings of the silver tea service and a haughty disdain for the new money that has replaced their old. Their faces are lined with the burden of family suicides, madness and alcoholism. They have eccentric paranoia about the past, hiding their whisky from the portrait on the wall of their magisterial great-grandfather, Sir something-or-other, who built the house in which now they skulk.”

A chapter on India’s partition and its upheavals highlights the sexual violence that accompanied massive displacements of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and the way it affected post-independence constructions of North Indian masculinity. A defining trauma of the city, it left a lasting impression on Delhi’s culture: “It is Partition, more than anything else, that marks the birth of what can be recognized as contemporary Delhi culture. The contemporary city was born out of trauma on a massive scale, and its culture is a traumatized culture.”

This upstart “post-traumatic” Punjabi culture was highly “masculinized,” in diametric opposition to the “effeminate” Sufi Muslim culture, Delhi’s “Islamic ghosts.” In Hinduism, this binary is represented by the hyper-masculinity of the god Rama and the sensitivity and femininity of Krishna. Rama is “someone very close, someone touchingly flawed, someone whose outbursts of spasmodic violence, precisely, make him a reassuringly familiar role model.”  This binary may be in play in campaigns to end rampant sexual violence in the city.

One touching passage suggests that it is possible to transcend this cycle of violence.  This passage describes Hindu men enjoying a performance from a Pakistani qawwal, a Sufi devotional song, “(L)ook at these men who are so conditioned to murder the feminine within them that they cannot keep themselves from stamping on girls and women without – look at how they desire this Sufi on stage, the man of poetry and eloquence, the man of universal desire, the man who has not sacrificed his feeling, who has never learned that ecstasy and song are effeminate – look at how they take him into themselves and try to fill themselves with him. How his gestures infect their own, how his passion lights up their faces. Look how this Muslim can set a fire in the hearts of these Hindus and set them free – look how he can restore them to everything they have been.”

Parts of the book read like a primer on Indian history, focusing on key events and processes that are common knowledge to most students of South Asian culture and history, especially in their North Indian variant.

Delhi’s rising middle class and its bourgeois culture form an overdone central focus, while Delhi’s poor and their struggles in the peripheral settlements of the city make only a brief appearance. In the end, the book successfully captures the dilemma that is Delhi. Like many metropolises in the global south, it faces the challenge of how to achieve the longed-for and promised goal of prosperity in the face of capitalist globalization’s contradictions and upheavals.


Sarwat Viqar teaches social sciences at John Abbott College.  An architect by training, she is working on an interdisciplinary doctorate that looks at South Asia’s geography and politics.  She has recently taught in Karachi, Pakistan, where she researched the politics of space in that city.

-photo: David, Flickr Media Commons

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