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My all-too-brief visit to Delhi last year ignited in me a desire to learn about the history of India. A shout-out to the hive mind on Facebook armed me with a formidable reading list — still entirely unread. Only one friend was kind enough to put directly into my hands a book he swore I’d find illuminating, and it’s the one I’ve finally gotten around to reading: not a work of history, exactly (though incorporating a great deal of historical learning), but a novelist’s work of journalism. Its basic structure is rather repetitious — most chapters consist of a passage of historical rumination on the history of Delhi, followed by an account of an interview with one of the protagonists of its recent transformation, a member of the nouveaux riches who’ve imposed their character on the capital despite their miniscule numbers. The history is what some might call “potted”—I don’t care. I’d be curious to hear a professional historian’s view, but to me, the picture Dasgupta paints seems plausible and nuanced, and for my taste, he presents just the right quantity of information for the historical narrative to feel neither oversimplified nor overwhelming. But to oversimplify what Dasgupta doesn’t, the two crucial moments in Delhi’s modern history were, first, the fratricidal violence of Partition, when refugees from what had now become Pakistan settled in Delhi and the surrounding region, and second, Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, which led to anti-Sikh riots that, according to Dasgupta, “sent a definitive message that the law was a degenerate part of Indian social life and one’s only duty was to oneself.” Thus, “the contemporary city was born out of trauma on a massive scale, and its culture is a traumatized culture.” The people Dasgupta portrays — or rather, who portray themselves in their conversations with him — are often grotesques, in a way: self-absorbed victims of their own ingrained urges to earn and to consume. But Dasgupta’s tact persuades me to first understand, judge after. For instance, it would be easy to see a businessman who dreams of throwing it all over for a monastic existence as merely putting a spiritual gloss over his innate rapacity; however, Dasgupta has sufficient imagination to see in him “a man who does not really like the world of money” but pretends to do so in order “to appear ‘normal’ in this era of obsessive accumulation.” The heart of the book, however, is neither in the history nor in the profiles, but in those rarer passages in which the writer uses all his novelistic skill to plunge the reader into the sensate experience of the city. His descriptive powers are enormous, allowing him to portray its poverty and wealth, its filth and beauty with equal intensity. The broad-brush history and intimate portraits are there not exactly to explain these experiences, but to understand how they became possible. Dasgupta, who was born and raised in the UK but has adopted Delhi as his home, has the double perspective of both an outsider and insider; his empathy is rare anywhere. He understands difference: “The earth is round: we just jut out from it at different angles to the sky.”

Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: The Eruption of Delhi (2014) is published by The Penguin Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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