There are, just now and then, books that are so wonderful, so well-written, so utterly, totally readable that you revel in them and dread their ending.
I have just finished reading one such a book, the beautifully written “Capital” by Rana Dasgupta.
“Capital” tells the story of 21st century Delhi, which happens (now) to be my hometown, my forever home. But this is a book that will resonate with anyone interested in the psychology of a city, presented and told in a chatty, non-judgemental, almost picaresque fashion.
Mr. Dasgupta moved to Delhi with the millennium and has seen the city change hugely over the intervening years, both literally and metaphorically. (I moved here permanently in late 2005 and have lived through immense changes, not all of them positive).
But back to “Capital”.
Mr Dasgupta takes to the streets of Delhi and as he explores he talks and, most importantly for we the readers, he listens. People talk and tell him about their lives and he shares their interactions. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t preach, he listens.
To follow Mr. Dasgupta as he explores this city is to catch oneself saying, over and over again, “Yes, of course, that is EXACTLY what I feel/think/see/smell/hear…”
He has an unerring eye and ear for this city.
Take this vignette as he goes to meet 3 people in a hospital, who have horror stories of the unscrupulousness of the Indian medical system, where doctors push expensive tests and procedures on vulnerable, desperately worried family members :
Contemporary Delhi summarised in a couple of paragraphs, right down to the microwaved muffins.
The author lets the city speak for itself:
I drive past just such a front-ripped-off building in Moti Bagh every day, on my way to the park where I run and walk my dogs. The only difference is that there are no desks and calendars left on these particular expose walls, just faded paint as the sawn off houses gaze blankly out at the Metro construction towering over them.
Mr. Dasgupta has a wonderful knack of picking up on every visual clue this city has to offer, as he tries to understand (and in the process explain) its complicated and often selfish psychology
“Too democratic and open for their tastes…” Indeed. As he goes on to explain, Delhi embraces “utter unintelligibility within its own population.”
As we accompany this erudite and, I suspect, eminently likeable man through his meanderings, we meet some extraordinary characters, from the hugely talented Manish Arora to mega-rich tycoons to slum dwellers to ex-drug dealers – and these meetings are not at all clichéd, despite what that list might perhaps imply.
Each conversation is fascinating and gives us insights into so many aspects of this city – medicare, water shortages, arranged marriages, the drug habits of the city’s rich youngsters, the callousness of the government – but all told without any hint of passing judgment, no ranting, no preaching.
If indeed Mr. Dasgupta has an agenda, it is simply to get to grips with this ever-burgeoning city, and try and explain it to us.
There are moments of pure lyricism :
Any of you who have seen an elephant wandering the Delhi streets will know this rush of love.
I had my own elephant moment just 2 days ago.
Driving to drop my cook’s child at her 12th grade exams at a centre too far away for her to go on her own, I saw arrogant Delhi at its worst. Cars blocking the access road to the exam centre, drivers staring unseeingly ahead refusing to move to let other cars through, cars slewed everywhere on the broken down pavements, rubbish, mud – the whole unlovely selfish Delhi cityscape. I dropped the child, wished her luck and cursed (and, yes, honked) my way back through the horrific traffic.
And then I saw an elephant calmly eating whatever little municipal vegetation survives in mall-infested south Delhi. And my anger went. I stopped the car (yes, yes, parking properly) and went to talk to the mahout and took photos of the lovely creature who came and snuffled me with her trunk. I patted Aarti and drove off feeling Delhi wasn’t perhaps that bad after all.
So, yes, I share the author’s rush of love for the ellies lumbering through our streets.
The author rarely shows his irritation, but loud-voiced Aarti in the hospital café manages to get to him.
And then a page later, he made me cry, when he lets her tell her own story of losing her husband:
“She is so Delhi. It drives me crazy.”
This could be the hashtag for this wonderful fabulously well-written, fabulously readable book.
Do yourself a favour. Buy it and read it, whether you know Delhi or not, whether you love Delhi or hate it.
This is a book I cannot praise highly enough.
And in a “so Delhi” touch, you can, of course, order the book right here, through me…
Published in 2014 by Fourth Estate, the hardback costs Rs 799.