'People in Delhi have a weak idea of society'
Rana Dasgupta's third book Capital: A portrait of 21st century Delhi was released in India this week. This is the British-Indian writer's first non-fiction book. His earlier works, Tokyo Cancelled (2005) and Solo (2009), made him Britain's best novelist under 40. The 42-year-old won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Solo in 2010. Excerpts from an interview with Smitha Verma before the release of the book
This is your first piece of non-fiction. Why did you choose to write about Delhi?
I had arrived in Delhi in 2000 to take a break from my corporate job in New York. But I never went back. Instead, I became a full-time writer. Throughout my stay here, I was having a mental dialogue with this city. In the last 10 years, everything about the city had changed. Some of the experiences were positive and some were painful. I wanted to put all this into a book.
What connection do you feel with Delhi?
I have lived in Delhi for 13 years now. My daughter was born here. I am deeply and personally invested in the future of this city. I care about the women, traffic and air of the city. I grew up in England (born to a Bengali father and a British mother), have a different accent. But that also means that I can see things more clearly. Being an outsider meant I could talk to people without being judged.
You write about 21st century Delhi. How is Delhi different from other Indian cities like Mumbai or Calcutta or an international city like New York?
I had started working on this book around 2010. I was looking at Delhi with a novelist's eye. It is a dark book looking at a dark city. One of the diagnoses my book makes about Delhi is that the people here have a very weak idea of society. People in Calcutta or Mumbai have a strong idea of society. They are proud of their city. In Delhi, class and clan rule. Here, I wait for a person to be introduced to me and when that happens he is a friend. People are very protective of their clan. I think it is because of their history. The Punjabis who fled Lahore believed in Lahore. It was their neighbours in Lahore who burned their houses. The entire trauma of 1947 was to never trust the city or to have a civic feeling. Then 1984 happened. 1984 was not the fault of outsiders. People tell me that till 1984, the walls around the houses weren't high but after 1984 the walls were higher. You build walls so close that you are always treating everyone with suspicion.
What do you think of the recent political changes in Delhi?
My book shows a slightly pre-Kejriwal [Arvind Kejriwal, current chief minister of Delhi] world where everyone is pre-occupied with values. The book is extremely critical of the general culture of Delhi — one of privilege entrenched in corruption and a complete disregard for the aam aadmi. So everything that Kejriwal has done to distance himself from that idea of politics is amazing.
Do you think such a political change would have happened in a city like Mumbai?
Possibly not. Delhi was greatly traumatised by corruption in the last few years. The poor were victims from the very beginning. During the Commonwealth Games period, the elite of the city were hopeful that they would get a city which is rid of the poor, with great transport and roads — something like Paris. The hopes of the middle class were crushed with the corruption that took over. Poor people in the city were kicked out and even business owners were getting affected. The bourgeois elitism was also suffering. So Delhi had to change politically.
Did you get involved in the lives of the people whom you interviewed for Capital?
I have interviewed rich businessmen, slum dwellers, men and women in bad marriages, social activists, and so on. I became real friends with many of them. You meet someone and ask very personal questions like how you have sex with your wife or what you feel about your dead father. Such intimate conversations inevitably get you close to people. Some people, especially men, wanted to carry on talking after the session. I became like a therapist for them.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I never decided to be a writer. Having studied communications, I was heading the marketing division of an advertising firm in New York. It was an interesting job but ultimately that world didn't attract me much. I was working extremely hard and not getting much except sleep.
I decided to write a book. I did write it for myself in the beginning and then it was published and soon I became a writer. I think human beings are versatile and we should all be doing lots of things, including things we don't do very well. Everyone should have major interests and minor interests. For me it's music and photography. I play the piano. I know I am not brilliant at it but I love playing the jazz piano every Wednesday at a restaurant in Delhi. Then I have a serious relationship with photography. A lot of places I want to write about I start by taking photographs.
What memories do you have of your childhood?
I am not comfortable talking about myself. I have memories of visiting Calcutta every two-three years while in school. It was very different from where I was coming from. The most striking was the family structure. In Calcutta, it was a joint family and our terminology was intact in the structure despite us being away. Back home, I always felt that I had this secret world which was India.
What are your future projects?
I have started work on my next book and also on a lot of articles for different publications. This year, I am taking two months off from writing to teach at Brown University. I am going to teach a course on globalisation and culture.
I have heard that you enjoy cooking and buying rugs. Is it so?
There's not very much I would want to be rich for, but Persian rugs would have to be one of them. I wouldn't say I am a collector but I just love rugs. I own three now and hope to buy a few more. I cook a lot, especially Indian and Italian cuisine. Some of the things can rise above functionality, like cooking and rugs, which give me aesthetic pleasure.
Do you think promotions and marketing events are important for a book?
I am a bit numb to what happens to a book after I finish writing it. I care much less than I ought to. My livelihood depends on its sales so I should be more interested. A part of me would like to be silent and let the book talk. But I am not so nave as to think that I can get away with that. Though I have this romantic idea that a good book will find its audience.