Interview with Rana Dasgupta
Rana Dasgupta is a British-Indian writer. He lives in Delhi; his 3rd and most recent book Capital is a non-fictional exploration of the Indian capital’s new elite class and their place in the global turbulence of the early 2000s. His second book, the novel Solo, won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and his first novel, Tokyo Cancelled, has received wide acclaim.
Dasgupta spoke with Fiction Board member Henry Shah ’17 in New Delhi on a hazy day in late August, 2016. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.
ADVOCATE: Can you place this book within your wider work?
DASGUPTA: How can I explain this phase of mine? Reading H.G. Wells is a good example of somebody who has very powerful concepts to describe the world in a mixture of ction and nonfiction. There’s this idea of the writer who is a thinker and essayist and novelist is not very contemporary, but I like it. The novel I’m writing right now builds a lot on the subterranean aspects of Capital. There were a lot of things in Capital I couldn’t write about because I owed some kind of protection to people I interviewed. Their sex lives, their addictions, their dream lives, their intimate things were not things I could write about. And yet as mad as that world was, many of the characters were far madder than I could write about. Some of that goes into fiction, but I think that this back and forth between fiction and nonfiction is a very appropriate response to this time, especially when one is writing of places like Delhi. A lot of one’s duty as a writer is simply documentary because this thing of globalization leaves a lot of people bewildered by the sheer factual basis of the world they’re living in. They are connected to things they have no factual knowledge about. That factual knowledge cannot be all delivered by all CNN. It’s not all statistics. Going out and just writing what people are living is part of the writer’s response to this moment in which the world is becoming strange to itself. At the same time, I think that if we stay with what exists, we can’t engage with what we can imagine. We desperately need to imagine things at the moment. We’re weighed down by what exists, by the certainty that the world is coming to an end.
ADVOCATE: Would you discuss the framing of your book?
DASGUPTA: The epigraph to the book is from Brecht. It refers to a moment in Berlin that seems akin to this moment in Delhi. This story goes back to the 18th century and is the long story of modernity. It is the constant rolling out of the world system. I don’t see this as an “Eastern” story to complicate a “Western” story. It is the maturing and further unfurling of something. It is a book of classical modernism. Marx is very important. Other people have also given a sensibility here, like Baudelaire. The sense of euphoria and horror is the constant modern dichotomy of feeling. In a way, I think it’s the only true feeling of this time, which we see in Goethe, in Nietzsche, in Marx. It’s important to be true to both halves of that feeling. If you are, as the BJP was, blind to the destruction and fallout of the present, you are just mad. If you can’t understand the euphoria and dy- namism and the hope, you are just ungenerous to the grandeur of history. Many things are happening which can’t be reduced to horror. I’m trying to expand myself and go in all directions.
ADVOCATE: Delhi seems to embody your modernist oscillation between euphoria and anxiety. Your interlocutors’ words pulse with fear and buried desire. How did this negotiation of feeling work on a conversation-by-conversation level?
DASGUPTA: It felt like therapy. The most interesting characters I met were men. They were most interesting because they were far more wounded and haunted than the women, who I found had normal responses to the city in many ways. The people on the receiving end of misogyny are sometimes not the ones who can relate it the best. The perpetrators here are the maddest of all. The other thing is, women were talking to each other. The conversations they had with me were not particularly remarkable in their lives. Men had often not said these things before. They were repressed, especially the wealthier, more macho figures. They had no conversations in their lives at all to speak of anxieties, parents, women—except in lurid ways. I had no stake in their performance. I just asked very earnest questions as an outsider about very serious things in life. These became remarkable conversations in their lives. They would even call later and say, ‘can we talk more, there are more things I’ve got to tell you about.’ It did become ambiguous who needed this conversation more, them or the writer.
ADVOCATE: Your portrait of Delhi is rich and expansive, but has a connected thread. Can you describe the thematic or lived unity of these experiences?
DASGUPTA: I don’t think it’s an artificial structure I’ve imposed on this group of people. The traumas of Partition have been focused and intensied over this generation. The energy over which money has been made and the city has been regrouped are pretty mad energies. All other cities are far more hospitable to outsiders than Delhi, which has no even official desire to receive and settle outsiders. They will live in tents for the duration. When the US edition first came out of Capital, they sent out a draft cover. There was a Rolls Royce driving down the street next to a woman selling vegetables. It was kind of comic anyway in its desire to prove easy contrast. It was also clearly in Bombay—the woman on the sidewalk, contrary to what the New York editors thought, was not some kind of pathetic, downtrodden individual. She was a well-dressed, dignied tradeswoman. To a Delhi observer, she looked extremely in command of herself. That same population in Delhi is far more vulnerable and at the mercy of all kinds of violence. You have to understand that this city is very militarized and policed. All these South Delhi neighborhoods have these ‘residents’ welfare associations’ that employ military men. They patrol the streets; their whole drive is to put up more steel between the poor and the wealthy populations. When you see the vehemence of these measures, you know you will see all kinds of intense phobias in the minds of the elite. Many see rape as a punishment on women. The psyche gets out of control. The whole reason I thought to write nonfiction about this time between 2000-2010 was because I knew the truth would be mad. This is really in your world.
ADVOCATE: Many American readers are used to a depiction of India in which poverty and deprivation are foregrounded. Can you speak of your choice to write about India’s middle classes and elite?
DASGUPTA: This idea that India is best and most authentically represented by its poor is very tedious. The suffering of the poor exists on a monumental scale. No attempt to represent it will ever be adequate. At the time I was writing the book, there was an American report about inequality in India. The figures are misleading for all sorts of reasons. But it’s clear that there has been a class who have massively benetted from what has been going on. They’ve maneuvered themselves to a master-like position, where they can easily determine the fate of everyone—the billion-plus. To me, the idea that talking to those people is a betrayal is ridiculous. Who are those people and what kind of world do they want to live in? They’re not the same as American billionaires or Swiss billionaires. They’ve a very different history. The idea that one could be a billionaire is only twenty years old in this country. They are at a different point in the cycle of their country’s history. The postcolonial history inects their ambitions in interesting ways. It’s extremely relevant to talk about them. There are various gradations. We’re talking about a tiny slab within the Indian population, but about wide variation within that slab. The economists can’t document that variation very well, because economists cannot or will not venture far into the illegitimate realms of wealth. The lack of knowledge exists for the middle class. The Indian middle classes want this and want that. Who are these people? None of this is obvious. There’s an idea in the foreign press that we know these people, but I don’t think we do. Materialist, greedy, right wing, et cetera. We wouldn’t tolerate that parody in other countries. We have to be honest and appreciate that we’ve never heard these people speak before. The business press will interview people who can speak a language of stock markets and strategy, but they will not talk to my Nicky Chopra. His money doesn’t show up anywhere.
ADVOCATE: This is your first work of nonfiction. You spoke brieifly earlier about your wide vision for the writer’s role in crafting multiple types of narrative. What kinds of structure and language did you look to deploy when telling these stories?
DASGUPTA: It’s easier and harder than writing a novel. It’s easier because a lot of the material is just given to you. It’s harder because there’s no thread except the city itself. My editors were saying ‘Put more of yourself into the book.’ I wasn’t that interested in myself. The stories spoke for themselves, so it was difficult to structure. I think that for me it was important that it was a novelist’s take. How can a novelist make pronouncements about politics and economics? I think that we know places like this through numbers. That goes for people who live in this place, too. It’s not like we have lived experience of the numerous worlds that make up this city. Our experience, the experience of those living in this city, often boils down to the statistic. In India, these numbers are completely meaningless. In this city, we have people in the highest and lowest indices of every sort. The average tells us nothing about the lived. One had to actually take a novelist’s sensibility. How do people dress? What are they afraid of? What do they drink? How do they decorate their rooms? In these moments of great transition, we wonder how we should feel about the world. There’s a national feeling which has been historically quite predictable and is not. It’s collapsing. We look out at a global space and wonder how we should feel about it. We don’t have many precedents for talking about these feelings. Then I turn to prose. How do we write deeply corrupt societies? We are all corrupt and all complicit but we go on. We still ask ourselves ethical questions. These are weird spaces. It’s important to find the language for that weirdness.
ADVOCATE: Your vivid, even lurid, descriptions of Delhi have been read by some reviewers as an indictment of the present reality in your city.
DASGUPTA: This book is written both for and against this place, for those who live here and those who don’t. The indictment of the city is very clear. My insider indictment is different. I don’t accept the indictment of the outsider—there is a selsh, evil, Indian middle class who wants to keep its resources for itself. I don’t buy this constant conversation that I experience outside of India. ‘Tell us what it feels like to be talking to horrible, selsh people.’ I have no truck with this position. This implies that Indians who are, say, working in an insurance company and sending their kids to private schools have some kind of unique responsibility to the Indian poor which the West doesn’t. The Western middle classes don’t. They can do exactly the same thing with no guilt. This is to take refuge behind things which are just made of paper. The middle classes of the world, not just India, are just selsh. They are concerned with making sure their day’s labor pays for someone else’s several days’ labor. Europe is a gated community in a far more noxious way to the world. I don’t castigate Europeans for that setup. But Indian middle classes are far more conscious of what the global poor look like, and many step out into strange improvised relationships with these seeming others.
ADVOCATE: Bombay has attracted attention as the star player in India’s rise to global prominence. Why Delhi?
DASGUPTA: You were talking about the ways Bombay occupies a place in the American imagination. It’s a hyper-modern version of New York, that’s understandable. It is a city of stars, of nance or corporate families. These are familiar things. The reason why Delhi does not get much attention, but is even more contemporary and uncanny than Bombay, is this question of corruption. The mix of politics and business. I constantly make a Moscow parallel. In order to express things here, one is trying to express ghostly spaces where one doesn’t know what the hell is going on, why that bus shelter got built, who is making money, and what level. The whole city is a scam of some sort. The low and the high come together in interesting ways. We don’t know what the whole story is, but the networks of poor inhabit the bottom and the top. It makes for an incredibly paranoid existence. You know the city is being run in some atrocious way, but you don’t know for what reason. You oscillate between the idea that everyone is a complete idiot and that everyone is a genius in a way you haven’t quite figured out.