Global Cities: literary non-fiction from India

Using Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi for my Global Cities class is a double-edged sword. I wonder whether it offers a “fair” representation of life in the city.

Delhi, 2014

I really like the book, despite its focus on a certain segment of Indian society. Having visited Delhi several times in the past (e.g. here), it is hard not to feel sympathetic with Dasgupta’s hard-hitting, often bleak, but also all-too-humane portrait of the Indian capital.

The Delhi portrayed by Dasgupta is a city born out of the trauma of partition. The past is nothing to be nostalgic about, so its residents are most energetic about the future. The denial of certain, important aspects of its long history, however, has also made the city strangely characterless.

First we feel the excitement that brought the author to the Indian capital in the early 2000s, when the “software had been changed, but the hardware still remained untouched”. Art galleries were popping up, and Delhi’s literary scene rose to international fame.

However, the future that arrived was not as impressive as was hoped. Crime and materialism became the sidekicks of economic development. In this, Dasgupta suggests, Delhi may be indicative of much of the (megacities of the) Third World.

My class proceeds along with the chapters, whose settings I mark on a city map to give the students some idea of the vast space that is the Indian capital. The stories are mainly situated in Delhi’s posh south, but also make forays to Gurgaon and Noida.

Again, the picture painted of Indian society in general and Delhi in particular a few decades into liberalization is rather grim. But it is complex and does not necessarily adhere to our traditional playbook of urban and social change.

Gender inequalities, for example, are not the same as in the West. Women can advance relatively quickly to the highest echelons of corporate India. For men, however, this transformation is “laced with threat” — explaining some of the structural violence against women in the city.

Coming back to the beginning of the post: I wondered whether it is fair to show Delhi with all its complexities as part of this comparative Global Cities class?

I had this thought as the class immediately following the one on Delhi is on Tokyo, and this time, the Mori Memorial Foundation presented on their vision for the Japanese capital. (Without going into too much detail here, it was a glimpse of a slightly Huxleyan future, perhaps unsurprising if we consider the corporate / philosophical background of the think tank. Nonetheless, a positive spirit prevailed, while in Delhi darkness reigned, so to speak.)

Most literary non-fiction from India that I have read to date will provoke thoughts of that kind. Siddartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned is another great snapshot of the rising India, although the book’s stories take us also to the rural / peri-urban arena.

How much can you give a class to read to convey a more balanced view of urban India? (The same goes for making sub-Saharan Africa the locus of our “slum analysis” — a separate post on the controversy of that to follow.)

The most recent book portraying an Indian city I have read was Kushanava Choudhury’s Epic Citywhich William Dalrymple called a love letter to Kolkata. This could be a more positive while not rose-tinted reading. (Perhaps I should also read Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and see whether the past perhaps offers a more benign view of Delhi?)

Another book still on my list is Suketa Mehta’s Maximum Citya portrait of Mumbai in the early 2000s that was published to wide acclaim. Perhaps that is something for the holidays.

Finally, it’s worth a mention that all of these books were written by men, mostly by Indians born abroad or returning from long stints abroad. Their views straddle the worlds and are unique and limited — which may also explain why many Indians may find them hopelessly negative.

To me Delhi means family, home and amazing food. I can partake a little in my wife’s nostalgia for her childhood, learn more about this country’s tumultuous history and incredibly rich culture. Concurring with Dasgupta, it is also incredibly exciting to observe the extremes of our urban future in what may soon be the world’s largest city.

The other side of the coin: Delhi to me also means getting stuck in traffic, breathing terribly polluted air and being confronted with perhaps the most glaring inequalities on display on this planet.

(How) can one convey a balanced image of such a city?

Anyway, suggestions on what to read in terms of Indian literary non-fiction for an introductory urban studies class are more than welcome.

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