Capital story, yet again!

I have been writing off and on, and reviewing books on various cities and the lion’s share of the books I have read and reviewed has been on Delhi and the historic city’s various interesting aspects. Among them Khushwant Singh’s unique book on the seasons of Delhi, Swapna Liddle’s book on Chandani Chowk, Pradip Krishen’s beautifully illustrated Trees of Delhi, Nikhil Devsar’s Birds About Delhi and then the quaint Princely Palaces of Delhi are the ones I immediately recollect having introduced to the Urban Update readers. The extraordinary of them all was ‘New Delhi’ by Robert Byron. It’s a reprinted book of January 1931 on the architecture of the new capital which was officially opened in February that year.
So, here’s another one for you. Kind of a novel but not purely fiction; it takes you back and forth to historical anecdotes while also beautifully showcasing ng the present. Capital tells us stories of Delhi that many of us may not have read before. It’s more than pure history or architecture and surely different from scores of books written on Delhi in recent times. Since I have lived in Delhi and am aware of the City’s DNA, I found the book worth a read.
An excerpted para or two may give the reader enough hints before I delve into the absorbing portrait of the Indian capital city further. Here it goes…
“In a city of euphemisms, this place is called a ‘farmhouse’. Nothing is farmed here, of course. But when, in the 1970s, the Delhi elite began seizing swathes of land to the south of the city to build private estates, the entire belt was reserved, according to the regulations, for agriculture – and, with a pang of propriety that touched the names of things even if it could not touch the things themselves, they called their new mansions ‘farmhouses’. This was specially important since many of the first farmhouses were built by the very bureaucrats and politicians who had made the regulations, severely correct individuals for whom irregularities in the names of things were an offence to the dignity of their office….In no other Indian metropolis does the urban elite bask in such pastoral tranquillity: this is an idiosyncrasy of the capital.”
Author Dasgupta has woven some of the great stories of individuals of the city so well in this book that they help one get some really new perspectives about Delhi, its citizens and their interesting past. Stories of first-generation businessmen, of contractors, of young job aspirants and their struggles, and of course, the old families who came to Delhi many years before the partition and made it big.
So he observes: “It was a city of surprisingly graceful buildings – far more so than those built in London at the same time – and it recalled, quite self-consciously, the ethereal splendour of Athens and Washington, DC. As it came to life, the alien city, whose sapling-lined avenues petered out into the dusty brush, also introduced to this place an entirely unaccustomed ethos. In order to turn their majestic emptiness into a real city, the British needed people to live in it, which few wished to do. Most of those managing the building project, British and Indian, lodged their families in old city or just outside its walls in Civil Lines, where there was commerce, social life and entertainment. In order to get these people – the suppliers of labour, stone, furniture, alcohol, food, and all the rest – to move into the new city, the administrators offered them large plots of land at a greatly discounted rate. So the contractors came. They snapped up sites in the centre of the city for their own mansions and also bought up large areas of city land as investments. Rich already from the money they had made, by fair means and foul, during Delhi’s construction, the estates they now owned in the centre of what was to become a major capital city guaranteed their families wealth and prestige for a century to come. These contractors, in fact, became Delhi’s new aristocracy.”
There is a laudatory mention of Ranjit Singh who, as a contractor, built the Council House (Chambers), now the Parliament House, and of Sir Lala Shri Ram, the owner of Delhi Cloth Mills, and about how the two discussed in their sprawling neighbouring houses in the Civil Lines, the then Asian sugar trade which the Britishers were trying to capture from the Dutch and how the two astute businessmen saw an opportunity in buying sugar refineries from Java. It was Java from where India used to get its sugar, some 90-100 years ago. The book also informs us how Gurgaon and Noida came up to deburden Delhi and eventually became what they are today – over populated suburbs.”…Noida was conceived during the slum demolitions of the 1970s as a modern extension to the capital that would be able to absorb its population growth and industrial expansion. It lay just across the Yamuna River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, whose chief ministers gradually acquired land for the project and laid out the kind of grid-like structure suited to a rationally planned new town. By the late 1990s, Noida was a fully realised city, bustling with the new middle classes and their flats, offices and shopping malls.”
While reading one chapter after another and one story after another – at times unrelated – a reader who does not know much about Delhi, it’s history and it’s ever growing problems, stands to gather a lot about the Indian society, crime and politics, issues related to urban development, flawed government policies, economic growth of India and how things work and worked in India’s national capital over the decades. It is mainly because of the umpteen insightful observations about the city that Rana Dasgupta has succinctly made. Look at this: “The bureaucracy is a vast cash generator, which is why there is so much cash in Delhi economy. In central Delhi markets you see hundreds of bank notes in customers’ wallets. The big jewellery stores feel like banks, which is, in a way, what they are: people use them to convert cash into gold, many thousands of dollars at a time. The cashiers’ desks are noisy with the constant whirr of counting machines flicking banknotes.
Of course, these observations by the author were of the pre-demonetisation days!
The lucid style and the story telling art of the author have made the book highly absorbing. Like I said earlier, it’s not a fiction but the style suggests that it is one and thus makes it much different from a large number of books written on Delhi because it is a factual account of a city that has seen important social, economic, urban and political growth at the same time.
No surprise then Salman Rushdie has this to say about it: A terrific portrait of Delhi right now.

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