Author Rana Dasgupta looks at how capitalism is evolving in 21st-century India

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Anglo-Indian author Rana Dasgupta chose to write about the Indian metropolis of Delhi in his newest book, but it’s really just the setting for documenting the brutal nature of 21st-century capitalism in the emerging world.

In Delhi, where he’s lived since 2000, he describes a far more naked version of free-market economics than what’s traditionally been on display in western industrialized countries.

“The reason it’s more naked is because the various kinds of 20th-century accommodation to capitalism that America and Europe made—in terms of public space, public infrastructure, safety nets, and all those kind of things—are just not in place,” Dasgupta tells the Georgia Straight by phone from a Chicago hotel room.

In Capital: A Portrait of Delhi in the Twenty-First Century (HarperCollins), the British-born Dasgupta writes a series of vignettes showing how Delhi residents are coping with breathtaking changes that have occurred since India liberalized its economy in 1991. He explains in his book that in the 21st century, wealthy members of Delhi’s elite see no need to finance new universities and public health facilities in their country because they can easily send their kids to U.S. institutions and visit modern medical clinics in places like Switzerland.

Dasgupta also describes how new corporate hospitals in Delhi have lured doctors away from the public system with much better compensation packages, which are financed by scores of questionable diagnostic tests and surgical procedures that bankrupt some middle-class Indians. Meanwhile, new shopping malls have sprung up in the city, displacing tens of thousands of slum dwellers.

“One of the things that happens in these emerging societies is when capitalism sort of takes over everything and everything becomes marketized, a lot of people feel they have less access to services and resources than they used to have,” Dasgupta says. “Strangely, this sort of confirms everything that was always said about capitalism.”

Dasgupta’s Capital also analyzes the impact of abrupt transformations in Delhi’s history, including from Mogul to British rule, and from the end of the raj to post-independence and a state-dominated economy overseen by Jawaharlal Nehru. Dasgupta chronicles how the sudden opening up of India’s border to foreign goods in 1991 created a chasm between generations who grew up in radically different economic environments. The author also emphasizes that the prevailing mania for making money in Delhi is perfectly understandable, given sharply escalating housing costs and the lack of public services. “The middle class in India has been content just to earn more money without counting the cost of the fact that everything else—health care and education—is rising far, far quicker than their incomes,” he comments.

Western journalists occasionally write about new malls in India and conclude that the country is merely catching up to the United States and other industrialized countries. Dasgupta, however, dismisses this view as “western centrism”.

“The world is actually diverging,” he argues. “We are looking at many, many different paths to modernity now, which resemble the western 20th century less and less—for good and for bad.”

There are certain things unique to northern India—notably, the massive and catastrophic communal violence pitting Muslims against Hindus and Sikhs in the summer of 1947, after Great Britain divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Much of this violence was of a sexual nature, including widespread rape and castration, as well as mass murder that claimed the lives of upward of a million people. In 2012, a gang rape in Delhi triggered demonstrations across the country, shining a spotlight on the extent of violence against women in the city as well as the lack of police protection.

Dasgupta outlines in his book how the psychological fallout from the violence of partition still lingers over Delhi, where many refugees settled.

“It leaves its legacy in relationships between men and women, but also, I think, in a general sense of mistrust between people—a sense that ultimately, you can trust only your own family, your own people,” Dasgupta observes.

He also links the partition of India to vicious communal violence directed against Sikhs in 1984, following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Unlike the carnage of 1947, these targeted attacks on Sikhs couldn’t be blamed on an external scapegoat, such as Pakistani Muslims or the British. “It was your neighbours who turned on you,” Dasgupta points out. “The idea that you can lose everything and one can trust no one is very present in the city’s culture.”

He discovered that himself when he backed out of renting an apartment and cancelled the cheque. The landlord used his connections to track down his private banking records and threatened dire consequences if Dasgupta didn’t pay two months’ rent to get out of the agreement.

“You can see why people would feel dispossessed compared to another class of people who have those kind of networks,” he says.

Rana Dasgupta will speak at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s at 8 p.m. next Friday (July 4) as part of the Indian Summer Festival. For information, see the Indian Summer Festival website.

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