Complicity and Critique

In a posh Delhi neighborhood, in a walled estate with glass chandeliers and bathrooms of Italian marble, a 25-year-old heir to his family’s business and real estate fortune dreams of transforming the ...

In a posh Delhi neighborhood, in a walled estate with glass chandeliers and bathrooms of Italian marble, a 25-year-old heir to his family’s business and real estate fortune dreams of transforming the world with his money. “Have you seen what the Rockefellers did,” he asks. “Every person in [the United States] is somehow touched by what they did. That’s a fucking legacy.” Rana Dasgupta, who is interviewing the young scion for a nonfiction account of “the eruption of Delhi” in the era of New India, demurs: “So you’re working for the benefit of those less fortunate than yourself?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” comes the reply. “I mean, I did go to a liberal American college, and that’s what I am in my heart. But when I’m running the company, I’m the stereotypically evil capitalist.” He describes the “contempt” he feels for the poor, despite a muted interjection from Dasgupta about the “sadistic” conditions in which Delhi’s laborers work. The two sip fresh lime sodas on a private terrace, and conclude their conversation on a note of shared admiration for the businessman’s grandfather, the patriarch responsible for amassing the family’s wealth.

“He’s extraordinary,” Dasgupta says.

“He is,” responds the aspiring Rockefeller.

What is an adequate response to the amoral declarations of a petty tyrant? Capital: The Eruption of Delhi unfolds through a series of such interviews, in which Delhi’s über-rich, from a real estate scion who calls himself “the chosen one” to a shopping-mall titan with “imperial” plans for shipping Punjabi farmers to plantations in Ethiopia, are allowed to voice their tragicomic visions of the world with little to no authorial pushback. The businessmen Dasgupta interviews are “delighted by food shortages, climatic disturbance and turbulence of all sorts.” Having internalized Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine,” they machinate on how to make their money “really explode.”

Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Samanth Subramanian notes, “hearing people talk about … their money, and about what they want to do with it, isn’t very entrancing.”1 Nevertheless, Capital stakes its claim to sociopolitical relevance on Dasgupta’s ability to elicit and transmit the self-aggrandizing spiels of Delhi’s elite. Readers may already know that New India is a nation of over one billion people, with a few dozen billionaires on the one hand and hundreds of millions in poverty on the other, where an average of 10 farmers in Maharashtra alone commit suicide every day and a single corporation, the Tata Group, runs over a hundred subsidiary companies in fields ranging from motor vehicles to telecom, bookstores to beverages. But we are not often afforded a view of India from the billionaire’s terrace, drink in hand. As Arundhati Roy writes in Capitalism: A Ghost Story, while depictions of India’s poor, in the vein of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), abound, “you rarely see the rich being examined in these ways.”

And yet Capital, which utilizes interviews but is not ethnography, lacks both the self-awareness and the descriptive precision that its subject, the uneven development undergirding India’s global rise, demands. The trouble is that it fails to develop a new critical perspective on the history of capital, and proposes no alternative to the neoliberal status quo. Reading Dasgupta, we learn that Delhi’s poor cannot afford Metro tickets and often live prohibitively far from bus routes, while among the glitterati, “everyone” owns a jet. But where do we—where does India—go from there? Such questions are left unanswered. Dasgupta lets capital speak for itself, a narrative choice that ultimately confounds its analysis, and his focus on the disposition of the elite—from their psychic traumas to their taste in luxury cars—as well as his own ambivalent relation to those who wine and dine him, supersedes the critique of New India’s contradictions.

It is now commonplace to frame the story of New India as one of contradiction. This story describes India’s contest with China and in the same moment declares India’s inevitable defeat; it celebrates Indian billionaires on the Forbes list despite what journalist Katherine Boo has shown lies just “behind the Beautiful Forevers.” But contradiction is not itself a new feature of the discourse on India, which has, since 1947, staked its claim to world historical significance on the negotiation of its apparent conflicts. India has always been what Jawaharlal Nehru termed a land of “interconnected differences,” and the canonical idea of India, according to Sunil Khilnani, is that even seemingly incompatible elements—rural and urban, poverty and plenty, Hindu and Muslim—can come together to form a harmonious democratic republic.2 In the words of Shashi Tharoor, “The old joke [is] that anything you say about India, the opposite is also true … Quite often, the opposites coexist quite cheerfully.”3

That the “cheerful” coexistence of opposites is more rhetorical than real—that it depends on whether you are looking into, or out of, India’s tinted windows—has been the subject of much work on the Indian state in the six-plus decades since independence. Writing in the 1960s and ’70s, V. S. Naipaul couldn’t stomach what he viewed as the illogic and “self-violation” borne of the Indian appetite for contradiction, in which “the fantasy of past splendour is accommodated within an acceptance of present squalor.”4 In the two decades since India’s liberalization, a spate of nonfiction books—generically inventive amalgams of memoir, reportage, popular history, and travelogue, in the manner of Naipaul’s India trilogy—have attempted to write a history of the present adequate to those contradictions. Manu Goswami has in these pages called this “a new neoliberal genre of emergence,”5 comprised of texts like Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2006), in which Luce asks how the Indian economy is “at once confident and booming yet unable to provide secure employment to the majority of its people,” and Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (2012), the title of which says it all.

If the critique of New India is now so well hashed that even salacious reports from the lion’s den of capitalism are wearying, what might a fresh take look like, in 2014?

Dasgupta’s Capital and Roy’s Capitalism, a collection of essays written between 2010 and 2013, are only the latest in this tradition of works detailing the eruption of money in India—more “black” than “white,” to use the colloquial distinction between illegal and legal—that has strengthened and expanded existing hierarchies and deepened segregation, neither creating jobs nor decreasing poverty, but inaugurating new structures of prejudice and inequality. This is by now a familiar account of globalization’s destabilizing force. Both Dasgupta and Roy try to counter readers’ inevitable inurement to the critique of New India through calculated plain speaking, but neither fully succeeds. Roy engages in some polemical oversimplification (“Capitalism is destroying the planet”) that distracts from her more subtle critiques of institutions like corporate philanthropy, and Dasgupta’s measured didacticism (“The fact that [poor Indians’] lives were getting worse was not despite the boom in the Indian economy but because of it”) is trumped by his occasionally juvenile commentary. In one particularly puerile passage, he ventriloquizes Delhi: “Come to me, all ye who have been fucked … and I will show you how you can fuck others.”

It is not an inspired moment (though in fairness, it’s not representative of the book, either). But it raises the question: Just as triumphant accounts of India’s emergence were countered by critics who refused to drink the “India Shining” Kool-Aid, is the critique now approaching its own formal limit? When a member of Delhi’s “artist and intellectual” class like Dasgupta is reduced to complicitous affirmations of an “extraordinary” capitalist titan, have we run out of words with which to problematize the counterfactual narrative of India’s global rise? If the critique of New India is now so well hashed that even salacious reports from the lion’s den of capitalism are wearying, what might a fresh take look like, in 2014?

Both Dasgupta and Roy began their writing careers as novelists. He has published two award-winning works of fiction, Tokyo Cancelled (2005) and Solo (2010); she is the better-known, Booker-winning author of The God of Small Things (1997). Capital and Capitalism are nonfiction works that might therefore bear the stamp of fiction—the factual informed by the novelist’s imaginative capacities—and yet neither stands up to more “literary”6 accounts of New India like Boo’s. Novelists, as Pierre Bourdieu memorably argued in The Rules of Art (1996), are characterized by their remove from the economic and political fields. Yet the disinterestedness that is fundamental to their autonomy, and the related cultural capital accrued, is also the condition of possibility for intervention in nonliterary public spheres, the wielding of that symbolic capital as political power. Put simply, it is the novelist’s very identity as novelist that gives his political interventions weight. In Roy’s case, has turning away from fiction become the limiting, as opposed to the enabling, condition of her prose?

Published in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, The God of Small Things was an international phenomenon. (And it remains one: in 2010, a collaboration between the Annenberg Foundation and WGBH/PBS—in consultation with David Damrosch, of course—listed the novel as one of the “great works of world literature” alongside The Odyssey, The Bhagavad Gita, and The Epic of Gilgamesh.7) Roy became India’s public face, heir to the postcolonial novel in the tradition of Salman Rushdie and an emblem of the nation’s latest moment of arrival on the world stage. But she grew increasingly discomfited with the mantle of literary celebrity, and after India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran, she “step[ped] out from under the fairy lights” with “The End of Imagination” (1998), a widely read essay in which she declared the nuclear bomb “the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made.”8 Roy has since focused on journalism and activism; she has spoken against the occupation of Kashmir, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporatism, NGOs, and environmental degradation, and taken on liberal icons like Anna Hazare, Mohammad Yunus, and Nelson Mandela as well.

All the while, Roy’s literary star has fallen. Detractors accuse her of having taken “easy stabs at an India full of energy and purpose.”9 The historian Ramachandra Guha has said that despite being “on her side” politically, he cannot stomach her “careless” and “self-regarding” polemics. Roy is critical of Guha’s “corporate-funded” New India Foundation; Guha sees hypocrisy in her acceptance of a literary prize from the Booker McConnell Corporation. Their old tussle lays bare the predicament of the writer who seeks to demonstrate political commitment and assert her autonomy from the state and other normative institutions (including prize-giving bodies), while nevertheless depending on the vagaries of the publicity machine for the cultivation of a reading audience. In Capitalism, Roy addresses the question of complicity head-on: “But which of us sinners [is] going to cast the first stone,” she asks. “Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses … If the sledgehammer of moral purity is to be the criteria [sic] for stone throwing, then the only people who qualify are those who have been silenced already.”

What is strange about India’s rise is that a tiny microcosm of the Indian population has managed to close ranks against the vast majority of its countrymen.

Enter Katherine Boo, who, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012), deliberately takes herself out of the story of ordinary men, women, and children in the Annawadi slums of Mumbai, adopting a third-person omniscient perspective that allows her to relay even the thought processes of the individuals characterized. The result is not that Boo speaks for the silenced slumdwellers, but rather that they speak through her. In contrast to the other impressionistic and essayistic works in the genre of emergence, Boo’s 250-page Pulitzer winner was meticulously reported over the course of four years and utilized thousands of public records. She has said that the use of the first person “impedes the reader’s ability to connect with people who might be more interesting than the writer … I don’t want you to be thinking about me sitting beside Abdul … I want you to be thinking about Abdul.”10 Boo’s decision to excise her authorial “I” from the text is aimed at compelling a reaction from the involved reader, but it is not the only ethical posture toward the subaltern who can or cannot speak.

I suggest we read Dasgupta and Roy as, if not respondents to Boo, then entrants into a long-standing conversation about the critique of systems from within their bounds. Dipesh Chakrabarty has long driven at this point, most famously in his critique of historicism and insistence, following Heidegger, that the present be inhabited and thought as “not-one.”11 For Chakrabarty, the possible—the possible world, the possible future—exists already, here and now, as the potential of the actual. Our very lives are lived in excess of and resistance to capital, despite its efforts to domesticate and discipline our living. In this vein, Roy’s fist-thumping, direct-address calls to action (“Perhaps it’s time for us to take back the night”; “Perhaps it’s time to use whatever breath remains in our bodies to say: Open the bloody gates”), which have blunted her credibility in some eyes, might be read as gestures toward a history (Chakrabarty’s “History 2”) that lies outside of capitalism, and her use of the first and second person is intended to create intimacy with the reader who will then be moved to respond.

Contra Guha’s criticism, I would also locate Roy’s essays in the tradition of Palagummi Sainath, the award-winning former Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, who has been producing statistics-laden reports on India’s agrarian crisis for three decades. Sainath’s Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996), arguably the genre of emergence’s first critique of New India, exposed the precariousness of rural life in some of the poorest districts of India in the years immediately following the market reforms. In the book, Sainath matches woeful statistics (85 percent of 529,000 primary schools have no toilets; 2,628 of them have no teachers) with jarring anecdotes (the primary school in Numatti village has only one student: a black goat). Today, he publishes similarly incisive reports on his website,

Attentiveness to the absurdities of official discourse and policy-making in the era of late capital pervades Sainath’s journalism, but it is a style made famous by Roy. Both she and Sainath highlight Important Concepts like “the price of development,” (she with Capitalization, he with “inverted commas”), make reference to staggering statistics, offer sardonic, conspiratorial asides, write in nonacademic language, pose rhetorical questions, use one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis, and rarely footnote. Both travel throughout impoverished regions of India to tell stories from the nation’s most marginalized communities: there is the story of Soni Sori, an Adivasi schoolteacher tortured by the state on suspicion of being a Maoist, then jailed while her police interrogator is conferred a Medal for Gallantry (Roy); and the story of a school in the tribal village of Edalippara, where children sing English songs in praise of the potato, despite the fact that nobody in their families speaks English, or has seen a potato (Sainath).

<em>A boy in the Dharavi slum</em>, Mumbai (2008). Photograph by Iecercle / Flickr

A boy in the Dharavi slum, Mumbai (2008). Photograph by Iecercle / Flickr

These are ironical takes on the lives of New India’s poor, in contrast to Dasgupta’s absurdist interviews with the Delhi elite. If the goal is a narrative mode adequate both to document New India’s contradictions and compel its transformation, then neither approach hits its mark, though at least Roy gestures to the possibility of living outside the gates. Capital, by contrast, is the emergence genre at its most Naipaulian. For Dasgupta, Delhi’s failure is one of imagination, just as for Naipaul, in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), the nation’s primary ill was its “intellectual depletion,” owing to the “established destitution” of a nation “often invaded, conquered, plundered.” In Dasgupta’s account, Delhi has had its “values destroyed” repeatedly throughout history; its people are characterized by an “anxiety of loss” and bear a “traumatized culture.” This is a familiar take on the psychological contours of colonialism, but where social theorists like Ashish Nandy and Homi Bhabha saw the colonized subject’s ambivalent relation to the dominant discourses of the West as holding open the possibility of alternative universalisms and counter-modernities, Dasgupta’s narrative comports with Naipaul’s rather more depressing vision of an India that is a “spiritless, degraded copy” of the West. Nothing can be done to alter the course of this history, since Capital is a self-described “report from the global future.” Put simply, there is no “History 2.”

Capital is unsatisfying in part because the book begins with artists and intellectuals, the bohemian community to which Dasgupta belongs, voicing their utopian aspirations for Delhi in the early 2000s (“What will happen here will change the entire world”), but then proceeds to the stories of its black-money elite and the city’s eruption into hyper-capitalist dystopia by decade’s end. It’s like tracing the evolution of San Francisco from the howls of the Beats in the 1950s to the passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13 in 1978. The story looks like one of displacement—the dreams of the left giving way to the rise of the right—but it actually speaks to two independent, contrapuntal narratives in a city of many distinct populations, movements, and voices. Instead of focusing on the dystopia that emerged in the capital, could Dasgupta have articulated the utopian vision that drew him to move from New York to Delhi in the first place? Having exhausted the critique of capitalism and the documentation of its nefarious operators, what the genre of emergence now needs is a vision of the future, even if it issues from the past. What was rising India—what could India have been—before it rose?

The story of New India is one in which, as Amit Chaudhuri has said of globalization, “the rhetoric of putative plenty overwhelm[s] the awareness of palpable want.”12 It matches the ideological underpinnings of the now degraded American dream with its avowal of an equally illusory Indian one. What is ultimately “strange” about India’s rise, to borrow Luce’s qualifier, is not that India has at times outdone expectations of its performance in the global market, but rather that a tiny microcosm of the Indian population has managed to close ranks against the vast majority of its countrymen. Taken together, Dasgupta and Roy offer a timely reminder in the first year of the Modi administration that intensified contradiction—the 100 richest Indians own assets amounting to a quarter of the country’s GDP, while the average citizen lives on less than 50 cents a day—has in fact been the enabling condition of the rhetorical declaration of India’s emergence onto the world stage. As Roy observes, India can only consider itself a rising superpower because, like the United States, it has “nuclear bombs and obscene inequality.” If the nation’s bursts of outsized economic growth had in fact translated into widespread development, the story of the rise would not have the same potency. India would not be New India. And the genre of emergence might finally give way to the writing of a new history of capital: one focused less on the black humor of lived contradiction, and more on the possibilities of interrupting globalization’s narrative form. icon

  1. Glare of a Gilded Age,” New York Times, May 8, 2014.
  2. See Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997).
  3. The Arriving Millions,” Outlook, May 6, 2013.
  4. India: A Wounded Civilization, (1976; Vintage, 2003), p. 15.
  5. The American Dream Outsourced,” Public Books, December 12, 2012.
  6. See Pankaj Mishra, “Fighting for Scraps,” New York Times, February 9, 2012.
  7. See “Invitation to World Literature,” Annenberg Foundation, 2013.
  8. The End of Imagination,” Outlook India, July 27, 1998.
  9. See Siddhartha Deb, “Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade,” New York Times, March 5, 2014.
  10. See Kate Medina, “Q&A with Katherine Boo and her editor, Kate Medina,” Behind the Beautiful Forevers website (2012).
  11. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 249.
  12. Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (Peter Lang, 2008), p. 208.
Featured image: A Tata Nano at Auto Expo 2008. Photograph by Tahir Hashmi / Flickr