Under my byline

Endless freedom

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 29 August 2009

Granta 107OVERLEAF 44

The latest-but-one Granta (#107) contains a terrifying essay by the writer Rana Dasgupta (of Tokyo Cancelled and Solo). It’s title is “Capital Gains”, and it is about Delhi’s new moneyed elite.

In 11,000 words he covers a lot of ground, describing how “the vertiginous altitude of Delhi’s class system” is embodied in Delhiites’ behaviour on the road, the road being the only space historically shared by all classes, and how even there the elite are skilled at keeping themselves apart. He writes of the importance of brands (including car brands) as status signifiers, as winning traits in an apparently Darwinian struggle for existence.

He dwells on BMW Nanda and the influence the family money reportedly exercised in the criminal case against young Nanda and in the conduct of their business enterprises. He writes of Indians’ “determined adoration of the rich”, which coexists with fear: “In a society as stratified as this, it is possible to imagine that the ones at the top enjoy endless freedom — freedom so absolute that the only adequate use of it would be cruelty.”

He moves to the core of his argument: that the new business elite — not strictly new but which Dasgupta says is built upon provincial fortunes newly Delhi-ised, and oiled by generations’ worth of contact-building — is shouldering aside the old, “anglicised” elite in this carpetbagger city. The corporate or professional worker is being marginalised by “private businessmen, entrepreneurs, real estate agents, retailers and general wheeler-dealers”. The new elite has no reason to learn upper-class behaviour from the old upper class — now, their money and possessions speak for them.

And they have nothing else to say. Tarun Tejpal tells Dasgupta that “There are no ideas except the idea of more wealth. The elite don’t read. They know how to work the till, and that’s it. There’s nothing: we are living in the shallowest decade you can imagine.” The new rich, Tejpal adds, “face no consequences; they live in an atmosphere of endless possibility”.

That possibility now stretches far beyond the limits of Delhi, India, Asia. One young multimillionaire developer Dasgupta chats with at a bar speaks of leasing land — 700,000 acres — in Ethiopia, in partnership with the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He will cash-crop this land using Punjabi labour. This boggles the mind: it’s the 19th century come again. Business on this scale dangerously blurs the line between state and entrepreneur.

Now, much of this you may have heard before, or calculated for yourself. But think of it all within a historical perspective, and the paradoxes multiply: this new elite is creating its own rationale — entitlement and might-is-right — rather than adopting that of the elite it must coexist with before it merges with (this used to be the way it was done); it is feudal in its behaviour and its power is linked with its access to land, yet it is imperial in its ambitions and admits no allegiance apart from a vague, combative patriotism. It grew out of those reforms which were supposed to open the way to development for all. It accompanies a rise in participatory democracy, yet makes nothing of democratic institutions, being able to subvert them all when it needs to, with only very few exceptions.

This is enough to break one’s heart, and then to make one apply for a visa to New Zealand. But take heart: history is unforgiving to those preoccupied by the present and without the imagination to plan in fear for the future. Somewhere in the cycle of money between rich and rich come the rest of us, who also consume — and our consumer choices will matter more and more. Also: watch the ongoing spiritual revival. It’s high time for a new bhakti movement.


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