This "Year of India" (2): Rana Dasgupta

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta‘s India is a land of grueling poverty still, in a culture transfixed by glittering wealth. The dominant mood is “frenzied accumulation” in a society “consumed both by euphoria and dread.” Mahatma Gandhi’s India of fond memory — triumphant non-violence and democratic socialism in a nation of villages — is almost gone, and mostly forgotten, too. Rural India has dropped out of the conversation. The “great man” in India’s dream of success, Dasgupta chuckles, is probably Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. The new half-hidden India in Rana Dasgupta’s telling is a dynamic contradiction — emphasis on the dynamic. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House, seen but not heard on our TV screens last month, is another version of the contradiction. On the outside, Singh looks like a cartoon of the last maharajah; unglimpsed, like the snowy mane under his Sikh turban, is the mind of the former finance minister who in 1991 opened India to a transforming flood of foreign investment.

Rana Dasgupta is dubbed by Salman Rushdie, no less, “the most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation.” The blurb, too, half-hides the story. Dasgupta, Oxford educated, now 38, was born in London of an English mother. He returned to his father’s country at the start of the new century to write both fiction and fact. Tokyo Cancelled was a nested novel and a sort of homage to folk tales in an age of disconnection: 13 stories spun out spontaneously by travelers stranded overnight in an international airport. Solo, not yet available in the US, is a fantasy of music and memory, set in Bulgaria. All the while Dasgupta has been fixing a steady anthropological eye on the veiled violence of money rampant in Nouveau Delhi. “Capital Gains,” a long piece in Granta last summer, began with a true tale that’s also symbolic: the public scandal of Sanjeev Nanda, a reckless boy prince of the new money, drunk, in his $150-thousand BMW a few years ago, slicing through seven people, killing six of them, but rich and unrepentant enough to buy freedom from punishment – for a while.

This story erupts into the public domain with the delicious nausea of something widely felt, but rarely observed: the recklessness of this economic system, its out-of-control heartlessness. Sanjeev’s speeding BMW is a symbol of gleaming, maleficent capital, unchecked by conscience or by the roadblocks of the state. The scene of the impact, a one-hundred-metre stretch of road strewn with organs, severed limbs and pools of blood, is like a morality painting of the cataclysmic effects of this marauding elite in the world of ordinary people… as if his fatal velocity was that of foreign forces whose impact, here in India, could only be catastrophic.

Rana Dasgupta in Granta, July 2009.

But that is only the start of Dasgupta’s story of India, in Granta and in our conversation. Unpeeling what President Obama calls “one of the defining partnerships” in the world, Dasgupta seems to be betting on an Indian Century before it’s over:

The fact is that India and America have very very profound similarities, and a very obvious kind of relationship. Both countries are based around a grand political idea, they’re not based around any kind of racial homogeneity or anything like that, they are based around a constitution, and a moment of independence from the British. In both countries a desire to be left alone to run your business is a very powerful feeling. There is suspicion in both countries of governments and the interferences they make into private – read: commercial – life. And it’s precisely for this reason that so many Indians have been so successful in America – they don’t even have to stop at the airport to understand where they’ve come – they already know it. They’ve understood America deeply before they’ve arrived. This has been enhanced in the last two decades by the fact that the elite of India now automatically sends its kids to study in the US. There is a very very vast number of Indian teenagers who come here to study, to the extent I think that the Indian elite now regards the US as its other territory…

There are also ways in which America or India differ profoundly. America is a society of systems, there should be nothing that eludes the state – with systems of policing, control, regulation… That is clearly not the case in India… Indians accept that things cannot be systematized, that there is inherent chaos, that you don’t have to understand your neighbor, that he may live an incredibly different life from yours, but that’s not a problem. The incredible ramshackle bric-a-brac nature of Indian cities, where slums are next to high rises, is not felt to be a great shock. The face that people hack into electricity systems to run their slums is treated with wry humor by middle class Indians…

I suspect these things will play out to Indian’s advantage, because Indians will be much more comfortable in the US than Americans will be in India. And at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population… Even being very wealthy they are quite comfortable living in a house that runs out of water quite often, and runs out of electricity. They’re able to go into weird places in central Asia and Africa and feel quite okay, knowing how things operate, knowing that even people who are turning over millions of dollars a year, can do so without contracts, just on the basis of various forms of informal business ethics.

So I think that as time goes on, America will retain its monopoly of certain things – India will never build a scientific academic research infrastructure that remotely rivals America’s. It will continue to use America’s and supply America’s with talented people, and Indians who are interested in working in those kind of environments will come to the States. But India itself as a major economic opportunity will continue to mushroom, and Indians will spread out into Africa and China and central Asia with enormous ease and flexibility.

Rana Dasgupta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.3.09.

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