Delhi in Crisis: How Corruption Rotted a Great Capital

Forget the glossy guidebook images of Delhi. The real voices of the city’s inhabitants reveal a seething city of corruption, greed, and violence.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

Washington, DC was known as the “Murder Capital of America” after 479 murders in 1991. London became “The Big Smoke” because of its pollution. Gallup, New Mexico, was called “Drunk City, U.S.A” for its reputation as a magnet for drunks. Currently and darkly renowned for its pollution, a reputation for widespread rape, rampant corruption, and out of control robber barons, Delhi may be next in line for a pejorative nickname.

You wouldn’t know its deleterious state from the city’s guidebooks, which glossily market this capital city of 22 million people via the grandeur of a couple Mughal gardens and the perversely picturesque chaos of Old Delhi snapped from a rickshaw.

What Delhi really is, is far more complex. It is both darker than its unpleasant reputation and, simultaneously, more enduringly majestic than a schlocky brochure. The city, and its multitude of flawed, striving inhabitants, are the subject of a new, attention-grabbing book by Rana Dasgupta, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi.

Dasgupta, a British-Indian novelist whose novel Solo won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010, has taken on the task of sifting through modern Delhi, interviewing citizens from a broad range of backgrounds and interests for the book. What he found was a series of deeply unsatisfied, angry, and unsympathetic individuals living in a city with which Dasgupta has become jaded.

“I feel it’s a city that’s not articulate about itself. It feels like no one is really talking or having the conversations they should be having,” muses Dasgupta, when asked why he wanted to write the book. “It’s a city buried in fantasy and bravado, where men talk about how ‘I banged this girl’ or ‘I made this kind of money.’”

The book is structured around conversations Dasgupta feels the city should be having. He serves as confessor to, among others, the empathy-less scion of a wealthy family, a physically-abused divorcee, a man who turned to humiliating prostitutes because he was shocked by his wife’s sexual voraciousness, a snob who longs for the days of the Mughal empire, disenchanted bureaucrats, and a blowhard wannabe industrialist.

“It’s very lurid and pornographic, which is also the way [Delhi] speaks about itself. But, actually, that doesn’t capture what people are really going through,” explains Dasgupta. “What keeps them awake at night is much more anxious stuff.”

In the case of a man named Anil, a Marwari, that “anxious stuff” was a wife who left him because he could not handle her ravenous desire for both luxury goods and sex. He tells Dasgupta that after the divorce, “That’s when I started doing this thing with prostitutes. I wanted to humiliate girls. And because my wife liked sex, I took it out on girls who like sex.” Anil, a fictitious name given by Dasgupta to protect his identity, then goes on to describe in graphic detail the ways in which he exacted his revenge.

“I would do the deal with the guy and I would tell him that we had to be able to do anything to the girl, with any number of the people, or the deal was off,” Anil recounts in the book. “It was all about humiliation.” He would put money in their private parts, put on a show in front of groups of men, and have the women think they were doing sexual acts for free.

The stomach-churning interview with Anil, relatively early on in the book, becomes its standard fare, and the image of Delhi further unspools. The scion of a wealthy family, after stressing that he “makes sure servants don’t get above themselves,” is confronted by Dasgupta about working conditions at Indian construction sites, and retorts, “If I saw those people, I am sure I would also feel contempt.”

“One of the things I found was that everyone, every class of people, that I spoke to felt that what they were saying to me was very important, and hadn’t been said before,” confides Dasgupta. “They kept calling me after I’d seen them and said, ‘Please can we meet again, there are lots of things I didn’t tell you.’”

These denizens of Delhi, struck by a bout of Donald Sterling-esque verbal incontinence, are given plenty of rope with which to hang themselves—and their masochistic vanity makes for some of the juiciest parts of the book.

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Secrets are spilled on how to manipulate Delhi’s exploding real estate market (promise a temple or school and then get land-use changed by the Delhi Development Authority). A steel tycoon justifies hiding millions in taxes as an ethical response to a corrupt government. Bureaucrats confide that the reason ticket counters at train stations are so chaotic is to encourage bribes. A prominent Sikh claims that the wives of arms dealers sleep with generals to get deals done. The same man also avows that members of his family in the armed forces have ordered rapes and mutilations to cow the public into submission.

Cushioning these candid confessions of Delhi’s elite is the historic context Dasgupta believes can begin to explain the problems.

He traces the violent punishing rapes in Delhi, most notably the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in 2012, to the unresolved issues of rape, slaughter, and castration during the Partition, when India and Pakistan were split following independence from Britain. In the process, 15 million people were displaced with millions of Muslims moving to Pakistan, and millions of Sikhs and Hindus moving to India. One million people died in the process, tens of thousands of women were abducted, and tens of thousands of women were raped.

This created a collective, deep sense in Hindu men, Dasgupta believes, of both powerlessness and a desire for violent rectification. At the same time, there was a perceived neutering of the Hindu male in the modern globalized world, while more and more women leave the home to work, date, and enjoy nightlife. That toxic combination, he argues, left Delhi ripe for rape to be used as a form of punishment—a corrective by men who are filled with impotent rage. These men, while portrayed by politicians and news reports as uncultured migrants, were often specifically concerned with culture, and were using rape to control women, and “remind women that their place was in the home.” It was, he writes, a “widespread, war against women, whose new mobility made them not only the icons of India’s social and economic changes but also the scapegoats.”

The rampant corruption in politics is without remedy, not just because it is so widespread, but because, Dasgupta points out, for many it is the surest path toward economic mobility. It is also a reflection of a society that has devolved into a zero-sum game, where anybody’s gain is surely someone else’s loss, and the government is only a mechanism through which that can be achieved.

The rationality of widespread lack of respect the law and government can be illustrated well by the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, where, he writes, “The Hindu mob had become the law, the kerosene fire had become the law … any Hindus who were caught hiding Sikhs from the mob would have their houses burned down because it was illegal to do so.” The slaughtering of thousands of Sikhs was ignited when prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. In response, mobs of Hindus enacted widespread revenge throughout Delhi. The government not only left Sikhs unaided, in some places police took part in the violence, making it official that the only civic responsibility one had was to one’s own family.

Dasgupta is at his weakest when it comes to economic analysis. His relentless castigation of the effects of globalization and Western capitalism that he claims unmoored Delhi is far from persuasive (ironic given the similarity in title to another popular book at the moment). Widespread greed, corruption, and sexual violence predate economic liberalization in 1991. His lamentation of the destruction of agrarian life required by the introduction of Western capitalism misses the problems in that system—the vicissitudes of the crop market, for one. He is not alone in his romanticization of a bygone era. As one of the gasbag 30-something industrialists with multi-billion dollar ambitions asserts when asked what the difference would be if Indians ran the world, “It will be more spiritual.” Then, after thinking on it for a bit, he admits, “No. It will be exactly the same.”

Books that attempt to capture cities and the lives that make up their machinery is far from a new genre: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal about Paris, Mary McCarthy’s The Stones of Florence, and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City about Mumbai, which Capital will inevitably be compared to. What is different about Dasgupta’s is that it is best read after visiting Delhi—not because it will turn you off from potentially visiting the city, but rather because it is an answer to many of the questions the first-time traveler to the city has.

These questions range from the small and tangible, like the impossibility of walking around the city, to the more intimate, like what is really going on in all those compounds behind the high iron fences. And what he shows us leaves us stunned—at the greed, inhumanity, and rage feeding into the vicious cycle of trauma enacted on the city and its people.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.