Two authors representing two generations stand back to back, as if ready to pace off the distance for a duel. Malvika Singh looks back on memories of the Delhi that the Raj left behind, a city of gracious bungalows built by migrants for migrants, where prime ministers drove out in an Ambassador like everyone else and their children shared the citizen’s idea of a good time, which was a drive to India Gate for ice cream from a cart. And with one eye on the future that Delhi is eternally grasping at, Rana Dasgupta regards the rattle and hum of the present-day capital with mingled admiration and perplexity. Both their accounts are true to life, though they are mutually exclusive, hinging on the turning point of liberalisation. But entitlement, the word that has always defined Delhi, is loudly absent from both their narratives. They do talk about it, but they sort of talk around it. They paint jujus of the beast but can’t bring themselves to name it.
In the world remembered by Singh, entitlement is a gracious thing. It consists of listening to Abida Parveen at the Old Fort, eating phulkas with a knife and fork, making Monaco biscuit canapes for extraordinarily posh parties. Dasgupta’s Delhi has left such niceties behind. His portrait of the city begins in a farmhouse whose chief produce is financial power. It ends with a night-crawl with a man on the make, a Walter Mitty figure who dreams of hitting the big time but loathes the high life where big-time connections are made. It is the sort of evening which should logically end in a five star coffee shop but is doomed to wash up at a bun-omelette cart.
In between, Dasgupta wanders into resettlement colonies which are garbage dumps for the jetsam of the city, the homes of the call centre workers who are the city’s newest migrants, and the warrens of wholesale markets where personal fortunes of thousands of crores float free in hard cash on informal webs of trust. Unaccounted for, untaxed, undeclared, they give P Chidambaram sleepless nights but their owners rest easy in the knowledge that not a rupee will go astray.
Dasgupta’s Delhi could have turned into yet another exercise in airport lounge normalism, adding to the literature of cities which appear to be grimily, grittily identical until you actually go there. Singh’s Delhi could have turned into yet another ubi sunt ode to a Delhi that senior citizens will miss but no one else knows about. They preserve themselves from the banality of genre by giving play to the multiple, contradictory, simultaneous realities of the city.
Indeed, Singh’s reading could be the last hurrah for a great city that is already a dim memory — the Delhi of Nikhil Chakravarty, Girilal Jain, Patwant Singh, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Amita Malik… That is the Delhi she came to from cosmopolitan Bombay, a city of open hearts and minds. Then came the bleaker city of Sanjay Gandhi and Jagmohan. And then there was the city continued…