Writer Rana Dasgupta, famous for his book Tokyo Cancelled, has penned a piece on the city of New Delhi and its rampaging obsession with things material, brand-obsessed, consumerist, shallow, callow and crass. Called Capital Gains it appeared in the recent issue of Granta magazine.
Fair enough – one can write similar pieces about pretty much any city in any ‘capitalist revolutionary’ city anywhere in the world. Take your pick, this story though well written and at times funny, could just as well be about Karachi, Rio De Jeneiro , Bangkok, Dubai, Shanghai, Beijing or even the now-under-China’s shadow, Hong Kong.
I enjoyed reading the piece, but the reason why I am writing this post is less the piece itself, since it was rather banal and unsurprising, but that in the midst of it I came across this rather amusing (and I mean that not in an amusing way) exchange that the write has with an editor at Tehelka magazine:
‘No one cares,’ he says. ‘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. Rural India, that’s 800 million people, has simply fallen out of the master narrative of this country. There should have been an enormous political left in India, but people worship the rich and there’s no criticism of what they do. They face no consequences; they live in an atmosphere of endless possibility.’
‘Do you think anything will come of all this money they’re making?’ I ask. ‘Do you think they’ll try to leave behind a legacy?’
‘They don’t care about their legacy! This is a Hindu society: I’m back for a million more lives – how much fuss am I going to make about this one? Indian businesspeople might run a school or feed a few orphans, but they’re not interested in reform because they are bent on making the system work for them. Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalizes inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it.’
Frankly, and I realize that this is merely the opinion of an individual at a magazine that I otherwise respect, I was shocked that such reductive, essentialist nonsense made it past the editing sessions. This statement is so wrong that it isn’t even wrong, its just plain callous, and frankly lunatic.
A city of tens of millions of people, with a history and a heritage that goes back over a thousand of years and that contains within it an incredibly diverse, varied, complex community of people of all walks of life, beliefs, class, ethnicities, cultures, values, ideas, fears, doubts and dreams can never be called ‘a Hindu society’ alone. This is such a vast idiocy that it can’t even be laughed it. Delhi is one of the world’s great cities and what makes it so is that it is a cradle of the world’s heritage and civilizations and that billions have passed through her, lived there, defined it and more will.
It is a world city. Complete with the full complexity and vastness of what that term means.
The so-called Hindu businessmen with their indifference to reform are pretty much like tens of millions of other businessmen and capitalists around the world. Their being Hindu explains nothing about their exclusivity, pursuit of wealth and bombast, their greed or their general indifference. They are just businessmen, much like all the others (Muslims, Sikh, non-believers, gay, straight, black, white and other) that live and work and play and show-off in Delhi. Business is about profits regardless of who conducts it. There are strands of Hinduism (I use this term broadly) that call for asceticism and abstinence from desire. So by what definition is the tern Hinduism being used here by this editor? And what does anyone being Hindu really tell us about their indifference and/or greed? Nothing I say!
An elite, a capitalist elite, weaned on the belief that success is to the strong and clever is indifferent to the under privileged and exploited in all societies across the globe. I am sure that Dasgupta has been to the USA, or China or even to Pakistan. It has nothing to do with Hinduism. The Delhi elite are in fact too much like those in other nations and cannot be understood through the prism of religion. To attempt to explain what are secular acts – power, wealth, snobbery, indifference by deferring to something as ill-defined as Hinduism is irresponsible to say the least, and dangerous at the worst. I say dangerous because it encourages people to essentialize others, to reduce them to a mass and loose sight of them as individuals. It is the same issue I have by the repeated insistence of journalists, pundits, intellectuals and others to explain socio-political issues in Muslim and Arab nations through the prism of Islam. This is a distorting and randomizing prism that allows us to say anything about any situation based purely on imagined ideas of how people transform philosophies (which is what religions are) into worldly actions. It is near impossible to imagine that everyone does it the same way!
Full disclosure: I remain a big admirer of the Tehelka editor who actually made this inane comment and encourage people to read Tehelka magainze – a real example of courage in journalism.
…it is always wrong to explain what happens in a country by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters; a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot. (page 30)
The point being not that there are nine or three or ten or twenty characters, but that individuals are more than just one things and that a religion is simply one piece that can be at times a major and other times a minor influence of their decisions, priorities, values and behaviors. To attempt to blame this on religion, and worse on a religion as varied, complex, and near-impossible-to-define, as Hinduisum is even more egregious.
What is happening in Delhi though disappointing is in fact taking place in cities all across the globe and is not unique to India, or to Hindus. It cannot be understood, explained or blamed on something called Hinduism or the Hindu.