An Interview with Rana Dasgupta
In this interview with Ann Ang, a DPhil candidate in English at the University of Oxford, Rana Dasgupta speaks about his trajectory as a writer, his views on India’s rise in the global economy and the impact this has had on the country itself. He also discusses the changing nature of Indian literature and the place of literary writing in an age where cultural identities are both fluid and fraught. The interview was held on 22 November 2019 in Oxford.
How do you see your trajectory as a writer, working between genres and across borders?
With each new book, I wanted to do something I had never done before. My concerns have become more precise over time. The questions I’m trying to address, especially in Capital and the book I’m writing now, After Nations, are related to the distribution of global resources, and to justice. Who benefits, and loses in the global system, and who are the adjudicators?
This central question has always been present in my work, beginning with Tokyo Cancelled, where outsiders and lost people were the main characters. To a great extent, the book is about the uncanny experiences of globalisation. Solo focuses those concerns onto history, and attempts to address what it means to find oneself suddenly in a nation-state after living in an empire.
Capital, by contrast, was an attempt to take stock of changes to the landscape and interior spaces of the city I live in. Though this too was a thoroughly novelistic project – it was all about character and prose – I felt that the reality of the new Asian megalopolis was too strange for me to invent. It was not yet codified in literature, and I needed to go out and find my “plot” by talking to real people.
The preoccupation with capital may seem to be a symptom of our current moment but has been a central concern of the novel since its inception – think of Balzac, Thackeray or Thomas Mann. As a literary work, Capital aspires to the scale of nineteenth-century novels: it tries to map capitalist modernity by looking at the networks and energies formed by the movement of money in today’s Delhi. The book has a stronger relation to Saul Bellow than to Salman Rushdie. It’s part of tracing that outward wave and expansion of capitalist centres, from Europe in the nineteenth century, to the countries experiencing their first decades of economic liberalisation today.
My current book, After Nations, is an extended essay that expands on these concerns, and is currently at about a thousand pages. As a whole, the book examines the theological and financial foundations of the nation-state in order to understand the many forms of political and related crises today. After this, I’m planning to write another novel.
It has been five years since Capital was published in 2014. How would you describe its reception as a work of literary journalism since then?
It’s the most read of my books and, interestingly, it seems to gain more readers with time. Foreign diplomats tend to pick it up as a sort of first introduction to Delhi. The book situates the phenomenon of Delhi within India’s re-orientation towards international finance and foreign investment and tries to understand what kind of society is emerging there.
Contemporary Asia is often compared to America in the time of the gilded age, and its billionaires to that period’s Rockefeller, Carnegie and the other robber barons. This allows us to think that we can “know” the future of Asia by looking at the American past. Capital tried to argue that this parallel does not stand up to scrutiny, and that the Asian moment is unique and sui generis.
At the time I was writing Capital, the foreign press was prone to a kind of American euphoria, which claimed India as a success story for the American model. Akash Kapur, the author of India Becoming (2012), made several comparisons between India’s rapid modernisation and America in “How India Became America”, published in the New York Times (9 March 2012). It was assumed there was a titanic struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, in the broader framework of China and India competing for influence over Asia.
Bill Clinton had visited India in 2000, and during his trip, made strong claims for the genetic resemblances between India and the US – both had emerged from the British Empire, both were constitutional democracies – and he seemed confident that he knew India, as if it were America’s younger sibling. To some, it was important to see America in India; to see laptops and shopping malls. Capital, to a great extent, was written against this view.
When I began the book, I thought it would be very unpopular. The middle classes were concerned that nothing should interrupt the rise in property prices and the stock market, so they were not interested in extensive criticism. But by 2014, when Capital came out, everything had changed. Political corruption, air pollution, and grotesque gender violence had become central preoccupations.
Contrary to my expectations, the book received a great reception in India because people wanted to get to the heart of what was happening in the country. The social fallout from rapid economic change, which was a marginal subject during the boom years, was suddenly everyone’s concern. The mood was dark and the book spoke to this sense of malaise.
In Capital, you discuss the nature of relationships in a society increasingly dominated by the priorities of profit and individualism, in place of older forms of community and identity. And you observe strikingly that in Delhi, they say not “Let me understand you so I may live alongside you” but “I will live alongside you without condition, for I will never understand you”. What is your view about these two, almost diametrically opposed, models of relationality? Is there any hope to relate fully and empathetically to others in a world of strangers?
In relation to the first possibility, I’m sceptical of a cosy ethos of “let’s understand each other”. You hit certain limits with the first approach, as we have done in the last few years in the West, because it’s based on superficial and external cultural knowledge of other cultures in the world, such as the relevant dietary prohibitions. In recent years, in France for instance, we find ourselves in situations which are almost medieval, with mayors imposing pork in certain communities. That was exactly what happened in the Spanish Inquisition.
Of the two possibilities, I actually prefer the second. Often the most stable examples of “multicultural” stability involved coexistence with very little mutual understanding. The Ottoman Empire, for instance, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived alongside each other in relative harmony for six centuries. The marketplace was the meeting place, but how they got married, how they educated their children, what festivals were celebrated: these were largely the private business of individual communities.
However, India is riven by extremely violent social divisions. If I were to write Capital now, I would write more about caste. Gender, caste and religion provide the deep structure to Indian society, and since they are often enforced by predation, I’m not sure we can rely either on “understanding” or mere “toleration”.
I’m wondering if we could turn to the topic of Indian literature. Who or what is an Indian writer? And if an Indian writer works in English, there is the linguistic aspect to consider as well?
To a great extent, I would address this through the JCB Prize for Literature, which I set up and ran for its first two instalments. When we designed the prize, we made an immediate decision to restrict it to Indian citizens. India’s literary diaspora is much decorated, and we didn’t want this prize to be another celebration of famous Americans, Brits, and so on. We wanted it to reflect the much less-known scale and variety of the Indian writing landscape itself.
The prize also does not characterise or categorise writers by their choice of literary language. It does not distinguish between a Tamil novelist and a novelist working in English, which would expose the prize to the all-too-common hierarchies that exist between English-language and regional writers. Instead we wanted the richness of the subject matter as literature to be unaffected by these assumptions.
It would still be true to say that Indian literature does not exist in actual experience. There are twenty-two official languages in India, and it’s safe to say that no one person can understand them all. No one can read literature in all of them, and there’s no equivalent effort at translation. With the JCB Prize, I sought to bring this literature, holistically, into being, by encouraging publishers to submit translated works. The rules of the prize stipulate that publishers must adhere to a quota of four submissions, of which two must be translated work.
For a long time, the postcolonial burden has weighed upon Indian writing. The novel has to represent the nation and explain who the Indian people are. A love story is never simply a love story. This has meant that many of the real struggles that Indians faced have not appeared in literature, because they are seen as minor and un-elevated.
In a way, the JCB Prize is helping to accelerate the growing interest in Indian literature written in languages other than English. For the two shortlists in 2018 and 2019, five books out of ten were translations, and it wasn’t because the jury was favouring translations, or because translations were more numerous, as they only accounted for 25% of submissions.
As literary works, the translations were more dynamic and freer than the novels in English. For a long time, the postcolonial burden has weighed upon Indian writing. The novel has to represent the nation and explain who the Indian people are. A love story is never simply a love story. This has meant that many of the real struggles that Indians faced have not appeared in literature, because they are seen as minor and un-elevated.
However, people are now more interested in ground-level experiences as the centre of literary endeavour. One of the entries we had last year, My Father’s Garden, concerns a young, tribal, gay man from Jharkhand, who is living out his life erotically. The book is not in any way trying to represent his own tribal community.
The dominance of English literature as genteel literature needs to be broken. But the confidence to write a novel and then the economic resources to do so are still not very well distributed.
Some of the early scholarship on Indian Writing in English calls English a link-language that steps outside these divisions of caste and language. But today, attitudes towards language-use in India seem to be a lot more complex. What implications does this have for literary writing?
Attitudes vary in different parts of the country. The literary psyche is more intact, you might say, in the south. Elites speak English, like everywhere else, but they still read literature in Tamil, Kannada, etc. With Tamil especially, there is an unbroken tradition stretching back thousands of years. And the language is constantly refreshed by great contemporary writing.
In the north of India, by contrast, the number of languages employed, fluently, on a daily basis, has grown fewer. Anecdotally, most of the people I know in Delhi speak either English or Hindi as a first language, and one of the other languages as a second. By comparison their parents would have spoken three languages well, and their grandparents would probably have spoken and written five languages. Their grandparents could probably read and write four scripts: Urdu, Hindustani, Punjabi and English, and possibly an additional Punjabi dialect.
Coincidentally, I’m failing to think of a significant literary figure who has emerged from Delhi in the last fifty years, either in English or in Hindi. Though Arundhati Roy now lives in Delhi, she was born in Kerala. For Salman Rushdie, it was Bombay, and for Amitav Ghosh, Calcutta. Perhaps there is a link between the decline in linguistic richness in Delhi and its lack of an author who truly represents the city.
I should add that I don’t have a problem with English being a lingua franca, and I think it would be wonderful if people were able to use English as a fully literary language, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of other languages.
Unfortunately, the rush to English by people who may not understand it very well has led to the loss of prestige of other languages, and has led to the development not only of a monoculture, but to the degradation of all other cultures.
And by way of bringing the interview to a close, in what ways do you consider yourself a British writer, however artificial or troubled a category that might be?
I usually consider myself a British writer. But I lived in Delhi for seventeen years and it feels strange to come back to the UK. Even after two years, I find it foreign, and I’m bewildered by many of its political and social instincts.
But the category of “British writer” is not just about feeling British, but also about identifying with a literary tradition. Like so many other British writers, I have the rhythms of so many works in my head: the King James Bible, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot. These works have been part of my formation as a writer, and I constantly return to them. There are certain writers that I take inspiration from, such as Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, who are at home both in fiction and non-fiction; they are essayists and novelists. They have a certain set of political commitments as well, which affects their life outside their writing.
I identify with that brand of British writing, which was critical of society and culturally well-informed. I’m fully aware of the cosmopolitanism of imperial Britain can be critiqued. But we’re at a point right now where nationalism seems virulent and dangerous. National identity is a very complex question and I’m writing about it now, and at great length. I think it’s legitimate to have a certain nostalgia, not for imperial conquest and domination, but nevertheless for the concomitant vastness of political community, which was felt by many colonial subjects as well as in the metropole.
That said, like many other writers, I do question many of the central assumptions of European writing from the last few centuries. Living for a long time outside the West gives you different instincts about questions like: What is progress? What is order? What does a good society look like? Increasingly, I am unconvinced by the Western answers to those questions, and the more time I spend back in the UK, the more apocalyptic the Western universe appears.
Cite this: Ang, Ann. “An Interview with Rana Dasgupta.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2020, https://writersmakeworlds.com/interview-rana-dasgupta/. Accessed 3 November 2020.