Citizen of the world: Rana Dasgupta on state, cities and writing a book

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Rana Dasgupta is a busy man. He is the literary director of the JCB Prize, one of the most lucrative awards for Indian fiction writers. He has been teaching in Brown University and organising conferences in Europe. How does all this public activity affect his writing, which is essentially a private pursuit? His last book, Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi — which won the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage, 2017, and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize — was published five years back, and he says he is still working on the next one.

“Oh, it’s fatal,” he replies, “while I sit here talking to you, my book does not get written.” But he is quick to add that the JCB Prize is something he believes in. “I don’t think it is incumbent on artistes, but they should think of the context in which their art is made. Many writers organise to protect the right of other writers, to protect those who are in prison. The prize is such a project for me.” Dasgupta says there is not enough attention paid to literary fiction in India. “There is very little media coverage and rather little money. We are trying to create a healthy ecosystem.”

Established in 2018, the JCB Prize — funded by construction equipment maker JCB and administered by the JCB Literary Foundation — recognises a work of fiction by an Indian writer. The prize money is ~25 lakh; if it is a translation into English, the translator gets an additional ~10 lakh. Last year, the winner was Benyamin’s Malayalam novel Jasmine Days, translated into English by Shahnaz Habib. This year, the shortlist includes translations of Perumal Murugan and Manoranjan Byapari, as well as original English works by Roshan Ali, Madhuri Vijay and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. The winner will be declared on November 2.

I meet Dasgupta at his Airbnb accommodation in a leafy south Delhi neighbourhood. The deviation from the regular format of this column, where we meet BS' guest at a restaurant or café, is on my request. I wish to eliminate as many distractions as possible for the benefit of the multimedia format in which we will conduct the interaction. As my taxi pulls up in front of the address where I am supposed to meet Dasgupta, I regret not thinking ahead and getting some coffee, or maybe ordering something online. Dasgupta opens the door himself and invites us into his airy, well-lit living room. 

This is not a typical “writer’s residence” as you might imagine it — there are no booklined walls, no writing table overflowing with papers, no hidden typewriter. Dasgupta’s laptop is on the centre table of the drawing room when we arrive, but he removes it quickly, and we discuss what we will talk about as the equipment is set up. “We’ll talk about your writing and why we have not seen a book from you in five years,” I tell him. He can’t help laughing out at the prospect of discussing it. “It’s a terrifying question,” he says. And, we are off. 

Though I had earlier read all of Dasgupta’s work, as part of my research I revisited all three — besides Ve Din (Days of Longing), set in Prague.

“People often say that writers write only one book and they keep doing it,” Dasgupta says. “When I finished my first book, people expected me to write a big Indian novel.” Dasgupta quickly adds that all his books have been written in India; he has been living here since 2000. “Many people bought my book thinking it would be about India. They were disappointed.” Solo won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in 2010. He adds, “There seems to be an expectation, especially of non-Western writers that they will write again and again about their supposed ancestral place. I think it’s unfair for people to be condemned to do that.”

As he keeps narrating this, I can't help thinking of my own travels in Vienna and Prague. How wonderful it would be sit over a cup of coffee on the banks of the Vltava, listening to these tales.

Dasgupta says that he fell in love with Bulgaria — its landscape, music, and history. “It has a melancholic history,” he says, adding that writing Solo was an effort at inhabiting the histories of other people. “It was radically different, but also very similar.” I wonder how much of this interest in cosmopolitanism is a result of his personal history — he was born and educated in the UK, has lived in India, and worked in the US. “Yes, I have a British mother and an Indian father. I have lived in several countries, and I feel most at home with cosmopolitan thinkers. I am fascinated by the ideas of commerce and exchange.”

In March 2017, Dasgupta co-curated a conference, “Now is the Time of Monsters: What Comes After Nations?” in Berlin. The curatorial statement said: “The nation-state has become so fundamental to today’s thinking that other possibilities of political organisation have become unimaginable — though at the beginning of the 20th century many other options were imagined and discussed around the world.” To me, questioning the pre-eminence of the nation state seems deeply intertwined with Dasgupta’s other interests. “We are too quickly persuaded by things that are very visible now,” he says, “like the emergence of powerful national leaders, who are trying to rein in some of the tendencies of cosmopolitanism and globalisation.” For Dasgupta, this comes from a moment of weakness because leaders of nation states have lost a lot of their authority. “These leaders can still command the army and control the borders, but do they really have any control over the economy?”

This is also the subject of his next book. “You asked me earlier why I have not published a book in five years. That’s because it’s big book,” he says. “To even answer the question as to why we live in nation states now, we had to go back to the fall of the Roman Empire.” With most nations in the world being under a century old, and none really older than 200-300 years, the jury is still out on whether this model is a success. “Many of the poorer states are collapsing; the richer ones are in a strange sort of self-destructive mode, the most obvious example of which is Britain. If you think of it, the crisis seems to have come very early in the history of nation states. Empires — Roman, Ottoman, Persian — often lasted centuries.”

Titled After Nations, the book aims to provoke people to think about political evolution. “It’s like biological evolution,” says Dasgupta. “Most people think we are not evolving anymore but that’s not true.” The moment of crisis in the nation state is linked to the crisis in capitalism. “The nation is not disappearing; our nations are very profound,” he adds, “But I do think our nations needs more scaffolding.”

His yet-to-be-completed book seems to be a marked departure from his previous one, which was about changes experienced by Delhi since India opened up its economy. “Don’t you think this city, like many other global cities, has an existence, an identity, beyond the nation?” I ask him. “Yes, it is often commented that there is more in common between major cities of the world than between their countries. Cities can get imaginatively dislodged from their surroundings,” he says, adding that the 20th century tried in some ways to obscure this fact. 

We can only hope that the new book will soon overcome the many distractions its author encounters.

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