One of the best books on Delhi

November 24, 2011
By

By Nimish Dubey

There have been many books written on the Indian capital. Some have veered to the utterly academic, others to the spiritual, yet others to the role of a simple “see-this-do-that” travel guide and some (alas a very few) have just looked the city through the eyes of a resident. Sam Miller’s Delhi Adventures in a Megacity is fortunately a book that comes in the last category. We have no hesitation in declaring it as one of the best books written about the city, and perhaps the only one that gives you a feel of life in the city, going beyond monuments and history.

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Miller was in Delhi in the early nineties as a BBC correspondent and was posted back to the city in 2002, and has stayed ever since.  It is clearly a stay he has relished. His affection for Delhi shines right through Adventures in a Megacity although he makes no attempt to make excuses for the city’s failings. What really makes the book stand out from the crowd is is style – it is part travelogue, part memoir, and part history history lesson, all suffused with typically understated British humour, something we must admit we sorely missed in that other classic on Delhi, William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. Just check the titles of the chapters if you do not believe us. One reads: “In which the author explores the mysteries of the sodomitic gerund, monastic nudity and geocaching.”


The book follows Miller as he literally ambles around Delhi. And yes, we use the word “amble” deliberately, for there is little method to his roamings. He walks into offices, checks out roadside vendors, pops into restaurants, visits markets of dubious legality, looks up cemetries, and yes, even gawks at historical monuments and buildings, thankfully without making any profound comments about them.  Most importantly, he actually talks to people, something that ensures that there are conversations galore in the book, ranging from a discussion on Swastikas in a Jewish cemetry to a rather terrifying chat with policemen who had been publicly thrashing an alleged drug dealer. The result is a book that treats Delhi not as a place but as a living being. To Miller, Delhi is more than a geographical entity, it is a creature in its own right with its own genetic tree, charms and idiosyncracies.

All of which he manages to capture rather brilliantly in Adventures in a Mega City. There is no attempt to pull a curtain over the lack of hygiene or the prevalence of corruption, but there is no pious sermonising. Miller does not like everything about Delhi (does anybody?) but he restricts himself to narration with some hilarious asides, and well, all said and done, he clearly loves the city. Loves it enough in fact to remark at one stage while in Gurgaon:

“Nothing, nothing at all had happened to me as I wandered through Gurgaon. I wasn’t chased by killer pigs; I didn’t step into a sewer; no one harassed me; I wasn’t hit by an autorickshaw; I wasn’t threatened by butchers; no one asked me to sing; I didn’t have shit squirted onto my shoe. I suppose I ought to have been happy, but I wasn’t. I missed the bustle, the noise, the colours and the smells.”

Which really sums the book up – it is the biography of a city written with affection and humour, by one of its children. Just like a parent, Delhi has its fault. Just like a child would about is parent, Miller admits them but often prefers to look at its better side. If we have a complaint about the book, it is that it could have been better produced – it definitely deserved better design to do justice to all the photographs in it. Speaking of photographs, it has been a while since we saw a book that had pictures interspersed throughout the text instead of being lumped into a section. We just loved it, as we could get an image and its description or reference within seconds. We just hope this trend continues.

All in all, Delhi Adventures in a Megacity  is a book that will not just tell you a lot about Delhi, but will also make you smile. We appreciate the former, but really treasure the latter. Which makes it a classic of our times. You have missed out on experiencing the capital in print if you have not read it.

And on a lot of smiles as well.  Write it again, Sam!

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