Book Review: Delhi Mostly Harmless


What do you get when you put a mollycoddled Oxford resident who hates getting out of her comfort zone into the chaos that is India – or, more specifically, Delhi? You’d think you’d get a coming of age story, a witty/ interesting/ hilarious account of her travels, or perhaps her travails to grasp the culture shock that Delhi most certainly can be. You’d be sorely mistaken.

The book starts off funnily enough, with the author sitting on an ice-stool at Delhi’s Ice Lounge, trying to conduct an interview for her thesis on electricity. Soon enough, though, Chaterjee appears to forget that she isn’t writing a thesis – she’s writing a novel. So while she covers all the bases – and the depth and breadth of Delhi life she covers is interesting – she does so in a very academic manner.

For instance, she uses up eight pages comparing Delhi to an elephant, and it’s not funny or witty. It reads like an exhibit in a thesis. She covers up her embarrassment about employing a maid by giving you a dry, academic account of the Indian economy:

“India’s much vaunted economic growth has largely been jobless. Employment creation remained more or less stagnant between 2005 and 2010. The formal sector – comprising those lucky few with legally recognized labour rights – has actually been shrinking over the last decade.”

Doesn’t that sound like a newspaper report or an introduction to an article on employment?

Buried within this boring, thesis-like novel are a few witty sentences:

‘The scales were falling from my Oxford-coddled eyes. Delhi is certainly not the place for sacred poverty.’
‘I’d imagined the city would bow down to me like some visiting dignitary. Instead I was more like the Hindustan Ambassador.’

And some astute observances:

“Clumps of bored young men – they are almost always men – are ubiquitous. They “hang out”, smoke bidis, snack, drink tea, drink booze, piss on walls, do odd jobs, wander around, mutter and whistle and sing to one another…These sleazy and occasionally aggressive young men are flippantly termed “Roadside Romeos”. They are everywhere, and they are threatening…Boredom, anger, fear. It shapes the city’s psychogeography.”

But then everything else is slammed.

She looks down her nose at Hauz Khas Village, the grubby fashionista heart that overlooks an old royal lake and some serene ruins, and at residents of gated communities, who condemn the poor for burning rubbish, illegally occupying land. Perhaps she’s never been to SoHo, the it destination for New York’s hipsters, which basically is old industrial warehouses that have been converted into galleries and stores. And perhaps, living her sheltered Oxford life has inured her to the fact that the rich and poor co-exist side-by-side in every country and every city of the world.

My problem with the book isn’t that she chooses to use negative lenses to view the city – it is with the way she finds absolutely nothing to like, which I find very hard to believe. I remember the culture shock that I experienced when I moved to Delhi around 12 years ago. The people were loud and ostentatious, the roadside romeos were fearsome, the neighbours were nosey to a fault. But I also saw the good parts of the city – the wide open roads and greenery in Lutyen’s Delhi; the charming ruins that dot the landscape; the open air, vibrant local markets; the museums and art that the city embraces.

Almost every city in the world has its good and bad, and when you choose to focus so exclusively on the negative, you do your readers a disservice.

Title: Delhi Mostly Harmless: One Woman’s Vision of the City
Author: Elizabeth Chatterjee
Publisher/ Imprint: Random House India
Pages: 281
Genre/ Sub-Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 2.00 of 5
Reviewed for: Publisher

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