Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Dave Prager's Delirious Delhi

[Did this for my Sunday Guardian column]

If one of the uses of literature is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, parts of Dave Prager’s book Delirious Delhi gave me a new way of looking at the city I’ve spent all my life in. For instance, I thought I knew south Delhi like the back of my hand, but “division by boulevards” is not a phrase I would have ever thought to use for it. On reflection, though, it makes sense given Prager’s experiences as a foreigner living in Hauz Khas and travelling to his Gurgaon office – by taxi – every day. For someone like him – daunted by the traffic and bemused by the lack of “bridges” from one boulevard to the next – it’s understandable that each south Delhi locality would feel cut off from its neighbours.

And so, Green Park was just a five-minute walk from where he and his wife Jenny were staying, but “because we rarely dared to dash across that dangerous street, and because the same journey by autorickshaw would have included a frustrating gauntlet of red lights and U-turns, we hardly ever went [there].” The structure of each south Delhi neighborhood, observes Prager, is such that it focuses life “squarely towards the centre. Residents are both figuratively and physically forced to turn their backs towards everything outside. It’s introversion by municipal design...we can’t help but see south Delhi as isolated islands separated by seas of traffic”.

I can empathise, though my own experience of the city has been considerably different – at least back in the days when I was driving around a lot more and had friends and family staying in the different “boulevards” of south Delhi, with the result that no neighborhood was completely unfamiliar. (In more recent years the Metro has changed the way many Delhiites use their city, but the south Delhi phase wasn’t operational when Prager was living here.) Subjectivity does have its limits though: I was puzzled by Prager’s observation that most restaurants in south Delhi are empty by 10 pm.


Delirious Delhi is a mixed bag overall. Prager has a broad sense of humour that usually works, his enthusiasm is infectious and I enjoyed his obsessive interest in such things as the intonations of the word “bhaiya” by women trying to hector sabzi-wallahs. But he is a little too keen to differentiate his Delhi narrative from the ones found in “most books about India written by Westerners”. Apparently most Westerners hate India at first but then learn to love it: “At first they’re horrified by the poverty but then they ‘find spirituality’ in every speck of dirt.” Unless Prager has been reading only the sketchiest travelogue-epiphanies, this sounds a bit like a straw-man proposal.

In any case there is nothing especially distinctive about his experience: “We were to vacillate back and forth between the two extremes – love India, hate India, love India, hate India – until we found equilibrium. We learned to love the things that should be loved, and hate the things that should be hated.” But isn’t this how most sane people experience not just life in a particular place but life in general? And a subsequent observation – “Delhi is whatever you make of it...In Delhi, all things are true at once” – is really just a tiny variant on something that writers (Indian and non-Indian) have been saying about this country for decades.

I mean this less as a criticism of the book (which is very readable if occasionally long-winded) and more as a criticism of a tendency in non-fiction writing to make pronouncements and create easily digested narratives rather than simply follow the principles of good termite art (or at least the “show, don’t tell” dictum). The nearly 400 pages of Delirious Delhi are more than enough to show that Delhi is a place where anything (and its opposite) is possible, and in fact this book is a little like the city itself: sprawling, unruly, continuing to expand alarmingly just when you think you might have reached the border (or in this case, the end of a chapter). But it may have worked better as a free-flowing collection of anecdotes, related in a deadpan style and less weighed down by commentary.

[Some Delhi-related posts here]


  1. George Mikes wrote that the descriptions "land of contradiction" / "mixed bag"/ "many things true at once" etc. can be, and has been (diligently so), applied to every country a travel writer has been to.

    - k

  2. Have you read Sam Miller's Delhi book? Its interesting because his is a unique vantage point - he was an outsider who has adopted Delhi and now he is as much a Delhiwala as anyone.
    I loved his so called psycho-geographic technique.
    I think I may be making a generalization here, but,a contemporary Indian does not give travelling as much importance as the "Westerner", for whom backpacking is considered an essential part of coming of age. Our tourism is mostly perfunctory, ticking off all the banal touristy landmarks. That said, I read a few pages of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana at a friends place and liked it a lot.

  3. I think your review and observations about the book and Delhi are probably better than the book itself, but I am also seriously biased and slightly sick of all the usual, run-of-the-mill India-experience book by expats. Not to say that they aren't experts at seeing things which born and bred Dilliwallas take for granted and miss.

    Hope you don't mind, but I'm quoting you over at our Delhi forum,