Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
|Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Wonderfully evocative, unromantic, good-natured exploration of a modern city that cannot escape its history. A superb read if you can learn to skim the footnotes.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: July 2010|
Sam Miller was born the same year I was, and in the early 1990s he was the BBC correspondent based in Delhi. Married to an Indian, he returned in 2002 (not necessarily in that order) and has remained there ever since. Which just goes to show that he has done more with his life than I have with mine.
My normal injunction at this point is "Ah! But is he happy?"
If this book is anything to go by, then I'd say: yes, he probably is. Not ecstatically, deliriously, joyful of every minute of every day – Delhi would never allow that – but content, certainly. Lucky soul: but then, is it not said that we make our own luck?
Miller is probably one of the best people to take you on a tour of Delhi. He's not a native so has no in-bred partisanship, but he does love the place so will make sure you do too, but mainly because to begin with he HATED it… so he will understand if you don't share his ironic good humour about the shit squirter or the fact that sometimes the only way to cross the road is to take a rickshaw taxi.
He's definitely the best person to take me on a tour of Delhi because he has an absolute conviction that the only real way to experience any city is on foot. Walking is the only way to see the life of a city – not just its monuments old and new – but the people who live there doing ordinary things… gossiping, working, playing, shopping, eating, living and (yes) dying.
When he first moved to the Indian capital wandering around on foot was seen as just too bizarre and helpful locals would virtually insist that he take a taxi: an attitude that fellow-walkers have encountered all over the world (not just the developing parts of it). Now however, it is increasingly possible to walk at will… underpasses exist to get you from one side of the worst highways to the other, and most importantly the "street map" has arrived!
My own perambulations of foreign cities usually relegate the map to "how do I get back?" status having got myself totally lost; Miller is more organised than that. Extolling the benefits of the Eicher street plan, he deliberately sets out to explore his adopted home town and use the map to figure out the best way to take as many of the key sites as possible, whilst allowing the freedom of serendipitous discovery along the way. Using his mathematician's brain he considers mapping a W onto the city, then a more elegant S, perhaps completing that into an 8 or turning it on its side for infinity - but all of these leave too many gaps. Eventually he determines upon the ever-widening spiral, starting at the centre working outwards.
So, when the Guardian called the book a 'wild, spiralling, wonder' they were talking quite literally.
Irrespective of genre (adventure, tourist, local-perspective, historical etc) travel writing falls into two broad styles: literary and reportage. Despite the word "adventures" in the subtitle Delhi is definitely in the latter category. More Michael Palin than W G Sebald.
Miller, having determined his route (or at least the basis for determining it) sets off to explore and simply reports what happens on his walk, who he meets, what they're about and why, digressing into monologues and imagined conversations on history, philosophy, religion and politics along the way… as is the walker's wont.
The man's erudition, and/or his research, cannot be called into question – he is a fountain of knowledge, simply bubbling over with sparkling facts and theories, which he has the self-deprecation and wit to admit he's simply just Googled to find out. At the beginning this was, frankly, irritating. Half-way through the first chapter I was beginning to despise the man and think I would never finish his damn walk, if he kept interrupting me with rambling footnotes. He's done this research, so he's darn well going to use it, was the feeling I got.
It's probably a valid observation, but it intruded less once I remembered that I could treat him like any other walking companion and just ignore him at times. I probably read half of the footnotes, skimmed a quarter and simply by-passed the rest. I'd recommend you do something similar. By way of example, the twenty pages of Chapter 1 have some 16 footnotes, some of which start half-way up the page and still overspill to the next.
It would not have been a worse book if every single one of them had been omitted. It might have been a better one if he'd found some sensible way of working most of the detail into the body of the text.
And here's another one: the book is illustrated throughout, but all of the pictures (helpfully interspersed in the text rather than collected together in a bundle) are in black and white (Delhi is far too colourful a place to benefit from monochromatic treatment) and none of them are actually captioned, so you can't always be sure what you're looking at.
But they really are petty quibbles. Set them aside, pull on your trainers and head off with Miller regardless and you'll receive a very special guided tour. Spiralling outwards from Connaught Place, he'll take you through shopping malls, parks and metro-stations, to Sufi shrines and old forgotten Mosques. He'll visit cyber-cafés and traditional pharmacies; butchers and schoolrooms. He'll show you the glory of the 'new India', and the shame of surviving ancient poverty. From presidential palaces and relics of the Raj, to the slum-shacks of the dump-living rag-pickers, he covers the whole gamut of life as it is lived on the street, with a few peeks behind closed doors as well. He talks to bureaucrats and students and children and cleaners and entrepreneurs (the kind who will set up a 'telephone exchange' with one wireless phone, a table and a couple of chairs – in the middle of a cabbage field).
Above all, Miller shows us that Delhi cannot be categorised. It was, might now be, and certainly will be again, the most populous city on the planet. Any place you have that many people, he doesn't expressly state, you will have variation: winners and losers, but mostly the vast range in the middle getting by ok thank you very much.
Structurally the book is a series of thirteen chapters and twelve intermissions. Each chapter is an individual walk titled in Dickensian fashion (e.g. Chapter 9 "In which the author visits Ludlow Castle, learns the meaning of choledochoolithotomy and almost buys a packet of condoms") and each Intermission is an excuse to discourse tangentially on various matters personal or India-related (his obsession with spirals; what it is like to be a large white foreigner, especially one who speaks Hindi; the best way to go about getting your person of Indian Origin card – if technically, you're not) . The Intermissions also serve the very valid purpose of reminding the reader that this was not a single journey, but a series of day-rambles taken over many months, with time for reflection in between. Don't – he seems to imply – try to do Delhi in one hit. Take it slowly, and you will be rewarded.
If you're going to Delhi any time soon, read this first.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion For alternative views of modern India try Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean. Or An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley.
You can read more book reviews or buy Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller at Amazon.com.
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