Delhi Mostly Harmless - Elizabeth Chatterjee
Aug 14, 2021
Delhi Mostly Harmless
Elizabeth Chatterjee’s book on her time in Delhi is charming. I picked up the book on the way back home to Bombay from Pune in February this year. I was about to start the second season of Bombay Daak, and it was an instinctive purchase; I hoped to find some inspiration on writing about a city, or gather a different perspective on how to look at one.
Instead, in Delhi Mostly Harmless I found a keen, rich and dense observation of our capital, worded like the wind. It is a breezy book, and a particularly hilarious one. And while the Brit wit was on full display, the book was equally insightful in a manner I did not expect.
After the mandatory pages of the introductory chapters, what got me hooked on to it was a Persian prophesy she alludes to, a hundred pages in: “…whoever builds a new city in Delhi will lose it.”
Now I read that passage the same day there was a media furore over the central government’s plans to continue their central vista redevelopment amidst India’s savage second wave of Covid-19. And morbidly I felt a tinge of hope reading it.
The line was preceded by a reference to Edward Gibbon’s book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that I am now curious to read given this context.
Lady Chatterley’s book is filled with such historical curios (and kitsch) that left me constantly engaged with the book at a level above what I sought from it at first. The book at most times felt like it was written for other western women like the author who are in two minds over making Delhi a part of their life. It breaks and builds stereotypes where necessary and true. And like most academics Chatterjee’s true insights are derived from literature. Her observations, while engaging and witty, generally toys with what’s on the surface. It is good enough for the book, in fact does a great justice to it, but with her flair for writing, you end up wishing for more. Maybe a little more of Kamala’s life, a little more of her alpha roommate and the friends and relatives (like how we see the Roy’s in the chapter on rents in the book). Again, that’s not the purpose of the book, so it is perhaps an invalid comment. Yet, this thought hung heavy on my mind once I finished reading.
But my heart was truly tugged at page 255.
In a lament over her otherness, her non-belonging, her whiteness in the land of brown, Chatterjee’s hurtful acknowledgement of the city never seeing her as one of its own, will resonate with all immigrants everywhere. The book itself had picked pace as the various phases of her becoming a quintessential dilliwallah and this tragic resolution of that conflict was truly felt. It broke my heart. That this point in the book also is lead up to Chatterjee packing her bags for good, was masterful writing.
Except for a chapter called brains I remember almost all chapters very well. The one on Holi had me genuinely scared for her, like everyone who forbade her from going to Delhi initially might have. And the one called stomach and veins were particularly enjoyable. Chatterjee’s slice of Delhi is abundant and colourful and offers a plea to anyone who would care, to look at Delhi as a city like herself, trying to find its place in its world.
This is the fourth time in the last two years where I have found Joseph Conrad in the beginning of a book. This one quoted from Victory. I think I have had enough indications that I should read Conrad.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or a more contemporary version of those events.
I felt a certain bonhomie with Chatterjee in the parts where she mentioned Adiga and Kundera and Eat, Pray, Love. Especially Kundera’s two line summary of Kitsch from The Unbearable Lightness of Being appearing towards the end was a legitimate fist bump moment. I had a deep urge to pick that book up again.
My immediate thought after finishing the book went in a tangential direction.
Towards the concluding pages of the book, I saw Delhi as an awkward adolescent. I believe I am paraphrasing Chatterjee when I say this. But if I’m wrong on that count, then I think that this is my conclusion of Dilli now. And it made me think of India in general. A woefully insecure country, with its inadequate resources and inordinate ambitions. And I felt that it isn’t just Delhi, but India as a whole is passing through a rough political puberty. And that once we mature we will age better. That this ancient cluster of civilisations is still finding its feet as a young country. That we who lose hope in it everyday can look give it this strange annoying space and it will grow into a more assured, well meaning and fruitful society.