DELHI: ADVENTURES IN A MEGACITY, by Sam Miller. St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y. July 2010. Hardcover. 304 pages. $24.99
So often in travel writing, the protagonist (travel writer) is an intrepid, nomadic backpacker-traveler whose goal is not so much to sight-see but to meet the locals, to get into their heads, live their lives and get at the essence of what it means to be local whether it be Latvian, Bhutanese, or Chilean. They revel in their chance encounters—the auto-rickshaw driver that invites them home for a cup of tea and then to his sister’s wedding—pondering, together, the purpose of the universe and how, in its infinite wisdom, it brought them together. I have to say that, having been to a few places on the map, this is not an easy thing to emulate. You don’t always meet interesting locals at the bus-stop. Mostly, they are too busy to notice you. You don’t always get invited to weddings. And these are not experiences the average traveler can relate to.
Sam Miller’s peregrinations through Delhi offers a antidote to travel writing that fetishize, romanticize, and exoticize. Miller’s account of Delhi is at its best the quintessence of travel writing—recount your experience as an itinerant and an observer.
Miller’s wife is Indian and grew up in Bombay, a city that Miller initially finds more endearing than Delhi. He also speaks Hindi, a marketable skill that probably makes it easier to get a conversation going with the locals.
The premise in Delhi is quite simple. Discover the city. By foot. In a spiral route starting out at Connaught Place. The people he meets are incidental to the places he sees on the route. Quite deliberately, conversations with individuals get their own mini chapters titled “Intermission,” suggesting that the route and the perambulations take precedence over the chance encounters. So while he does meet the odd idiosyncratic professor, or the undertaker, or rag picker, it is the very idea of walking, albeit in a peculiar spiral route, (which the author rationalizes quite well) through a city of close to 15 million with no remarkable walking paths that makes this a unique attempt at travel writing.
Miller chooses a walking route after carefully considering various geometric possibilities. This eliminates what often intrigues the reader—how does the travel writer travel, i.e. what are the elemental mechanics of travel? In this, Miller’s Delhi is a true guide. One could pick the book up and quite literally follow in his foosteps. But do it soon, if you must, for Delhi, as Miller suggests, is ever-changing, its contours forever being redrawn.
Miller takes on the french “flaneur” approach to traveling and writing (a flaneur is a wanderer, taking in all that comes one’s way, not charting any detailed route, but walking wherever your feet take you). The author’s first brush with all things Delhi was through a film called the Householder, an early Merchant-Ivory production. The characters, the locations, the colors, and the nostalgia so influence the author that the film plays a charming cameo throughout the book. Miller is so captivated by Delhi that is portrayed in the film that he chases the exact location where a certain scene is shot on a rooftop of a building next a mosque. He somehow manages to locate both the mosque and the building. Lovers of Hindi film nostalgia will certainly appreciate these vignettes that run through the book.
Interesting contrasts can be made between Dalrymple’s Delhi and Miller’s Delhi. While Dalrymple is eloquent in his praise for Delhi’s unique architectural styles, Miller is more cynical about the explosion in suburban growth, malls, and the widening social gap.
As a social commentator, however, Miller’s arguments tend to be prosaic and debatable. For instance, Miller suggests “.. and Delhi is, more than ever, full of people who see the West as a model for ‘progress,’ who covet luxury cars and European holidays, or crave an American education …” Observations about the East looking West and the West looking back at the East had their hey-days in the 90s. Again, while at a hospital to donate blood, Miller observes how the hospital waiting room is perhaps the only place where “an eclectic group of people might be thrown together and the occasion [of blood donation] has a classless…feel.” He then goes on to say that “it was a reminder of … how rarely the rich and the poor have the chance to interact, and never as equals.” Is one supposed to believe that the rich and poor indeed do behave as equals in London or that the denizens of the upper west side rub shoulders with their counterparts from Jamaica, Queens? That does not hold water. The “south side” is almost synonymous with disadvantaged neighborhoods in most American cities where gentrification forces poor people farther out of the city. In the United States, the better-off can choose not to drive through seedy neighborhoods, avoiding any interaction altogether. In India, the huge informal economy necessitates and facilitates interactions between the various classes. Thus a middle class household would in any given day interact with the vegetable vendor, the fruit seller, the laundry wallah, the maid, the driver, the ayah etc. These interactions do not necessarily translate to greater empathy or understanding on the part of the better-off for the not-so-better-off, but they do render class differences starker than in the west. Contrary to what Miller observes, class differences are not brushed under the lush carpets of the South Delhi elite. Miller the travel writer is much better than Miller the social commentator.
However, Miller’s wit and humor are evident through out the narrative, whether in describing, in candid detail, the shit-squirter by a subway close to Regal Cinema, or the number of attempts (17) to visit different ministries (3) and offices (5) to obtain a PIO card, or his near-surreal experience at the International Center for World Renewal—an outfit run by the Brahma Kumaris.
Miller’s Delhi is a narrative in the here and the now, and not merely about the tombs and forts of the previous incarnations of Delhi. His walks take him to Delhi’s swanky new metro stations, to open air slaughter houses, and through garbage dumps. And Miller does not sanitize his experiences for the reader.
The author’s travel is one that travelers and adventure seekers can actually emulate, one spiral after another, and that, I would argue, can be the best compliment for a travelogue. But be wary, though. Walking Delhi is a difficult endeavor. Miller was hit by an auto-rickshaw, chased by pigs and fell into a man hole—none life-threatening, but to be taken into consideration nevertheless for flaneurs inspired by the writer.
Girija lives in Atlanta and works in the area of International Development.