Book Review “Delhi: Adventures In a Megacity”

Book: Delhi: Adventures In a Megacity

Author: Sam Miller

Publishers: Viking/Penguin

Pages: Rs.291

Price: Rs.499

Book Review by Poornima Sardana, Young India Fellowship Program 2012-2013

A pleasant green cover, a hand drawn spiral map with slightly unconventional yet real landmarks, Sam Miller’s “Delhi: Adventures In a Megacity”, tickles, and captures attention from the first glimpse itself. Not to discount Khushwant Singh’s remark, who accurately informs anyone who picks the book that, “No other book on Delhi is quite as readable as Sam Miller’s…” Turn to the back and Mark Tully exclaims at having found a book that “encompasses the whole of my city.”

Thriving on the sightings of a curious journalist in his adopted city, this book is a refreshing and empathetic non-fiction account of our rapidly growing capital city, humorous, gripping and self-reflective. The Table of Contents is a witty teaser which informs the reader of the collage inside, but little is one prepared for the inspiring and meticulous curiosity with which the author takes us on the unfolding discoveries and adventures through Delhi and its multiplicity. “It has everything that is old and everything that is modern.” says Miller of the city whose first impressions on him had been anything but memorable.

Having drawn a spiral on the city’s map to demarcate the path he would cover on foot, Sam Miller succeeds in making the reader traverse along with him through the juxtapositions and paradoxes which coexist and come together in providing a panoramic view of the city, unbiased and inclusive in approach. The spirit of this approach and the book itself is well captured in Sam Miller’s statement, “A spiral is special because it can be endless, but still under control.”

Written in first person, it is a non-intimidating and non-academic description which under the facade of an entertaining narrative brings forth many facets of “…one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the world”, which could be either ignored or taken for granted by us in daily narrower entrapments. An easy read, it is explorative, nostalgic and subtly sarcastic at the same time. Instead of looking at any particularity of Delhi in isolation or in enlarged proportions such as the romanticized heritage, the world class urban dreams, expanding middle class or critical theory on the state of migrants, minorities and slums, it is a simple yet holistic depiction of Delhi and its surrounding regions of Gurgaon and NCR, when seen as a physical, cultural, sociological, economical, political and religious whole.

What plays a crucial role therefore is the choice of landmarks or events with which he chooses to punctuate his journey so as to depict the interconnectedness of puzzle pieces (such as economy, religion, practices, development, migration, dislocation, minority rights, education, resources, history, and heritage with politics, administration, urbanization and globalization) seamlessly woven together with the spontaneity and continuity so inherent a trait of the city and its inhabitants. Though it is a personal account, anyone who wants to truly experience life in Delhi, pause and observe, would find resonance in the book.

To make it even more interesting is the comparative approach and uninterrupted intertwining of inputs from different sources, which when placed next to each other can lead to laughter fits as well as reveal glaring cleavages between image and reality. Virtual and real, different point of views clubbed together, this account is interspersed with personal encounters and meditations, dialogues with people concerned and at times eccentric trans-media observations, which though apparently hilarious or at times extremist, depict the extent to which we might be immersed in a certain phenomenon through history, current trends, future plans and hence changing technology. Sam Miller exemplifies with ease how the Delhi of past and future come together in the present. His personal reflections are indeed thought provoking and also allow the reader space to conjure his/her opinions on the same. For instance having shared the views of an unauthorized Dhabha owner, and a professor at the college of architecture on migrants and land allocations, he then shares his own queries: “But is it realistic, let alone fair, to enforce the law against those millions of poor people who have no title to the land on which they live? Shouldn’t they be given the right to own the land they occupy.” The author expresses no qualms in confessing about his own (at times) preconceptions or dilemmas, but at the same time, his effort is a reminder to understand an appearance than just treat it as a mere spectacle.

His transitions between history, present state and the preparation for future are further enhanced by his persistence in establishing contexts, tracing origins as well as reasoning behind a certain observable fact, behind constructs and visual existence etc. For instance his questioning of the reason behind a school’s name which the principal wasn’t aware of, or his surprise at realizing the hybridizations in signs and symbols, as well as grassroots innovations or re-use in technology and consequences, force one to look beyond the surface. It is a rich blend indeed with different windows being opened to look at life in Delhi.

Sam Miller’s understanding and mentioning of the nuances and intricacies of Indian society make the account even more palatable. Such as drawing the analogy of the role of wells in Indian society from the public space around Mother Dairy Kiosks, reflects his intuitive and conceptual approach as well. He draws interesting parallels, which also make it easier to understand his take on what is happening around us. For instance his parallel on risk taking between unauthorized shop owner and “suicidal pedestrians” on the road, is not just a witty remark or observation, but also throws light upon underlying risk-taking which could have resulted from similar experiences or inherited attitudes in past.

The book leaves a lasting impression for the fact that it is so humane and easily relatable. This account is by an experienced journalist who has migrated to Delhi, but it is not an alienated vantage point. There are moments when he reacts followed by an investigative or more reflective or even detached approach, fluctuations which are not stark and are what most readers can probably identify with. If one traces the development of the plot through development of the many Meta narratives, one can see how he moves from surprise/ amusement to reflection/probe and then either a comment of apprehension or hope. While walking in Rajouri Garden he chances upon a mall and expresses his resentment that “Delhi was beginning to be just like anywhere else. Were all big cities destined to resemble each other? …This could be Singapore, Dubai or New York.” Our familiarity with such a stream of thoughts and expressions in our context cannot be doubted. This was followed by a period of reflection and observation, which resulted in the following consolation: “This was recognizably Mc Donalds…but it could also be nowhere else but India. There were no Big Macs here; beef is not on Indian menus. Instead there’s Chicken McCurry, Paneer Salsa Wrap and Mc Aloo Tikki.” It is an important commentary on the apparently feared and homogenising global patterns, which have to alter to cater to local tastes and demands and it is this ease of expression that would ensure it being understood by the reader.

Such tension and harmony between the micro and macro is one of the many themes that recur throughout the book including organized vs. unorganized sectors, spatial segregation vs. Inclusive urban planning, public transport vs. traffic, power play, exclusivity vs. Enclaves, unity vs. Communal issues and modernization vs. myths  etc. Amongst these was the theme of real vs. Virtual and the author chose to explore it in various examples, one of those being the comparison between the real Delhi and Delhi in Sim City, an online game version. It beautifully illustrates the problems as well as the power of humanity that underlies, sustains and propels its growth.

Even though this book is non-academic, Sam Miller’s extensive awareness, inquisitiveness and research make it a good source of knowledge and a credible medium to begin one’s personal journey. Mentioning an explorative project in computer education for slum children or noticing the trickle down of desires created by brands, are important trends for us to know.

The book however would have been incomplete without the supporting photographs, which serve as either complements or evidences while generating deeper interest.

This book is definitely a great beginning for anyone who has the slightest of relation with Delhi or any other city for that matter because it teaches how to see beyond just looking. To have noticed such details and pluralities of the cityscape and surrounding regions is commendable and very readable.

“If you don’t walk in Delhi, large parts of the city will be invisible to you.”

– Sam Miller


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