Oh dear, I am terrible at writing negative reviews. I really do try to see the positive in every book I read (regardless of whether it is a review copy or not), because what’s sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander and another person may enjoy what I personally found horrid.
However this book (maybe because my expectations are different in non-fiction) didn’t work much for me at all.
So what’s the book all about?
The author Elizabeth Chatterjee is a person of Indian origin (PIO) who has actually never experienced India. When she moves from UK to India for a year in order to finish her PhD, she experiences a complete cultural shock.
In this book she chronicles her experiences living in Delhi for a year.
I was really expecting a pleasant little travelogue with a fairly balanced and humorous account of her stay in New Delhi.
What I got was a well-written but boring PhD style book on Delhi, and where the book is not boring, it becomes offensive.
In my teaser, I mentioned that I found the tone of the book mildly offensive. I hoped that later chapters would save it but unfortunately not.
Nobody who lives there, nobody at all, has much good to say about Delhi. Along with Milton Keynes, Detroit and Purgatory, Delhi is one of the worlds great unloved destinations.
This was a sentence that I might have ignored if it was some other place, but New Delhi? To me this is the place of hot, hot samosas in winter, of glamorous girls and shopping in South Extension, the place with the wonderful Metro making commuting a breeze, the city where my dad grew up, where he still lives, and which he still has a great affection for.
It’s also a city I love to visit any number of times, just for the way history lives side by side with modernity, the cold winters (which are such a pleasant change from muggy and humid Chennai and Mumbai), the great street food, and the world-class street and designer shopping. I never come back from a Delhi trip without bagfulls of stuff. I have very nostalgic memories of my childhood spent in Delhi, and while I acknowledge its problems, it wasn’t pleasant having an outsider point them out one by one.
Of course there were parts of the book that I could readily sympathize with such as the author’s difficulty in finding a budget accommodation to rent. But this is an issue in most large cities. Ask any resident in London or New York and I am sure there will be moans and groans about how expensive it is to live there.
I wouldn’t call London or New York purgatory, right? The best cities to live in are always the most expensive.
Sure, the city has its problems – the crime, the chauvinism, the pollution, the likelihood of being scammed in every transaction, but that’s just a small part of it.
My beef with the book was it focused a lot on the problems and that a lot of the good stuff about Delhi gets only a cursory mention.
Another issue with the book is the monotonous nature of the narrative. In many places, the book reads almost like a PhD text on Delhi. There are boring sections on boring places like Shastri Bhavan and Lodi Gardens. It’s hard to liven up such dull places, and they really should have been edited out of the book.
However, the plus point of such a PhD-style approach is that her research was impeccable. I looked up a couple of things on the net, and found she had really done her homework, and I really liked those sections of the book where she talks about Delhi’s history and other parts of the book where she is not focusing on her own Delhi experiences. It’s when she gets personal that the book starts to falter.
Overall, this is not a book I’d recommend for people looking to get an idea about Delhi. Are there better books on Delhi? I am not sure. Do you know of any? I’d love some recommendations.
I received this book from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.