Delhi Mostly Harmless


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.

The Uh-Ohs

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.

  • I’m surprised… I haven’t lived in Delhi, but I know many who have and I’ve visited, of course, and while I do agree it isn’t the safest city out there, I highly doubt it’s unloved! But I’d be interested in reading about the history of Delhi, if I can get past the one-sided-ness of the book.

    • Nishita

      @priyatabularasa:disqus there isn’t too much about the history of Delhi – maybe 2-3 chapters, that’s all.

  • Wanton Ruminating

    I think it happens when people approach the city with a set mindset. How can you not feel the spirit of the city the moment you step out here. It has a distinct feel and pulse to it. Of course, for me its greatest drawback lies in the men’s attitude toward women. But that will only resolve over time. I remember a blog by these expatriates living in Delhi which was absolutely wonderful .

    • Nishita

      @wantonruminating:disqus yeah, it’s that chauvinism that is most annoying, that and the lack of safety. But otherwise, perfectly acceptable place. What I love is that there’s so much going on there. You can really have a fun urban life in Delhi even if you know nobody. Not always the case in other Indian cities.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End

    This is a complaint I often have with travelogues! Pretty often, even though it’s obvious the author actually likes the place quite a lot, s/he spends a lot of time focusing on the annoyances and bad things rather than the positives. Bill Bryson’s guilty of this — in his case he’s trying to be funny (and he often IS funny!), which I don’t know if that’s the same problem Chatterjee was having.

    • Nishita

      @Jenny @ Reading the End: I haven’t read many of his books. I remember one where he walked the Appalachian trail and after reading that book, I really wanted to hike that trail. It’s on my bucket list of things I would love to do someday.

      Reading Delhi Mostly Harmless, I don’t think anyone would want to visit the city after finishing this book.

  • Shweta

    I agree negative reviews aren’t easy to right and you did a great job with this review. I on the other hand liked this book 🙂

    Having lived in Delhi, I totally got where she was coming from. The thing about people who live there and don’t have much good to say about it is pretty much 90% accurate. I have found people there have a love-hate-love sort of relationship with the city. She just puts it rather bluntly for our taste.

    Visitors find it wonderful. I did too on my first few visits but being a resident changes perspective especially for single women in the city who are there to study or work. They will give you a rather identical account.

    Though I thought I would have a problem with the book based on the first few chapters and her angrez attitude, I soon realised that she was just being frank and that doesn’t win you a lot of followers.

    Sorry about the rather long comment 🙂

    • Nishita

      @disqus_W3bZsBdKXf:disqus uh huh actually, I lived there for a couple of years too. I guess I came to live there from Mumbai and I loved it because of the vast expanses of space, and how the houses are much bigger. She’s coming from London, so maybe that’s the difference. And my dad, any day prefers living in Delhi compared to Chennai.

  • dreamzandclouds

    yeah, negative reviews are difficult indeed, especially when I think about the hard work the author must have put to bring the book to light. But then, the way this book sounds, I am definitely not going to read. I love Delhi and cant agree with you more on the fact that “history lives side by side with modernity”, “the great street food, and the world-class street and designer shopping”. And yes, one needs to keep in mind that every city has its goodness and bad and so while writing about one the author has the responsibility to highlight both.


    Uh-Oh indeed. I’ve noticed it’s usually Indian origin people who visit their “roots” have bad things to say about it. Will be staying far away from this one.

  • I’m always nervous about reading non-fiction based on India written by folk outside of the country. There is always the danger of something you love so much, even with all its quirks – either good or bad – being torn apart by mockery and absolute disregard. It would likely upset me a great deal. Kudos to you for finishing this with your temper in tact. ^^

    • Nishita

      @disqus_Bl6KFNSc0E:disqus actually, most such books are written with a good deal of sensitivity. I love books about places written from an outsider’s view point, and I usually have a thick skin and can tolerate a little humor. But this book, somehow, did not work for me. I started off with high hopes and overall it’s well-written, I just wish it was more balanced in its outlook.

  • This is really disappointing; I agree, Delhi has it’s issues, but it more than makes up for it in MANY ways. Won’t be picking this one up; sorry to hear this lovely city be disparaged in print by a disillusioned author. 🙁

  • FictionFan

    Sounds like she was perhaps trying to justify her own dislike of the place by suggesting that no-one else likes it either? I can’t imagine any big city not being a mix of good and bad – I suspect that what you find is as much a product of your own personality as of the city. Coming from Glasgow, I often read descriptions of it as a violent run-down place, and assume the visitor missed the amazing architecture, fantastic museums and art galleries, history peeking round every street corner etc…

    • Nishita

      @fictionfan:disqus exactly, that perfectly describes how I felt. I can understand negativity from a random tourist (it happens when you have one bad experience), but someone who stays in a city for a year? It felt like she never found her footing in the city at all.

  • Monique

    I also find it hard to write negative reviews – like you, I look for the positive and if I can’t, I may elect not to review. That said, I think you handled this well because you argued your case, with examples.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_fT2TINuo2O:disqus I sat on this review for a whole month wondering whether to post or not. I just published it on an impulse while going through my drafts. I felt it would be quite dishonest to post only glowing reviews of books.

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