Delhi Mostly Harmless By Elizabeth Chatterjee

Posted: January 28, 2014

Delhi Mostly Harmless by Elizabeth Chatterjee is an observant, humorous, barely-Indian, PhD woman student’s encounter with that melting pot of contradictions – Delhi. 

Review by The Mad Momma 

“… nobody who lives there, nobody at all, has much good to say about Delhi’. Along with Milton Keyes, Detroit and Purgatory, Delhi is one of the world’s great unloved destinations, says the blurb. It made me wonder whether the purpose of the blurb was to reel in the reader or put one off the book altogether. For those who love Delhi would be injured by that line and those who didn’t – why would they buy the book at all?

Delhi truly is, a city that many love to hate. A fact that distresses me greatly and leads me to jump to its defence more often than not. Which is what lead me to grab this book – Mostly harmless, she said. Damned by faint praise? But we Dilliwalas and Dilliwalis will humbly accept the crumbs of praise thrown our way. 

Part Bengali, Finnish and Irish, Chatterjee’s connection to India is a frayed thread, getting weaker with each generation. She calls herself a White Asian and her wry, British humour is what takes the book from garden variety travelogue to grin till your jaw aches memoir. There are moments when a Delhi lover like me feels their heart break at the cold way in which much of what Delhi stands for is dissected and dismissed. But I get ahead of myself.

Chatterjee is a PhD student and in India to research Indian politics. Politicians being the same everywhere, is it any wonder she meets a variety of unsavoury characters?

The book opens with her in Delhi’s famous Ice Lounge. It’s interesting to see how the foreigner gently makes fun of what the locals possibly look at as a quantum leap in entertainment, something spectacular. His moustache, her red drink, Nehru place, everything viewed through a Western eye that judges. This is no Eat, Pray, Love for sure. And her partly Indian roots have certainly not prejudiced her in favour of the country and its quirks. I am loathe to call the character of a city its quirks, because they’re not. They are what they are.

Divided into 15 chapters, Chatterjee takes you through malls, cinema theatres, mocking at times herself too, at others, what makes up the basic structure of life in India, be it househelp, the rather unique concept of jugaad (she calls it the art and science of muddling through), and the great Indian middle class. Again I wonder who the audience for the book is meant to be when she talks of private education as opposed to public or state education. Indians know that state education is usually a ramshackle building with errant teachers, and private education is a necessity, holding none of the privilege it does abroad. Foreigners reading this book though, might get an erroneous understanding of the ground reality.

Hauz Khas Village, CP pavement bookstores, the Indian hipster, she takes each one apart and studies them, often coming up with a fairly decent understanding of them – “The elite Indians of my generation are very different to the previous lot. Firstly they’ve embraced the corporate sector to an extent unimaginable to the Nehruvian elite … Along with the rat race they’re just as likely to be found studying postmodernism, running non-profit organizations or doing a stint for Teach for India… ”

Unnerving as it is to be put under a microscope, she often makes sense of much that we notice, but rarely examine – “Zs are borrowed from Persian and Arabic, so now and then you find a Hindu who says bajaar not bazaar…” A family piled on to a scooter and she comments, “India has only 1% of the world’s cars and 10% of the world’s road deaths.” Yes, sometimes it is educational to be commented on.

Pithy, witty, at times a little harsh, Chatterjee’s treatise on Delhi gives you a glimpse into the city’s power structures, auto drivers, Mughal ruins, environmental action and more. However, it’s about a lot more than Delhi. It’s about the middle class’s conspicuous consumption, the Hinduization of public spaces – “In post 1991 new India, tradition and national identity become key resources in the fight against the crushing force of Westernization. The equation of Hindu = India is almost too tempting to resist.”

The book wraps up with Chatterjee declaring that Delhi is a sophisticated cougar next to plain-Jane Chennai and glossy Bangalore. Compared to its nemesis Mumbai, it has history, nightlife, internal diversity, flashes of green and the sort of insecure desire to please that’s hard to refuse. After 280 pages that were mostly witty and rarely complimentary, I, a Dilliwali, with an insecure desire to please and seek approval, will gratefully grab with both hands, those lines.

Publishers: Random House

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The Mad Momma is a writer, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a mother, a lover, a friend, politically incorrect, spontaneous, opinionated, no fence-sitter, non-conformist-with-streaks-of behenji (!), voracious reader, music lover, hard-worker, brutally honest, baby-squeezer, a blogger.

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