A Slice of India

Delhi, Adventures in a Megacity    by Sam Miller

291+xi pp., St. Martin's Press 2009  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


    This is an offbeat but delightful book about Delhi, capital of India. Sam Miller is British (even when his passport states "Person of Indian Origin"), married to an Indian, a resident of Delhi conversant in Hindi. Here he guides the reader on a walking tour around the city, along segments of a large spiral path unwinding from its center. Some travelogues may be padded for extra bulk, but not this one, chockfull of charming encounters, unpredictable incidents and unconventional landmarks. After a slow start the book levels at a hectic pace: better read just one chapter at a sitting, or you could overdose on trivia, footnotes and web links. In a way, each chapter is a separate story.

    Miller writes in an informal, homespun style, illustrated by crude hand-drawn maps and grainy black-and-white photographs. Delhi is an ancient city, at one time arguably the largest on Earth, a title it now seems anxious to regain, although rivalry for that questionable distinction is steep, especially from Chongqing in China. Between then and now Delhi has survived but did not thrive. The most recent blow was the collapse of the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 (aka "the first India war of independence"), when British soldiers conquered Delhi, deposed the Mogul and shifted the country's capital to Calcutta. Delhi's eminence was restored at the "Great Durbar" of 1911, when Britain's King George the 5th visited Delhi. The British then built "New Delhi" outside the old walls, later swallowed by a megalopolis expanding at half a million per year.

    A walk around Delhi is a good introduction to India's people, to India's culture and to the many quirks of its society. One reads of modern crematoria maintained by the government but hardly used, because most Indians believe that unless a body is properly cremated on a pyre of wood, its soul is not reincarnated but roams the world as a disembodied ghost. The country is in the midst of a great transition: villages empty into cities, bullock carts are replaced by urban rapid transit, office buildings adjoin open sewers (Delhi's Yamuna river is one), and personal enterprise thrives next to a giant civil service.

    The culture is ancient and diverse. Numbers, for instance: India gave us not only the concept of zero, but its language includes 'sava' meaning one and a quarter, 'derh' is one and a half, 'dhai' two and a half, 'lakh' hundred thousand and 'crore' ten millions, making the city's reported population around derh crore. English is an official language, since none of the ethnic languages was ready to yield first place to another one. The city has beautiful temples and monuments, also numerous ancient forts, as well as a forested ridge in its midst, where the prince and princes of Oudh dwell in genteel poverty. Also a giant masonry sundial, the Jantar Mantar (its name has come to denote "abracadabra" in Hindi), where a geocache site waits to be located by explorers with receivers of the GPS (global positioning system), but it is just a virtual site because of roaming goats.

    Need one go on with this deadpan weirdness? Where else does one encounter a man pushing a handcart filled with severed cattle ears, telling the author they are "for a factory"? Swastikas are good-luck symbols, the embassy of Togo is in an automobile showroom, a "traffic park" teaches children to obey traffic signals as they walk its paths, and a pay-phone service hooked to a satellite is run from an outdoor table by an enterprising individual?

    Yes, there is great poverty and too many people lead a marginal existence, but violence is relatively rare, and individuality simmers everywhere. This is a remarkable snapshot of a style of life which may change completely within the span of a generation: hard to predict where it is heading, but for the visitor at least, its current state is fascinating.


Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 20 December 2011