You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Books
Business Standard

The many-layered Delhis in Sam Miller's book

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Many will find Sam Miller's book full of wry observations, but Kishore Singh suggests they should read it for the insights about the many-layered Delhis that he writes about, and that they're likely unaware of.

Sam Miller is a flaneur, which is a French word “for someone who wanders aimlessly through cities” despite having the means to “travel by car, take a taxi, or ride the train; or perhaps even stay at home”. Miller has a nice home in Delhi’s Panchsheel Park, apparently a nice job with the BBC, and there’s little evidence of penury, so when he walks — and not, like his neighbours, or colleagues, in the neighbourhood park, but in an outwardly growing spiral that starts at Connaught Place and spins around the city like a top gone crazy, you cannot but wonder about his eccentricity. While mad dogs and Englishmen who walk in the sun are a convenient — and in Miller’s case, fitting — cliché, to do it in rain and fog and winter cold seems to make him just the sort of person you want to meet at a party, someone to regale you with his observations and wry humour.

I have not Miller at a party or otherwise, but a book on these maverick peregrinations seems the next-best alternative, perhaps even better — you can take the book home, something his wife Shireen might object to if you tried to do as much to her husband — given the high-fives he gets from other Delhi-based writers Khushwant Singh (“no other book on Delhi is quite as readable”), Mark Tully (“I…always wanted to read a book which I feel encompasses the whole of my city. Here it is…”) and William Dalrymple ([it]”teems with strange stories and bizarre quiddities, rich discoveries and unexpected diversions”).

Maybe I’m losing my sense of humour, or maybe I’m just a little sour about outsiders writing about Delhi — I know, I know, if I’m so upset about it, why don’t I, or others like me, do something about it? — or maybe I’m pitching my expectations too high, but Miller isn’t Bill Bryson, who is also a walker, flaneur or not. Or maybe I’m just one of the city’s residents who, once upon a time, Miller might have described as he thought about the city, as “provincial and mean-spirited and matlabi”. But I give him that he’s gone to places most Dilliwallahs — this one included — haven’t. So, funny or not, I skivvy into it, to discover what makes Miller go walking in Delhi Certainly, walking around it is no cakewalk. “Its occasional and irregular pavements contain hidden hazards,” observes Miller wryly. “It is unwise to wear open shoes, especially, as one Delhi bourgeoise pointed out to me, if you have just had a pedicure.” Seeking directions from people, he is almost invariably pointed out to taxi- or autorickshaw-stands, who, realising they would not get his custom probably believe him “a little mad”.

Miller has an Eicher map, which may be less use than most think given the pace at which Delhi is changing, but which, at any rate can help him track some of his obsessions — the Merchant Ivory film The Householder shot in the walled city is one, and he successfully tracks down the house where most of it was shot, against the backdrop of the onion-shaped dome of the Zeenat mosque — and is at least useful in providing a general sense of direction and purpose as he starts his outwardly spiral from the maw of the Metro station in Connaught Place.

That metaphor, of a timeless Delhi and a Delhi fast-forwarding into the future, occur again as again as the Metro, more even than Miller’s jaunts, become the thread that holds this tale of several co-existing Delhis together. These and his interactions with Dilli and its denizens, in cybercafés (“One Indian journalist told me to go into any Indian cybercafé, and press the Back button, ‘Always porn, hard-core stuff, or online dating.’”), a computer horoscope centre (where he learns that he is “jolly natured”, has “drooping shoulders” as well as “skin disease” and a “unique and weird nature”), or catching a show of Love Affairs at Regal (where “mornings are for masturbators”) reveal a side already well known to Dilliwallahs through innumerable, similar magazine articles, but prove, as always, good for a laugh.

There’s more by way of a visit to Delhi’s only, and very grubby, revolving restaurant, the scam of a shoe-cleaner squirting shit on the shoes of passersby at an exit of Palika Bazaar, the back-alleys of Paharganj and more, but unlike other writers, Miller walks to places others — myself included — would not even know existed, the vast spaces occupied not by squatters (though they are here too) but by the vast colonies limited only to the railways, for instance, or hospitals and so on. On one such perambulation, he discovers a platform, “the Delhi equivalent of J K Rowling’s platform 9¾ where bogeys hired by groups of passengers wait (for a day, or two, or more, where they cook their own food and wash their clothes and string their laundry out on the platform for everyone to see, not even hiding their “Victorian-style underwear”. He meets a geocacher at Jantar Mantar — geocaching is like a global treasure hunt for fairly worthless objects, though even these rarely survive the day in India where “acquisitive locals take them away, or they get eaten by goats”.

Yet, as he walks further, familiar sights drop away to be replaced by a hidden, invisible city of open-air abbatoirs (“that was a point when I felt, very briefly, really frightened,” says Miller over the telephone from Jaipur, where’s he’s attending the lit-fest, “I felt like an interloper, I was very uncomfortable”), wholesale chicken and fish markets in the landfill site of Ghazipur, and at crematoria where corpses are often left with no one to guard them from hungry dogs. “These were times,” he admits, “when I was disheartened. I was not sure I had a story that was compelling enough.” But since, book or not, he wasn’t about to give up walking, he carried right on. “Places people don’t go to,” he says now, “were to me interesting. They might not perhaps be salubrious, but they were the more interesting for that. East Delhi was extraordinary with its Akshardham temple and Mother Dairy, and Ghazipur stays with me visually, the lack of change in Seelampur was compelling, North Delhi, because it is less thickly populated, was funny. A lot of the places in the book are the kind about which South Delhi people would know very little, such as Pitampura, about which he writes entertainingly when the snob lot finds itself cavalcading there in the luxury sedans for a Sting concert. This is how he reports on his eavesdropping:

‘Look, it’s amazing. Have you seen those trains — they’re really modern.’
‘Wow, it’s better than London.’
‘It’s like Bangkok.’

Someone had been to Pitampura last year for another concert.
Tall man: ‘I came here to see Shaggy.’
Short man: ‘What Shaggy from Scooby-Doo?’
Tall man: ‘No, you bloody fool. Shaggy the singer. The one who had sex with that girl on the bathroom floor. Mr Boombastic.’
Short man: ‘Oh. I don’t know him.’

Despite a problem with his leg, which causes it to dislocate at the knee, Miller is an inveterate walker. How many cities has he walked in? “Um, let’s see, the big walks…” he says, “…London, New York, Paris, Damascus, Cairo, Bombay, Washington DC, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Calcutta, Singapore…almost any city I’m able to visit. It’s the first thing I’ll do, go out and walk, it gives me a sense of space.” Delhi, he says, wasn’t an easy city to walk in the first time he stayed here, but when he moved back in end-2002, “I started really early, walking without a sense of direction” or, at the time, purpose. “I worked then in Connaught Place, and would walk in any weather, even in the summer, in my lunchtime.”

Even in 45 degrees, I ask?
“Even in 45 degrees,” he agrees, “my colleagues thought me mad, but all you might need is an extra shirt!”

The walking in a spiral that forms the beginning and the end of this book took almost three years. “I began writing for myself as a record, then I wrote an article for a magazine. When I began to write, I took it on as a project for a radio programme perhaps, and it only emerged as a real book when I was about a third of the way through it.”

As I’m writing this, Miller is probably walking in Jaipur (no, not for another book, just because he does it compulsively), and on the Penguin website (www.penguinbooksindia.com/delhi) a treasure hunt has been put in place for readers who might want to discover the megacity the cyber geocaching way, with prizes thrown in for good measure. It might be faster, and shorter, than Miller’s walks, and you might be able to Google map it the way he did parts of it, and without Delhi Development Authority’s admonitory warning to “maintain proper decorum” — this one by way of warning to the city amatory couples looking for love and privacy in its many parks.

Miller gets several ticks for the book — he writes deprecatingly but not self-consciously about himself, fails to notice cows on the road like most Indians, is dismayed by Gurgaon’s highrises, and speaks street Hindi after a fashion — but this isn’t Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, or even Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, and for all that I like the book, personally I’d prefer to hear about it from the horse’s, er, Miller’s mouth.


DELHI: ADVENTURES IN A MEGACITY
Author: Sam Miller
Publisher: Penguin/Viking
Pages: 293
Price: Rs 499

First Published: Sat, January 24 2009. 00:00 IST
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU