Mostly Harmless Elizabeth Chatterjee
My hometown couldn’t be less like Delhi, but there has always been an Indian current just below the surface. I grew up in a grey corner of Yorkshire, just down the road from the great South Asian melting pot of Bradford. My family is an odd mix of Finnish, Scottish, and Bengali. For the last few years I’ve been a perpetual student, though I’ve also had brief interludes working for Unicef and Oxfam. I’m currently studying at Oxford for a PhD on Indian politics.
My research focuses on the politics of electricity: basically, why does the Indian power sector continue to perform so badly? I came to Delhi to interview policymakers about this question. It lies at the heart of lots of India’s economic woes and is politically fascinating—just look at the Aam Admi Party’s controversial promises.But nobody ever tells you just how boring fieldwork can be. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting: waiting for phone calls, waiting for slots in busy people’s schedules, waiting (to add insult to injury) for the power to come back on… So to pass the time I picked up the pen, and quickly became addicted. Gradually it dawned on me that it wasn’t very interesting just to write about all that waiting, so I decided to write about the city instead.
I’ve always had two parallel audiences in mind. Firstly, I started out scribbling for family and friends—often people who had never visited the city and only know its (big bad) reputation. The book introduces them to some serious themes, like the style of government or the environment, but (hopefully) disguises it with humour. Secondly, I wanted to engage with people living in Delhi long-term, but who are often visitors in one form or another. As a DU student told me, ‘There are only two hundred real Dilliwallas left in the whole city!’
It’s precisely that question that intrigues me: who is a Dilliwalla? How can we understand a city that is changing so rapidly? Unlike the William Dalrymples of the world, I don’t see Delhi as an ancient organism but something much more interesting. It’s like the Ship of Theseus. If every single part has been replaced over time, is it still the same ship? Delhi has been many things, both glorious capital and backwater. Remember that at the beginning of the twentieth century its population was only around 200,000. It took the decision to shift the capital, the Second World War and Partition to revive it—so it’s actually a pretty new city in many ways.
All capital cities seem to invite hatred, because you have a whole lot of ambitious people packed together. You’re right, though: Delhi seems to inspire particular passion. I think politicians have a lot to answer for. The British created a geography that left the heart of the city beautiful but hollow and remote. Since independence Delhi has become even more inextricably linked with the naked pursuit of power and wealth. Not for nothing is its unofficial catchphrase ‘Do you know who my father is?’
Obviously I have been guzzling academic scholarship on India for several years, but I’m fairly sure you don’t want to hear about electricity books. There is such a lot of great nonfiction on India. Actually, now I think about it, I seem to like ‘beautiful’ books:Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, most obviously, but also Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing and Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned (it’s a good sign when a book is banned/has a chapter cut for legal reasons).
The two go hand in hand. A great travel book can boot you out of the armchair and onto a train, and travelling with a book forever fuses author and place in your mind. I always remember a 30-hour train journey with A Suitable Boy—a book I hated, alas.
I’ve wandered to the four corners of India, from Amritsar to Nagaland, Sikkim to Trivandrum. But my research and my friendships will always bring me back, and the country is changing so fast that it will never cease to be interesting. I would like to step a little more off the beaten track, though. Your travel blog can be my guide!Otherwise, there is one country I’d really like to visit: Pakistan. I’ve just got to get this pesky PhD out of the way first.
At the moment my attentions are meant to be 100% focused on my studies—so inevitably I’m distracted by a hundred different side projects. Currently I’m organising a conference on procrastination, and I’d love to write a book on some of the great icons of time-wasting, from Kafka to the Dude. We’re looking for someone to give a talk on the great Indian English word ‘timepass’, if you’re interested…Sometimes I daydream in the library about writing travel sequels too. So far I’ve come up with Detroit: Mostly Charmless andBirmingham: Mostly Gormless. Send suggestions on a postcard!
A lot of people have asked me about the book’s title, Delhi: Mostly Harmless. The truth is that I grew up in a family of nerds. We all sat around reading perhaps the greatest fictional travel book there is, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide entry on our lovely blue planet Earth contains only two words: ‘mostly harmless’. For me the phrase captures both Delhi’s idiosyncratic charm and the faint undercurrent of insecurity that runs throughout the city.