Delhi Mostly Harmless by Elizabeth Chatterjee
Participant Observer is a technique in anthropology, where the researcher becomes a part of the community or society he or she is studying. They try and live the life of their subjects to get as close to their perspective as possible. But they also remain vigilant observers. They go back to literature to validate and verify their observations. They refer to previous research. And more often than not come out with their own hypothesis of why things are the way they are. Delhi Mostly Harmless book’s author is a doctoral student who lived in Delhi for some time. And from there she moved around the country. She attempts to first hand explore the common myths associated with in India in general and Delhi in particular.
Moving to a city introduces you to many nuances of the city. Right from how the locals look at you, how open they are to accepting you to finding the difference between what you get on the shelves of grocery stores. Author pivots her narration on the various incidents during her stay in Delhi. But takes the reader on ‘Introduction to India’ journey as she experienced it first hand. She also quotes data and references. You never forget that you are reading a research scholar. She is well read and well prepared for her India exploration. But what I appreciate is that she never lets that come in the way of her first-hand experience.
She describes the seasons and smells of the city to you. She takes you through the festivals and family functions – she is not a total foreigner. Chatterjee – her last name comes from her grandfather who chose to leave India and create a family in Europe. She shares a flat in Vasant Kunj with others like her. And many of her insights come from her house maid Kamla. Roughly she takes the metaphor of human body and emotions to categorize her thoughts. She is brilliant in some of her observations. Let me pick some snippets for you:
- Delhi is always generous when doing out life lessons.
- Nobody who lives there, no body at all has good to say about Delhi.
- It is a both a city of past and get-quick-rich newcomers, big spending populists and big spending corporates, incredible wealth and even more incredible corruption.
- The aspiring middle-class nurses a cult of the three Es – Education, English speaking, and Entrepreneurship.
- Jugaad can be a dark art.
- Like an elephant, India is a country easier to describe than to explain, and easier to explain than to understand.
- Malls are a great place to kill time for a generation that knows and accepts that you are what you buy.
- In India, as elsewhere, spirituality suffers as money and politics and prejudice creep in.
- Quoting Bill Marsano – The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.
- Delhi might be an aging tsarina: ruthless, capricious, avaricious, paranoid and fond of bright colors, pretty trinkets, and sex scandals.
The only place I did not agree with her is her view that Delhi was born in 1911. My view is that empires come and go, cities live on, they keep evolving. Similarly, her comments on Vaastu are low on research. Sometimes distances mentioned are wrong. At some places, she becomes just another foreigner like when she is describing Jantar Mantar.
Delhi Mostly Harmless is overall, an interesting read with a generous dose of British humor. It took me a few pages to get into the groove of the book.
Take your call.