Elizabeth Chatterjee is the author of the book Delhi Mostly Harmless. Know about her and her thoughts on the book.
Elizabeth Chatterjee Interview
Tell us something about yourself, where did you grow up, what do you study, what is your full-time profession?
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 Ph.D. in Indian politics.
What prompted you to write a book on your stay in India / Delhi? What was that trigger that made you pick up the pen or the keyboard?
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.
Who was your audience in your mind when you were writing this book?
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 humor. 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!’
What aspect of Delhi intrigues you the most?
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 Dalrymple’s 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.
Delhi is, therefore, trying to figure out this curious mixture of historical prestige and novelty, ‘Indianness’ (whatever that might be) and globalization. I’ve compared it rather cheekily to a teenager: fast-growing, grumpy, and not entirely sure what it wants to be.
I think we agree that Delhi is a city people love to hate. What in your opinion are the key elements that lead to this or the perception of Delhi being a ruthless city?
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?’
It seems you read a lot before landing in India. Can you share some of the books that impacted you or your work during your stay in India? Did they prepare you well or did they just caution you?
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 major impact of all that reading was to fill me with awe. I resolved to avoid anything too serious in my own writing, and instead started a hard diet of Mark Twain, Gerald Durrell, and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.
Elizabeth Chatterjee, How do you compare the experience of armchair traveling with first-hand traveling?
The two go hand in hand. A great travel book can boot you out of the armchair and onto a train, and traveling 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.
With armchair traveling, you get to miss out some of the messy, unglamorous bits. There are no delayed trains or bellyaches. Cunningly I compensated for this by including chapters on boredom, tourist kitsch, and (tongue firmly in cheek) my nose.
Given a choice would you want to come back and explore more of India or would you rather explore a new country?
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 Ph.D. out of the way first.
What would be your one suggestion to people who come to India as tourists and to those who come to live here from your part of the world?
I don’t pretend to have any special wisdom, so I’ll content myself with three small pieces of advice.
- Arrive late.
- Watch out for ‘hair fall’, a horrifyingly inevitable affliction that doesn’t exist in the UK.
- If in doubt, mention Tendulkar.
Are you working on your next book, if yes, please share some details with us?
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 organizing 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 and Birmingham: Mostly Gormless. Send suggestions on a postcard!
Elizabeth Chatterjee, How did you come up with the title – Mostly Harmless?
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.