I got an opportunity to ask Sam Miller, the author of the famous book on Delhi ‘Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity‘, some questions on our common favourite subject ‘Delhi’. His candid answers show the clarity he has on Delhi and his relationship with the city.
Author Sam Miller Interview
You have seen and researched many aspects of Delhi, both past, and present. Which aspect of Delhi fascinates you the most and why?
Sam Miller: I’m ultimately most interested in the future of Delhi – in the kind of city that it might become. And that its citizens want it to become. But I hope more of them will see Delhi’s extraordinary past as part of that city of the future. And that its old buildings and landscapes and wildernesses will be seen as part of the city’s riches. And saved for their grandchildren to visit and to cherish.
There is an ancient Delhi and there is a present-day global Delhi, and in between them, there are many Delhi’s. Which Delhi in your opinion needs some more focus and which Delhi needs to be better known to its own citizens?
I think too many people, particularly among the rich, live in these strange air-conditioned bubbles. And have very little sense of the lives of others, and the places in which they live and work. They need to get to parts of Delhi that are, for them, off-piste. I always recommend the overground Metro journey to Rithala – as one that will give them a sense of one of the many ‘other’ Delhi’s.
Walking around a city is one of the best ways to know the city. But it not easy to walk around Delhi. For those who may want to walk around the city like you, what do you suggest?
A map, some comfortable shoes and a lot of pig-headed determination. I hope everyone at least explores their own neighbourhood – ask your friends, for instance, do they know where the people staff who ‘service’ your colony (the cleaners, the kabariwallas, the dhobis) live? Another easy way to start exploring in the city is just to take the Metro to an area you don’t know. And just wander around there. For South Delhi, there are hundreds of minor medieval monuments that can be the focus of your walking (take a look at Lucy Peck’s marvelous guide to Delhi buildings) – but provide a chance to see much else.
What are your favourite books on Delhi? Any book, besides yours, that you think is a must-read for Delhiwallahs.
The city changes so fast that it always needs new chroniclers. Penguin has just republished and expanded Khushwant Singh’s anthology of Delhi writing called City Improbable – which includes everyone from Ibn Battuta to William Dalrymple and that’s a brilliant start. Not included in that anthology are some great Delhi novels of the past. Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s The Householder – and I’d happily recommend all three.
As an adopted city of yours, how important do you think it is for an outsider to know the language of Delhi? Does knowing Hindi, Punjabi or the dialects thereof help you better connect with the city?
For me speaking Hindi, even if my grammar is execrable, allowed me to talk to many more people. And I think it makes people open up to me. I can also eavesdrop, as people in shops decided how much to charge this particular foreigner.
Like they say about Venice, ‘Everything that can be written has been written’, how far do you think this holds good for Delhi?
No, Delhi changes so fast and is so enormous that there is always more to be written. And still, there are so many untold stories.
Delhi is really an immigrant city. Everyone here came from somewhere at some point in time. Some came a few years back, some few decades back and some few centuries back. When does one become a Dilliwallah?
When one cares about the city.
Would you like to do another book on Delhi?
Sam Miller: Yes, I would love to, one day.