3 March 2009

Laughter And Ghost Clerks - Book review

Sam Miller’s adventures in Delhi are superficial but enthusiastic

Sam Miller
Penguin Books
304 pp; Rs 499

IT IS difficult, in these mediatised times, to separate one’s reaction to a cultural object from the layers of hype through which it comes to us. Sam Miller’s account of the “monstrous, addictive city” of Delhi is one such object: a book that comes to us already certified, pre-packaged as the latest attraction in the firang-person’s guide-to-Indian-city category, ready to become to Delhi’s lit-chatterati (tourists and middle class Delhizens alike) what Dalrymple’s City of Djinns was through the 1990s. Miller himself seems keen not to duplicate Dalrymple’s nostalgia for Delhi's past: his self-imposed rule, proclaimed early on the book, is that he will devote his attentions exclusively to the many present and future Delhis.

But as the book progresses, it appears that the rule is only a provocative talking point — he seems happy to walk us through Humayun’s Tomb, Purana Qila, Feroz Shah Kotla and Lalkot, not to mention Siri, where he even documents the disappearance of a half-broken mosque — and when we get to Gurgaon, we discover that what Miller is nostalgic for is Delhi’s present.

It must be admitted, however, that Miller’s gaze takes in much more of the present than Dalrymple ever did. Starting in Connaught Place and walking outwards in a spiral that ventures far beyond the expatriate havens of Khan Market and Vasant Vihar, Miller is undoubtedly an intrepid traveller. And as he never tires of telling us, an eccentric one — who conducts his wanderings equipped with nothing more than his two legs and an Eicher map. His walks take him to parts of Delhi unvisited except by those who either live there or are taken there by work: from Pitampura and Dwarka to Safdarjang Airport, Tihar Jail and the Ghazipur landfill. If it does nothing else, Miller’s often superficial but always enthusiastic coverage of these places shows up the repetitive, unadventurous nature of most writing about Delhi — writing which reflects the blindness (inadvertent or deliberate) with which most English-reading-and-writing people, at least, navigate this city.

The best parts of the book are brought about by Miller’s geometrically-determined journeys into non-places — unmapped defence territory north of Delhi University where he finds the grave of the Pir of Probyn’s Horse, or the ghost platform beyond CP where he meets the travelling railway accounts assistants. To his credit, he recognises that his whiteness makes him “for better or for worse, distinctive”: it might make it impossible for him to melt into anonymity amid the “death and laughter” of an Old Delhi slaughterhouse, but it does allow access to such organisations as the American Women’s Association Domestic Staff Registry, providing a strange, sad glimpse into a subculture of Indian cooks, drivers and expatriate employers. But this does not compensate having to read a book published in Delhi that annotates a section on Jantar Mantar by (mis)informing the reader that it’s “pronounced Junter-Munter, to rhyme with hunter”.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 8, Dated Feb 28, 2009

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