Travel literature review: Delhi — Adventures in a Megacity

Delhi — Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Carol Maseyk

I lived in Delhi most of my young adult life. Like most natives of the city, I have felt a keen sense of separation from most travel literature and guides about Delhi, almost as if they were talking about a different city to that of my youth. It is a challenge enough to capture a sense of a place, but this is especially so for a place as confounding and irresistible as Delhi.

Sam Miller's matter-of-fact title Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity is one of the few books about the city, which quickly overcame any reservations I had. It is written from the point of view of someone who has not just visited the city — he lives there. The depth of his engagement with the people and culture of the city is evident in his writing.

Perhaps most fascinating is the fact that many of his observations about Delhi are derived from his walks around the city. Walking is a hazardous enterprise in Delhi, reserved only for the poor or the adventurous. Miller is clearly the latter, and his unlikely encounters are only possible because he has observed the city at its coalface. There is nothing touristy about walking along the Yamuna River and finding the grisly remnants of a funeral pyre and yet, Miller perseveres, almost revels in the gory details.

The Delhi in most of our imaginations is the one that was in the news during the Commonwealth Games in 2010 - corrupt, bureaucratic, dirty and poor. Miller doesn't seek to gloss over these details but he does imbue them with a sense of history and an anthropologist’s eye for cultural detail. There is no social agenda in his writing. The book is clearly observational, and yet it is in the nuanced observation that an outsider can get an awareness of the challenges facing Delhi, of the entrenched poverty and social disadvantage and the attempts to alleviate it.

My relationship with Delhi is a complicated one. There is a lot to dislike about the city and yet I can't help but feel admiration for the people who build their lives there, and awe at the centuries of history all around me. God knows I might even love the city, and I suspect that Sam Miller might too. And the book is all the better for it.

Carol Maseyk is a project coordinator at Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office.

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