Review of Delirious Delhi by Susanna Wickes (for “The Book Review India”)

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This review of Delirious Delhi was published in The Book Review India, January 2012.

Expat in the City
by Susanna Wickes


By Dave Prager
HarperCollins, 2011, pp. 392, Rs399.00

‘Delhi is whatever you make of it’, muses New Yorker Dave Prager in Delirious Delhi, the Capital’s latest travelogue-cum-survival guide. ‘Every person defines Delhi for his or her self, and no two Delhi struggles are the same. At any given point, your experience will be the exact opposite of my experience, and we’ll both be right.’

It’s refreshing to read a statement like this, especially at a time when publishing houses seem to be lapping up the tales of woe and/or wisdom that expats inevitably gather as they live or travel here. There’s a typical formula to these, which goes something like this: a firangi arrives in India. Hates it. Struggles. But slowly adapts, and, ultimately, loves it. And then assumes the authority to deconstruct the country and its culture, and through all sorts of sweeping statements presents his definition of the ‘Real India’ (whatever that is).

Delirious Delhi is delightfully different. Following the huge success of Our Delhi Struggle, a blog started by Prager’s wife, Jenny, and curated by both of them during the eighteen months they spent living and working in the capital, the book covers pretty much all aspects of life in the city; from negotiating with autowallahs to sampling street food to dealing with beggars. It’s an extensive collection of observations and anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the harrowing, neatly tied together with bits of well-researched trivia and Prager’s signature good humour. And that’s what makes this book: the candid, unpretentious and completely open-minded attitude with which the author writes.

Prager had two specific audiences in mind when writing the book; expats hoping to demystify Delhi, and Delhiites trying to make sense of expats. So, having a close connection with the eponymous city would certainly make for a far more enjoyable read. Prager’s frequent mentioning of place names—on the very first page he’s in Hauz Khas market, an area known to the city’s locals but probably unfamiliar elsewhere—would surely cause some geographical confusion to new-to-Delhi readers. That said, the vivid descriptions of Aurobindo Marg and MG Road create pleasing mental maps for those of us who travel regularly on the same streets.

Most ‘expat in India’ books begin at, well, the beginning, and then take the reader on the same bumpy journey of learning and discovery that the authors themselves experienced. Prager, though, has organized Delirious Delhi into twelve themed chapters including culture, food, health and—also a kind of running theme throughout the book—transportation. There are plenty of fun stories and light-hearted rants about commuting on congested roads, waiting for taxis and, of course, riding in Delhi’s famous (or infamous?) autorickshaws.

The thematic structure makes the book read as a sort of collection or travel guide, with each section working almost independently, which means, unfortunately, that there’s little sense of chronology. The author will describe an event from his first day in Delhi, then jump ahead six months before telling an anecdote from his last week in the country. Most frustratingly, we hardly learn anything about Prager’s—and, to an even greater extent, Jenny’s—jobs (which were the reason they came to the city) until Chapter Eight (‘Working’). The thematic idea does set Delirious Delhi apart from other India travelogues, but ultimately the mish-mash of continuity that this structure creates makes it difficult for the reader to relate to, and sympathize with Prager on his journey.

Which leads to the book’s biggest flaw: characterization. While we get a clear sense of Prager’s friendly and genuine nature, it’s much harder to build up an image of Jenny due to the lack of dialogue and physical descriptions in the book. There are a handful of regular characters who appear a few times—Anya the neighbour, Ganga the maid, Shilpa the rubbish collector—but they’re nearly always mentioned very briefly and very factually, and, except for the hilarious introduction of Shilpa (shouting incomprehensible Hindi at a bewildered Prager on his first Delhi morning) there’s next to no direct speech. It’s such a shame, because the book’s highlights are its human aspects—the people of Delhi. There’s a short passage in Chapter Three (‘Transportation’) where Prager and Ajit, a young taxi driver, pass a long commute by exchanging Hindi and English swear words. The result is screamingly funny, and characteristically Delhi. A quick-but-vivid description of two shopkeepers with hair ‘dyed a shocking shade of maroon’ brings another vibrant flash of city life, but sadly these instances are few and far-between.

Having said that, throughout the book, with its witty and sometimes strangely academic—the footnotes don’t quite fit— there are plenty of spot-on observations and laugh-out-loud moments to tickle the funny bones of Delhiites and expats alike. The foreigners’ perceptions of Diwali and Holi are summed up to perfection, as is the ‘mundane terror’ of travelling by auto, and the comparison of driving through a Delhi intersection to a ‘split-second act of Tetris’. In addition, Jenny’s analysis of the Hindi term ‘Bhaiya’ in Chapter Four (‘Culture’) is undoubtedly one of the book’s highlights.

Of course Prager also discusses the less-fun aspects of the city, from obvious issues like poverty and cheap labour to accident-causing buses and frequent public urination. He describes it all with his usual eloquence, without sounding at all patronising or judgemental and, perhaps deliberately, keeping his emotions at a distance. Towards the end of the book is the excellent chapter titled ‘Expat Issues’, where we see Prager battle, and finally (almost) come to terms with the inevitable guilt he’d experienced as a well-off American expat living in India. He appears honest, modest and human, but at the same time wholly optimistic about Delhi’s future.

As any firangi who’s been in India for a while will know, ‘greater context (means) less comprehension’. In other words, the more we learn about this country, the more we realize we’ll never understand. Prager’s answer to this was to ‘appreciate India simply for what it was’. And it’s this attitude—of profound simplicity—that makes Delirious Delhi so readable. While the thematic structure and underdeveloped characters sadly let this book down, it’s still a colourful and humorous depiction of the frenzied, mind-boggling, beautiful Indian capital.

Susanna Wickes, an Arts graduate from Scotland, has been living in Delhi for two years. She studies Hindi at Delhi University, works as a columnist for First City magazine and writes a blog for the Times of India.

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