Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
St. Martin’s, July 20, 2010
I love travel writing, particularly books about India, and particularly written by William Dalrymple, whose City of Djinns—about a year spent living in Delhi—is one of my favorite books. So when Dalrymple mentioned Sam Miller’s “wonderful” book about Delhi in the introduction to his new book, Nine Lives, I was intrigued. I looked up Sam Miller online and found out that his book, Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, would be released in the US in mid-July. When it hit my desk a couple of weeks ago, I had to take it home and give it a look.
And I’m so glad I did. Delhi is an engrossing book, by turns romantic and down-to-earth. It takes the form of a travelogue: Miller sets out to walk through Delhi in a spiral, slowly moving out from the city’s center at Connaught Place, and recording his impressions and encounters along the way. Miller is an appealing travel guide; a white Englishman married to an Indian woman from Mumbai, he’s lived in India long enough to take the country’s eccentricities in stride, but he’s still enough of an outsider that he makes the reader feel they are discovering the city along with him. Delhi is a fascinating city with a long history and a rapidly approaching future, and Miller’s many asides, footnotes and “intermissions” are as enlightening (and entertaining) as the journey itself.
Hidden away behind the construction site . . . is Agarsen’s Baoli, central Delhi’s oldest building. Six thousand years old, and built by the uncle of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, according to its watchman. A mere seven hundred years old, according to historians. Agarsen was probably a thirteenth-century chieftain and a baoli is a rectangular step-well. Through a padlocked gate opened by a taciturn, bidi-smoking watchman, I climb up onto a large plinth from where one hundred stone steps lead down to the bottom of the well.
Although this is only my second visit, it is a view I have seen many times before, thanks to a Delhi photographer called Raghu Rai, with a Cartier-Bresson-like instinct for the decisive moment. In a photograph taken in 1976, a young boy is caught at the moment of launching himself from a wall into the waters of the baoli, a dive of at least twelve feet. Above loom some of the newly constructed high-rises of Tolstoy Marg and Barakhamba Road, but beneath is the ancient step-well. I ask the watchman if he has seen the photograph, and he stuns me by saying that he, Bagh Singh, grizzled and grey-haired, was that diving boy. He sends a young girl off to get a copy of the picture he has cut from a magazine and gets me to photograph him holding it. In the thirty years in which Bagh Singh has aged so rapidly, the water level at Agarsen’s Baoli has fallen by twenty feet. A shortage of water is one of the biggest problems facing Delhi today.
What are you reading today? And where do you like to travel, either in books or in person?