Travel Reads: Books That Bring Delhi to Life

Immersive tales of a capital city.  
Delhi's palaces, markets, and outlandish residents have been a muse for many writers over the centuries. Photo: Bildagentur-Online/Dinodia Photo Library
Delhi's palaces, markets, and outlandish residents have been a muse for many writers over the centuries. Photo: Bildagentur-Online/Dinodia Photo Library

Delhi is a city of forts, flyovers, and flowering trees that tell its seasons. It is a city of fading aristocrats and recent migrants, of bureaucrats and activists—a city that belongs to everyone and to no one. The chaotic gullies of Chandni Chowk give way to the wide, shaded avenues of Lutyens’ New Delhi. An urban village grows around a sixteenth-century tomb, and a magnificent fort stands cheek by jowl with busy newspaper offices. It is a city crammed with layers of history, and millions of stories, and these are some of its finest.

Corridor: A Graphic Novel (2004) by Sarnath Banerjee

Photo: Penguin Books India

Photo courtesy Penguin Random House India

Graphic novelist and writer Sarnath Banerjee’s debut work shattered several conventions when it first appeared on the literary landscape more than a decade ago. The book chronicles the lives and times of Brighu, Shintu, and Digital Dutta—all of whom meet at the iconic bookshop run by Jehangir Rangoonwalla, a purveyor of everyday wisdoms. Banerjee’s Delhi is one that is rooted in particular neighbourhoods, specifically the sprawling, pillared grande dame that is Connaught Place. An exciting mash-up of illustrations, photographs, text, pop-cult references, and off-kilter humour, this little book managed to get under Delhi’s thick skin.

Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2010) by Sam Miller

This quirky travelogue chronicles journalist and writer Sam Miller’s adventures across Delhi. It is not a definitive or all-encompassing view of the city, but a series of intimate vignettes of what an Englishman experiences in an old-new city like Delhi. Miller recounts offbeat adventures, for example in Connaught Place, where an entire industry revolves around squirting poop on to the shoes of hapless foreigners and then offering to clean the mess for a hefty price. As Miller walks the city, taking an eccentric spiral route that cuts across the usual urban divisions, he gathers entertaining stories, full of twists and turns.

Necropolis (2014) by Avtar Singh

A lyrical tale of the city by night, Necropolis is a thrilling account of a series of bizarre crimes, investigated by the romantic DCP Sajan Dayal, his associate cop Kapoor, and the young officer Smita Dhingra, aided by the mysterious Razia. This is a work of fiction—almost of fantasy—and yet it’s a canny portrait of Delhi by an original Dilliwallah, if such a creature can be said to exist. The first editor of Time Out magazine’s Delhi edition, Avtar Singh has a deep engagement with the city, and vividly recreates its seething discontents, back alleys, and secret groups in his novel. Crime, history, power, violence, beauty and death reign side by side in this Necropolis.

Photo: Penguin Books India (left); HarperCollins Publishers India (right)

Photos courtesy Penguin Random House India (left); HarperCollins Publishers India (right)

City of Djinns (1993) by William Dalrymple

City of Djinns made many people fall in love with Delhi before they ever came to it. In the part-travelogue and part-city portrait, author William Dalrymple incisively sketches both the familiar everyday aunties and drivers, but also eunuchs, dervishes, Raj-era relics and a few oddball characters. Dalrymple calls Delhi a city with a “bottomless seam of stories”, and he picks some of the best ones to capture the many slivers of the city’s fragile past, its chaotic present, and its elusive future. His invisible djinns imbue Delhi with a certain romance, giving its darkest clouds a perennial silver lining.

Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide (2006) by Pradip Krishen

Delhi’s undisputed tree-man, naturalist Pradip Krishen is an authority on the flora of the capital, and has a wonderful knack of making just about everyone curious about the humble peelu, the fiery kareel, or the fragrant amaltas. It is little wonder that his Sunday morning tree walks in the city were wildly popular with people of all ages and occupations. This book takes his obsession one step farther, and chronicles the 250-odd tree species found in and around Delhi. It includes detailed minutiae about their origins, as many of these trees were introduced by the various foreign rulers of the city, who were nostalgic about their native landscapes. Beautiful illustrations accompany Krishen’s research, making this book a wonderful addition to any library.

Korma, Kheer, & Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi (2014) by Pamela Timms

A Scotswoman moves to Delhi and embarks on an odyssey by way of her taste buds. This wonderful book—part-travel guide, part-memoir, and part-cookbook—is the result of Timms’ adventures in the labyrinthine lanes of Old Delhi, and the blog she kept while she lived in the capital. She recounts how the walled city captivated her, drawing her back in different seasons to taste its varied foods. Timms walks, talks to cooks, and eats her way through this city of kings, queens, and poets, bringing an important aspect of its life to the table.

Photo: Aleph Book Company (left); Zubaan (right)

Photos courtesy Aleph Book Company (left); Zubaan (right)

Tales of Historic Delhi: A Walk Through its Many Cities (2011) by Premola Ghose

A city guide for children is a rare object, and writer and illustrator Premola Ghose deftly pulls off the feat in this little storybook with a big heart. Delhi’s bazaars, parks, and forts come alive in all their colour and glory, beautifully etched in panel after panel. The characters in this caper are a host of visiting animals from Ranthambhore, including a giraffe and a tiger, who meet furry, feathered, and even ghostly Delhi denizens. Along the way, they pick up interesting nuggets about Delhi’s myths and history. A delightful read for all.

Delhi: A Novel (1990) by Khushwant Singh

“I return to Delhi as I return to my mistress Bhagmati when I have had my fill of whoring in foreign lands. Delhi and Bhagmati have a lot in common.”
It is another matter that the Bhagmati in question is a luscious eunuch. An irrepressible humour and incisive wit sparkle through the pages of this ode to the capital city by Khushwant Singh, the inimitable dirty old man of India. A raunchy blend of history and modern politics, steeped in sex, drama, and real-life incidents, Delhi is a nuanced look at the city by one of its most prolific sons. For the sheer gall of its writer alone, there’s no ignoring this crazy ride of a novel.

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    Diya Kohli is Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.

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