Delhi is similar to a surprise hamper basket – you can never guess what will come out of it. It is multifaceted and with a history so vivid and rich, that many a writers have tried to paint their version of it in their books. Some were mystified by the revolutions and the mutinies, some by the architecture, others by the cultural mix and food. Apologies in advance, for missing out your favorite, be sure to recommend it to fellow Dilliwallahs in the comments section. Find enclosed a list of 5 great books ever written on the national Capital.
5. City of Djinns (William Dalrymple, 1993)
Even after two decades, it is the most widely read book ever written on Delhi.
The writer spent a year in Delhi and gathered his memoirs in this book.
His account of the visit to the Sikh family that was affected during the riots of 1984 or the nostalgic connection to Karachi, Mr. Dalrymple went about exploring the inner most shades of Delhi that are otherwise conveniently assumed or ignored in daily lives.
He traced the journey of the city right from the time of Mahabharata to the Mughal Empire, till present day.
Delhi has always served as a convenient punching bag when comparing other metros like Mumbai, Madras or Calcutta.
It’s over board impulses, lack of a original culture, taste on the borderline of giddiness, makes easy conversation.
The writer glorified the fact by actual memoirs, the multi layers of culture, the rich civilization and cultural diversity, found in no other city of India. His wife Olivia Fraser did all the illustrations in the book.
4. Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (Sam Miller, 2008)
This book provokes different emotions and sets you thinking about the city of Delhi. He actually went and observed the real Delhi, as you might call it. He explored suburbs like Nehru Place, Rohini, Ghazipur and Gurgaon, mostly ignored by other travel writers.
He captured the essence of the city by actually mentioning the real citizens if the city and not just the glorious monuments of the past. His encounters with a professor, a crematorium attendant to rag pickers paint an actual real portrait of Delhi.
His humane side connects with the undercurrent of the city and the natural humor is very refreshing for all to read. There is actually a very funny story where he sees a Mercedes Benz parked next to the flag of Togo, while walking in the industrial area near Apollo Hospital. Upon enquiring, he discovered the embassy of Togo, actually operating in tandem from a car showroom.
Read it if you want to learn a bit more about the real soul of the city.
3. Unsettling Memories (Emma Tarlo, 2003)
As the name suggests, Emma has tried to capture the turmoil of 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency. It was a dark period for Delhi and she has managed to deliver an account of it in a very clean and systematic manner.
The draconian campaigns run by Sanjay Gandhi and how they affected the basic existence of the common man have been captured in a gripping analysis.
The sad fact that a poor man was left with no choice but to either undergo sterilization or stay homeless, was the sorry state of affairs. How she stumbled upon a colony set up for refugees and accounted their horror stories of Emergency, are gory details any government would like to brush under the carpet.
Her explanation of how the state archives were working in a well planned manner to conveniently drop facts from the past, has been done very impressively.
A real narrative of how the state can break or make lives of the ordinary citizens and that too at a mega scale!
2. Delhi by Khushwant Singh
All of us who have read the book can never forget Bhagmati, from this controversial book that never evokes a similar reaction in two people who have read it. It is a magnum opus written on Delhi, infused with excesses of eroticism and bloodshed.
His love for Delhi comes out in the most brutal form ever written.
During his space travel that extends over 600 years, he meets different characters with their unique tales to share. You find them all poets, saints, sultans, eunuchs, traitors, just name it and he’s there.
Despite the wide criticism he manages to transform and immortalize these characters in our minds forever. You get to hear Aurangzeb’s story from him and raise doubts in your head to now hate him or let it be.
Also get educated about Sikhism and its core values.
Like certain readers complain, the conflicts are a little over bearing. As in there are Hindus versus Muslims, Muslims versus Sikhs, Sikhs versus Hindus, thus not leaving out any permutations. Let’s not forget Mr. Singh took 25 years to pen down his version, so some credit is due and confusion can be forgiven.
1. Trees of Delhi, Pradip Krishen
This book is a nature lover’s delight, as it goes into every possible detail about the flora and fauna in Delhi.
In a fresh approach, Mr. Krishen used the leaves and created ten different groups of trees found in Delhi.
If you ever wondered about the name of the tree you pass daily that never or rarely flowers, then this is the book for you. He gave a name to every such tree, put pictures of leaves, flowers, fruits and characteristics details.
He didn’t stop here, actually went further and tells you where to find them, exact location in Delhi.
This is not a normal guide, but a man’s love for the trees of his city, transformed on paper. There are personal stories of trees with people, which make a good read.
Mr. Krishen’s love for exotic plants has inspired him to write such an extensive book. It inspires you to look around and preserve the few trees left around now. He mentions over two hundred and fifty species of trees in his book and how the topography has changed over the years.