Review: Delhi – Mostly Harmless by Elizabeth Chatterjee

by Paridhi Rustogi on January 18, 2014

Review: Delhi - Mostly Harmless by Elizabeth Chatterjee
Author: Elizabeth Chatterjee
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9788184003567
Rating: ★★★★☆
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In her debut novel, Delhi – Mostly Harmless, Elizabeth Chatterjee writes about Delhi in all its glory as a city which is a must visit in any traveller’s list. Join her for a whirlwind tour of our very own capital city, narrated from a videsi-turned-desi’s perspective. 

India and its cities grow weary to natives, but to the Western world, they are goodie bags full of myths, cultural snippets and cheap trinkets. Elizabeth Chatterjee is more Indian than she seems, despite her upbringing. A PhD student from Oxford, she is 1/4th Indian, 1/4th Finnish with the rest of her genetics all European – a Scottish-Irish muddle.

At first, she hardly comes across as an authority on India or Indian culture, but as you read her book, there is no denying that she’s managed to capture the pulse of Delhi. She says, ‘..nobody who lives there, nobody at all, has much good to say about Delhi.’ And she’s so right. Delhi has its charms but it also has a reputation.

Despite this, thousands of tourists come to visit each year with Lonely Planet guides in hand and backpacks filled to the brim with hand sanitizers and medications. The experiences that tourists have are much more colorful and concise than that of a resident and what sets Elizabeth Chatterjee apart is that she becomes a resident.

Who should read this

Just about anyone! If you’re Indian, you will relate to this book like no other. It is gripping and gains momentum with each page. Hilarious and true, Chatterjee writes engagingly. If you’re not Indian, prepare to learn about Delhi like never before. From history to future, Chatterjee knows it all.

Why should you read this

Understandably, a satirical novel about our flaws is a very delicate topic for a Delhiite like me, who has spent most of her childhood in its crowded streets and sprawling markets. But Chatterjee manages to traverse through the rich culture of Delhi and put it to paper in her own distinctive, jocular voice without being offensive. She even manages to understand the perplexities of our culture, and appreciates haggling and ‘jugaad’.

From the indigenous behavior that we Delhiites partake in to the customs we regularly participate in, she has managed to elucidate them all to her reader. She has left no stone unturned; from basics that like traffic, weather, politics, sanitation (and the lack thereof), she goes on to discuss gender issues, social discrimination, our economy and just about everything under the excruciating Indian sun.

Her book is a journey through Lutyen’s Delhi to Connaught Place and the old markets of Chandni Chowk with gol-gappas and chaat. From her apartment in Vasant Kunj to the Disneyland-ish temple of Akshardham, with her acute eye for detail she has managed to strip our country of all facades and expose us to ourselves, as a developing city with a long way to go.

It’s a wonderful journey to take, not merely a travelogue. In 15 short chapters, she has understood the anatomy of Delhi, which is mostly harmless and thoroughly entertaining.

Fans of Khushwant Singh’s writing will surely appreciate this book. For more gyaan on Delhi, check out his book on the city

Written by Paridhi Rustogi

Environmental Engineering student. Love words and languages and art. Currently suffering from wanderlust.

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