This is an extraordinary portrait of one of the world's largest cities. Sam Miller sets out to discover
the real Delhi, a city he describes as being 'India's dreamtown —and its purgatory! He treads the city
streets, making his way through Delhi and its suburbs, visiting its less celebrated destinations—Nehru
Place, Pitampura, Rohini and Gurgaon-that most writers ignore. Miler's quest is the here and now,
the unexpected, the ignored and the eccentric. All the obvious ports of call- the ancient monuments,
the imperial buildings and the celebrities of modern Delhi—make only passing appearances. Through
his encounters with Delhi's people—from a professor of astrophysics to a crematorium attendant,
from ragpickers to members of the Police Brass Band—Miller creates a richly entertaining portrait of
what Delhi means to its residents, and of what the city is becoming. Miller is, like so many of the
people he meets, a migrant in one of the world's fastest—growing megapolises and the Delhi he
depicts is one whose future concerns us all.
Miller possesses an intense curiosity; he has an infallible eye for life's diversities, for all the marvellous
and sublime moments that illuminate people's lives. This is a generous, original, humorous portrait of
a great city; one which unerringly locates the humanity beneath the mundane, the unsung and the
About the Author
Sam Miller was born in London in 1962. He studied History at Cambridge University and Politics at
London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, before joining the BBC's World
Service. In the early nineties he was the World Service TV and radio correspondent in Delhi and on
his return to the UK in 1993 was the presenter and editor of the BBC's current affairs programme
South Asia Report. Later he became the head of the Urdu service and subsequently Managing
Editor, South Asia. He has also worked as a reporter in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the
Balkans and Northern Ireland.
He was posted back to Delhi in 2002, and has remained there ever since. He now runs media
training projects in the subcontinent for the BBC World Service Trust. He also works as a
commentator, journalist and book reviewer for a number of Indian and international media
organizations. He is married to Shireen and they have two children.
DELHI WAS ONCE, several hundred years ago, the most populous city in the world. For better or
worse, it may become so again. It is a city that has suffered many calamities, and has repeatedly risen
from its own ruins. Delhi has been scoffed at, coveted, decimated, lionized, demolished and rebuilt. It
is nearing its millennium—and all of its multiple avatars are visible through a thickening crust of
modernity. It is the capital of a nation that is beginning to claim the twenty—first century as its own,
whose struggle with poverty is incomplete, but whose aspirations for success seem unquenchable.
Delhi is now a megalopolis, sprawling beyond its own borders, swallowing up villages and farmland,
sucking in migrants, spewing out pollution. There are no natural limits to this rampant city, nothing to
stop it growing except, perhaps, if it fails to live up to the new Indian dream. From all over India,
they flock to Delhi. They want jobs and a brighter future for their children. Delhi, the once sleepy,
boring, parochial capital, derided for decades by Bombayites and Calcuttans, has emerged from
their shadows. It is becoming India’s dreamtown—and its purgatory.
In 2004, Delhi’s population passed fifteen million; more than twenty million if you include its suburbs.
The following year, another, more significant, global landmark was passed. For the first time in
history, the majority of human beings lived in towns or cities. The world had—by the narrowest of
margins—become urban. And the great western cities of previous millennia, London, Paris, Rome
and Athens, those archetypes of urban existence, are being dwarfed and prettified; and it is the new
and ancient cities of Asia that are the pulsating giants of the twenty-first century. Delhi, the city of
Sultanates and Mughals, of Djinns and Sufis, of poets and courtesans, is now also a city of
cybercafés and shopping malls, of Metros and multiplexes. It is the past and it is the future. It is also
Fragments of Delhi
As a child, I loved to be quizzed. I taught myself all the world’s capital cities and performed a kind of
circus act for my parent’s friends. ‘Albania? That’s easy. Tirana, of course Liechtenstein? Pea-sy . . .
Vaduz And so on. One summer’s afternoon with the tepid London sunlight on my arms and face,
and suffused in the warming smell of jasmine from my parent’s garden, an adult challenged me. It led
to a brief but enduring moment of childhood shame. The grown-up asked me the name of the capital
of India. I scoffed at such a simple question and said, quite correctly, ‘New Delhi’. He replied, ‘No,
it’s just Delhi.’ I became confused. I declared, incorrectly this time, in an adamant manner, that Delhi
and New Delhi were as different as York and New York. Another adult laughed out loud, and
informed me that New Delhi was just a part of Delhi. I suddenly felt sick inside, eviscerated by
failure. In my personal mythology, this was the beginning of a complicated relationship with Delhi.
I do have other early, minor, less palpable memories. I have tried and failed to reconstruct a
half-remembered limerick involving Delhi and jelly and smelly and I can vaguely recall a
dark—haired woman mysteriously referring to diarrhoea as ‘Delhi-belly’. It was clearly established
for me as a city of abnormal bowel movements. My first visual encounter with Delhi was in cartoon
form, thanks to a brief hectic stopover in the Indian capital by my childhood hero, Tintin, who was
on his way to Tibet. Delhi re—emerges next for me, much later, in 1984 (by then I am a
news—addict and would-be journalist), as the television backdrop for the assassination of Prime
Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards. I can recreate in my mind vivid indoor
sequences of Sikhs in turbans of different colours; a red turban is unwound, followed by the cutting
of long wiry hair with large tarnished tailors’ scissors. ‘Cut Sikhs’ were less likely to be identified and
murdered by mobs that targeted the Sikh community during the Delhi riots that followed the
And then in 1987, I glimpsed my earliest sharp images of Delhi, in a video of the film The
Householder——first of the Merchant Ivory progeny——and the city began to gain some more
solid qualities in my mind. The film is an unrushed, touching, comic portrayal of a newly wedded
couple, in an arranged marriage, learning to compromise and giggle, before eventually falling in love.
Visually, the most memorable scene from The Householder was at Jantar Mantar, a group of huge
open-air astronomical instruments that looks like a giant’s playground. Prem, the hero (played by the
pre-corpulent best-looking-actor-of-all-time, Shashi Kapoor) watched as his American friend
Ernest, jumped around among the shadows of the brick-built gnomons and equinoctial dials. It was
one of the strangest urban sights I had ever encountered, and I pressed the pause and rewind buttons
again and again. So, at the age of twenty-five, images of Delhi, my future home, had registered with
me for the first time. In fact, those images were old ones; The Householder had been filmed in 1962,
the year of my birth, closer to British times than to the present. It was also in black and white, and it
wasn’t until I finally visited Delhi in 1989 that I saw the warm terracotta shades of the Jantar Mantar
complex. Visiting Jantar Mantar, which turned out to be an early-eighteenth-century observatory in
the middle of modern Delhi, was the highlight of that visit-indeed just about the only thing I remember
liking about the city.
On that first visit, I had just come, bedazzled, from Calcutta, where I had traipsed the
streets, paddling through late monsoon rains. I had also grown to love Bombay (almost as quickly as
I had grown to love a Bombay woman) and had begun to contemplate the possibility of living there
amidst the slums and penthouses, as close to the sea as possible. Both those cities, Delhi’s Significant
Others, seemed to have an energy and an identity which I did not sense in Delhi. Everyone in Delhi
seemed irritable, they weren’t (shame on them) so interested in me, and there was no clear centre,
no heart to the city; I could’t orientate myself in it. I even once, to my present day shame, described
it to a friend as ‘loathsome’.
I later went on to live and work as a journalist in Delhi for two and a half years in the
early 1990s. I would leave Delhi at every opportunity, and go back to my wife’ home city of
Bombay-or to anywhere in the subcontinent that wasn’t Delhi. When asked, I would describe Delhi
as provincial and mean—spirited and matlabi——a word which here has the implication that people
make friends only because of their ability to assist them in climbing a particular social or career
ladder. Some of that was (and is) true, but it was also, as I now realize, a partial and incomplete
account of a dizzyingly complex city undergoing rapid and unpredictable change.
Delhi’s population has doubled in the time I have known it. It has become, for better and for worse,
a world city. It has everything that is old and everything that is modern. It still has its majestic,
scattered ruins that, for me, equal those of Rome or Athens or Cairo. But it has largely lost the
parochial quality remember from the 1990s. Today, Delhi makes the city of my birth, London, feel
quiet and peripheral. Delhi has a sense of continuous decay and regeneration that I have not met
elsewhere. I find myself preaching to anyone who will listen that the world ignores Delhi’s current
experiments with modernity at its peril. Sometimes, because large cities are so large, and they can
make us feel so small as individuals, we lose hope about changing anything. We forget that we human
beings, have created these cities, these monsters; they are entirely our responsibility. And so in the
end, my sermon continues, we will, collectively, get the cities we deserve. For that reason, we must
come to believe that our great cities needn’t be hell on earth, that they might even become better than
purgatory. The world’s urban pasts are brimming with failures——a world in which Delhi is an
incubator for an uncertain urban future.
As for me personally, only now am I beginning to come to terms with that vacillating attraction and
repulsion I feel for this monstrous, addictive city. Delhi has drawn me back repeatedly, a magnet and
a temptation, and I tread its streets like a man possessed.
Back of the Book
Sam Miller has created a book that is both a quest and a love letter, and one which is as pleasingly
eccentric and anarchic as its subject. Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity teems with strange stories and
bizarre quiddities, rich discoveries and unexpected diversions. It will delight Delhi lovers and baffle
and amaze those who have so far remained oblivious to its erratic but oddly addictive charms.
San Miller brings alive a lost city with passion and knowledge For anyone who has even had a
fleeting relationship with India’s national capital, this a must read.
I have lived I Delhi for forty years and always wanted to read a book which I feel encompasses the
whole of my city. Here it is… (It) is a wonderful read, but it’s also a must for anyone concerned
about the future of India and indeed democracy’s future.
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