Letter from Michigan – On The Delhi Walla Books

Letter from Michigan – On The Delhi Walla Books

Lonely Planet People

An American book lover introduces The Delhi Walla’s books.

[By Richard Weiderman]

A firangi can never be a Delhiwalla. To qualify one has to have been born in Delhi or been brought up and educated there. He must have assimilated into Delhi’s culture and become part of its social landscape. He must feel at home in Delhi and that Delhi is his home. Being a transplant or even an expat is not enough. At his best an expat is only a ‘Delhiwalla wannabe’. A tourist doesn’t even count. It doesn’t matter if Delhi gets under his skin and seeps into his blood, or how often he visits or for how long he stays. A tourist can never qualify. The expat and the tourist are perennial outsiders. Strangers. Outlanders. Aliens and foreigners. In caste-conscious India they are “firangi,” the ones standing on the outside with their noses pressed against the glass longingly looking in, wishing they were part of the scene.

As an outsider, the firangi’s refuge and his strength is his 2009 Lonely Planet India (LPI), “100% Researched & Updated.” The Delhi chapter runs forty-five pages, from 119-164. It was written by Abigail Hole, who first visited Delhi in 1994. She has returned perhaps seven times since, according to “The Authors” credits on page 1215. She is a firangi leading the firangi.

Personally, I’m shamelessly addicted to LPI. I’ve owned every edition since the first in the middle ’80s. I wouldn’t think of visiting the subcontinent without it. As much as I’ve depended on it for over twenty years, today when I go to Delhi I much prefer Mayank Austen Soofi’s (MAS) blog The Delhi Walla (TDW). For one thing it is more current. The information is digitally updated three to four times a week, making it more timely than a guide that begins its obsolesce before it sees print. Furthermore, since it is devoted to one city only, it is more various and detailed than a chapter in a book could ever be. I should also add The Delhi Walla is more colorful, for MAS illustrates his articles with his own photos, many of them candid shots of Delhiites about their lives. The photos capture monuments, street scenes, flora and fauna, food, bookstores, transportation, and even the moods of the sky. The captions are sometimes whimsical, occasionally provocative, often humorous, and frequently literary, like “Twilight in Delhi” and “In Search of Lost Time” for example. To paraphrase Walter Pater, this blog “aspires to the condition of literature.”

Its literary quality comes no doubt from MAS’s interests and from his profession. He is a writer for one of India’s prominent newspapers. He is also an incurable and unrepentant bibliomaniac who can be seen sleuthing in the stacks of Delhi’s prominent bookstores or lurking about used-book stalls throughout the city.

But above all else, the depth, immediacy, vibrancy and authority that permeates The Delhi Walla doubtlessly derives from the fact that MAS is the real thing, a dyed-in-the-wool, blowed-in-the-glass Delhiwalla. What better guide to one of India’s great cities could a firangi ask for?

Now comes word that HarperCollins India will publish four books on Delhi by MAS in late September, 2010. Let us call them collectively The Delhi Walla books. The first is a book of profiles of fellow Delhiwallas akin to MAS’s word-portraits in TDW’s “Mission Delhi.” The second features fifty Delhi hangouts, including parks, museums, cafes, and neighborhoods. Thankfully he includes only a few malls. After all, what self-respecting firangi would visit incredible India and go to a mall? The third Delhi Walla book is Monuments. MAS discusses fifty of them, replete with photos. The last book is Food and Drink. Unlike Lonely Planet, The Delhi Walla does not focus on restaurants. They come and go. Great cooks move on. Mediocre ones replace them. Restaurant recommendations are notoriously unreliable. They tell us more about the reviewer, his likes and dislikes, than about the food. Wisely the Delhi Walla focuses on the foods and libations important, or in some instances unique, to Delhi. That said, he also lists places, from street stalls to five-star hotels, renown with locals for certain specialties.

As you can tell reading this, The Delhi Walla books are special to this firangi. He gives them five stars, the highest rating. All together they offer 400 pages of information and photos on Delhi. The Lonely Planet has only ten percent of that. The latter is written by an occasional visitor. The former is by a professional local writer, a pukka Delhiwalla. In every significant way MAS’s offerings are superior to LPI’s chapter on Delhi. In your travel library The Delhi Walla books belong on the shelf next to the Lonely Planet. Or when it comes to Delhi, above it.

[The author lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA]