The taste of Delhi.
[By Anusha Hariharan]
The Book Review, Indiaâ€™s esteemed book review journal, reviewed The Delhi Walla books in its 1 January 2012 edition. Here is the complete text:
When I moved to Delhi five years ago, apart from the various friends I had made, the work that I did, the endless chats on barsaatis of various people (I was being introduced to barsaati culture at that point, a typically Delhi phenomenon), the one other element that really got me to explore the city and its ways was Mayank Austen Soofiâ€™s blog.
Every day after lunch hour, I used to sneak a peek and catch up on his latest on The Delhi Walla (and yes, I had to sneak because at that point, I worked in an NGO that did not allow us to Google chat, let alone surf blogs on cityscapes). It was with a lot of thrill and expectation that I sunk my teeth into Soofiâ€™s four part series in print, inspired of course by The Delhi Walla. Soofi paints vibrant images of the city, replete with its food, culture, history, and most importantly, the people! The four-part series is divided into Food+Drink, Monuments, Hangouts and Portraits. While I would be doing a great disservice to Soofi by attempting to review them one by one, I would still have a go.
The Food+Drink book is the one that has been worked with the most consistency in writing. It reflects Soofiâ€™s love for the culinary, and evokes a sense of the city that is entirely experienced through the senses.
Soofi has also taken care to pan the lengths of the city. While I am glad that the book does not zero in on eating places in swanky South Delhi alone, and explores the other part of the city, that is the usual North Delhi joints. Barring a few eateries, east and west parts of Delhi are almost entirely missing.
The writing evokes nostalgia for food as an experience, rather than the food as something that you have just tasted and loved. Soofiâ€™s accounts almost border on ethnography and the cultural aspects of each of these foods and the spatial significance of these have been painstakingly worked out.
The other part in the series, a favourite with me, is the book titled Portraits. Again, Soofi has panned the diversity of class, religion, age, and gender when it comes to picking up different faces from the city and telling their stories.
The stories in themselves are written throughout with grace and elan. Indeed, a lot of thought has gone into the ethics of translating intimate details of somebodyâ€™s life onto a book that borders on being tourism of a certain kind. At some point, you almost wonder whether the decision to pan across these identities was also done with the purpose of keeping with the political correctness of our times. However, the writing is appealing, and you are just glad to see a book on cityscapes that is affordable and non-academic, which has taken care to present the city in all its different forms.
The book on Hangouts does not particularly enthuse one. Some sections of it make even the typical Dilliwallaâ€™s ears perk, given that there are so many undiscovered spots in Soofiâ€™s collection. The book is also classified into the usual (museums, markets, eateries, and the unusual (Sufi spaces, spaces that are ideal for a nice stroll, book bazaars, etc).
However, Monuments was a bit of a letdown, While they were all carefully chosen, painstakingly researched, the nearest metro station and other such logistics provided, the writing is comparatively sedate. The tone is that of an interestingly written history book.
There were glimpses of the kind of writing that Soofi does justice to â€” that which combines a sense of nostalgia, his own memories of the place that communicate a love and passion for walking around the city and visiting these spaces, but you have to seek them out in this piece of writing.
The four books clearly cater not just to the tourist but also to the typical Dilli walla, one who has grown up in this city, has a history rooted in its spaces, and engages with it with passionately. It is ideal for those who have moved newly and want to evolve a relationship with the city that is more than the markets you choose to buy your regular household goods from or zeroing into that one hangout that you would inhabit through the years to come. At Rs 199 per copy, it is also affordable to a wide range of consumers, even the masses of college students who come to Delhi every year on meager budgets.
[The author is a political science graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and works as a researcher with Centre for the Advanced Study of India.]