(This is an old story–compiled this list in 2006 for Outlook, but can’t find it in my archives. It needs updating, but I still love most of the books featured here.)
The Delhi reading list
City of Djinns: William Dalrymple (Penguin)
First published in 1993, William Dalrymple’s exuberant account of a year in Delhi wears its age lightly. As the writer and his wife meet eunuchs, gently sozzled taxi drivers, nostalgic Anglo-Indians and the mandatory batty landlord, Delhi’s exasperations and comforts become theirs to claim. Running parallel to the personal story of the Dalrymples is the crisp account of historical Delhi, from the first city of the British Empire to the heart of Mughal rule to Indraprastha. Necessary reading for the outsider; pure entertainment for the insider.
The Delhi Omnibus (Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, R E Frykenberg) (OUP)
If you have room for only one reader about the city, this is it. Percival Spear’s two books were published between 1945-1950, but still offer an authoritative account of the history of Delhi, and of the city’s ups and downs in the twilight of the Mughal Empire. Narayani Gupta’s account of Delhi covers the last years of the Mughals, examines Delhi’s role in the 1857 uprising, and looks at the city after Independence. The essays collated and edited by R E Frykenberg cover personalities as disparate as Nizamuddin Auliya and Herbert Baker, and look at Delhi’s architecture, population and cultural growth.
The Oxford India Mirza Ghalib (Editor, Ralph Russell; OUP)
Ghalib came to Delhi from Agra around 1810, as a newly married man aged thirteen, wrote prolifically if rarely lucratively, sparred with his rival Zauq at Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court, and survived the savage upheavals of 1857, dying in 1869 in poverty. Ralph Russell’s reader is perhaps the most comprehensive introduction to Ghalib’s life, times and work, blending scholarship with lighter anecdotes about Ghalib’s famous love of mangoes. If Russell’s voluminous tome is too daunting, try Gulzar’s slim 221-page life of Ghalib (Rupa & Co), which explores Ghalib’s Delhi in detail, from the world of the courts to the crowded Old Delhi mohalla the poet lived in.
Rich Like Us: Nayantara Sahgal (HarperCollins)
Published in 1985, Rich Like Us was Sahgal’s blistering analysis of the Emergency imposed by her first cousin, Indira Gandhi. Several of Sahgal’s novels have explored the politics of newly independent India, and readers might want to read Rich Like Us alongside A Situation in New Delhi. Sonali, a young, idealistic civil servant, is made to suffer for objecting to the establishment of a new soft-drink factory; the deal exposes much of the ruthless corruption of the Emergency regime. Rose is an Englishwoman here to be part of a family that doesn’t want her; when she stumbles across too much information, her stepson, a government minister, seeks to have her removed. Sahgal was scathing about the involvement of the elite, from bureaucrats to lawyers to politicians, in the cruelty and oppressiveness of the Emergency, and she made her points in style.
Delhi: Khushwant Singh (Penguin)
The grand old sardar of Indian literature is something of an icon in Delhi, and his fondness for Scotch, scholarship and gossip is legendary. “I return to Delhi as I return to my mistress Bhagmati when I have had my fill of whoring in foreign lands,” begins Delhi: A Novel. This bawdy, lubricious, ambitious work fell short of his early novels–I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Train to Pakistan, but it’s still fun to read. The narrator is an ageing journalist attempting to cover 700 years of Delhi’s history with help from courtesans, eunuchs and the odd foreign lady archaeologist, but as he warns, this often reads like “The Fucking Man’s Guide to Delhi”.
The Brainfever Bird: I Allan Sealy (Picador)
Brain Fever Bird shifts between St Petersburg and Delhi, and I don’t know about the citizens of St Petersburg , but the citizens of Delhi have rarely been the recipients of such a wonderful love letter. The story, a tangled tale of biological warfare, puppetry and plague, pales before Sealy’s descriptions of the city, from the “shrunken, much-molested stream”of the Yamuna to the grimy alleys of the Old City, where Razia’s ancient story may still be played out through a puppet show, to Dilli, its brashness softened by the “pear-coloured light”. “Of all loves city love comes slowest. Compare country love: quick, hot, easy. Or the sudden deep love of a woman.” In a later novel, Sealy would write of Delhi that it was a wonderful mistress but a bad wife; but this book commemorated his affair to remember with the city.
Dil-O-Daanish: Krishna Sobti (Katha Books)
Translated into The Heart Has Its Reasons, this award-winning novel follows the fortunes of a joint family in the Chandni Chowk of the early 19th century. Sobti knows the twists and turns of relationships in a large Indian family as well as she knows the twisting, crowded, lively alleyways of Old Delhi.
The Last Mushaira of Delhi: Farhatullah Beg
Farhatullah Beg’s quirky The Last Mushaira of Delhi is hard to find, but worth the search. Farhatullah used the true account of one of the last great gatherings of poets in Delhi, in the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the backdrop, weaving fictionalised tales of the great masters of the couplet and the ghazal into the picture. The title is sometimes translated as “The Last Candle”, referring to the practice of setting a lighted candle before the poet whose turn it is to recite.
Twilight in Delhi: Ahmed Ali (New Directions Press; Norton Books)
Ahmed Ali’s classic account of the living city walled off and rendered a pale shadow of itself when Delhi became New Delhi was written in 1940. He follows the tribulations of Mir Nihal, a nobleman living in Old Delhi whose childhood memories of 1857 revive when the British begin to replace the Mughals as the rulers of the city, and when their “New Delhi” gradually leaches Old Delhi of its colour and power. Through shifting relationships, descriptions of kite battles in the skies, tales of courtesans and a poignant account of the slaughter of a pigeon fancier’s beloved birds, Ali captures a Delhi that no longer survives except in memory. Anita Desai fans might see a resemblance between Mir Nihal, condemned to see his world crumble around him, and Nur, the ageing Urdu poet of In Custody, who has also found a final refuge in the lanes of Old Delhi even as he loses language, poetry and the past.
Trees of Delhi: Pradeep Krishen (Dorling Kindersley)
There are many reasons to hoard your copy of Trees in Delhi: the beautiful drawings, the intelligent leaf guide that allows even neophytes to identify unusual and common varieties of trees, the dollops of linguistic and cultural history that lace the descriptions of trees. The best reason of all is that this book, almost a decade in the making, allows you to rediscover the city, its avenues, monuments and small pockets of peace, in the company of an enthusiastic and passionately knowledgeable guide.
Altu-Faaltu: Ranjit Lal (IndiaInk)
If Delhi is the city of politicians, migrants, khandaani families and artists, it is also home to monkeys—often more entertaining and better-behaved than any of the above. Ranjit Lal’s delightful saga romps through the deserted monuments of old Tughlaqabad and the greenery of the Ridge as you follow the adventures of Altu-Faltu, the insidious Suna Hai and a bunch of simians struggling to establish who will be primates inter pares.