Harmless Walled city

Published Jan 5, 2014, 8:11 pm IST
Updated Mar 19, 2019, 4:51 am IST
First-time author Elizabeth Chatterjee reveals the insecurities, charm and urban dissonance of Delhi in her novel.

Delhi is one of India’s most chronicled cities and probably now, one of the world’s greatest unloved destinations. So, while the former epithet has been established over centuries through an endless stream of travellers, students, bloggers and writers, who praise the city’s magnificent imperial past and grandeur; debut author Elizabeth Chatterjee has taken a slightly different route and tried presenting the not-so-pleasant view of the city in her book?— Delhi Mostly Harmless One Woman’s Vision of the City. For the author Delhi isn’t a millennia-old city.

She says, “It has waxed and waned, and reinvented itself more times than Madhuri Dixit. With the opening of the economy in 1991, the city has altered more rapidly than ever. So I see it now as an adolescent city, in that awkward period of transition that comes before great change — both positive and negative. It is a city of past glory, get-rich-quick newcomers, big spending populists, corporates, incredible wealth and corruption. It is the skittering heart of a democracy claiming to represent over a billion people, yet just as often governed by elite privilege and authoritarian fiat.”


Elizabeth, likes to describe the book as her “accidental baby” and more of a travelogue. She is also surprised by the wonders that the social networking has brought in her career.

“I was in Delhi doing my fieldwork for my doctoral research on the glamorous topic of Pressing Questions in the Indian Electricity Policymaking Process,” she says. “During this period, I thought of staying in touch with my family members and friends through social-networking websites. I used to regularly post whatever I observed about the city, people I encountered and all sorts of experiences on Facebook and Twitter. A close friend had been constantly following my posts and he proposed the idea of stringing together my thoughts and getting them published.”


Elaborating on the title of the book, Elizabeth adds, “The title is taken from Douglas Adams’ classic — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Mostly Harmless is the fifth and the last Hitchhiker’s book written by Douglas.”

Chatterjee herself is a quaint mixture of Bengal, Finland and Ireland, who likes to define herself as a ‘White Asian’.

Boastful of her Bengali surname, Elizabeth has an interesting way to explain her fellow brethren.

“In India, the ‘Bongs’ are stereotyped as brainy dweebs. They are bespectacled, soft-handed and sweet-toothed intellectuals. They only thing they love more than fish is arguing, and the only thing they don’t argue about is Bengali culture: they are utterly convinced that their language, literature and brains are the greatest in all of world’s history. Yes, I have an Indian surname, but I don’t look Indian at all. I’m partly Indian. The rest is one-quarter Finnish and one-half Scottish.”


Every chapter in Elizabeth’s book begins with a quote — one of the oft-quoted being: “Any woman who understands the problem of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problem of running a country.”— Margaret Thatcher.

And finally, after a critical analysis of the city, the lady’s final verdict towards the closing of the book expresses her ambivalent view.

“Delhi is a sophisticated cougar next to plain-jane Chennai and glossy Bangalore. Delhi boasts power, the electric pulse at the city’s heart,” but its “rite-of-passage” is just beginning. It is impossible to be purely optimistic about the city’s future,” she says and quickly concludes: “Still, what do I know? Can you ever step into the same city twice?”