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Delirious Delhi, Dave Prager

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Paperback: 392 pages / Publisher: HarperCollins India / Published: 30 Dec 2011

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      13.10.2012 19:29
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      Perfect reading for a Delhiphile like me

      ~New York to New Delhi~

      Dave Prager and his wife Jenny had a comfortable life in New York City and left it behind to cross the world and experience a very different city. Dave was offered a job in Delhi and viewed it as a great opportunity to go and eat a lot of spicy food and a once in a lifetime chance to experience a totally alien culture. Dave flew out a few days before his wife, finding his senses almost instantly overwhelmed. They got lost, they got burned, they got conned and they had a fabulous - but sometimes seriously weird - time. It wasn't all fun, of course, but they entered into their jobs, their community and their friendships with an open minded humour that characterises much of their book. Dave could have made his life easier (and duller) by taking an apartment close to his work in one of the city's high tech suburbs, but instead he and Jenny found an apartment in Haus Khaz market, close to but not quite in one of South Delhi's more trendy and arty areas, Haus Khaz Village. They lived in a so-called 'bungalow' which turned out to be a small block of flats and not what we understand by the word in the UK. Their neighbours were mostly locals and everyone lived together in what seemed to be a mutual sense of fascination with each other. I've read elsewhere that there's no word in Hindi for privacy and I can well believe it.

      Dave and Jenny were not the typical spoiled ex-pats with company servants and a car service to ferry them around and make life easy for them. Equally they were not dippy-hippy backpackers on a year out trying to get by on ten dollars a day. Instead they occupied a comfortable but not overly privileged position of having enough to live well but not so much that they were cut off from those around them. They had to learn a lot about living in a city with a high population density, to accept that there's a place for everyone from the poorest to the most wealthy, and to adjust to having other people doing things for them. You could live in India without domestic help but they realise that they shouldn't - that by hiring a woman to cook and clean for them they got a clean house, fabulous food and a chance to give her a job that was well paid by local standards and would put her kids through school. They got used to paying another lady £5 a month to take away their rubbish every day and an insight into how she could supplement her earnings by selling their empty bottles - the better the label, the better the price. There's really no such things as rubbish in India - just 'stuff' waiting for someone to find a use for it.

      At work Dave struggled to get used to the ways of working in his office where he accepted a big pay cut and a massive hike in responsibility in order to follow his dream of adventure. Initially he resisted getting the office 'peons' to run his errands, claiming he was quite capable of going to the fridge for a bottle of water or to the photocopier to make his copies but eventually he realised that India is a country with more human resources than other types of resource and that sending someone to do little jobs meant they had a job and an income. Much of his amazement is based on rethinking the ways of his home country when faced with a land of 1.1 billion people, all of them looking for something to do and a way to scrape a living.

      Dave travelled to the office daily, going slowly insane in the back of the taxis he hired each day to deliver him and then pick him up again later. He understandably deplored the traffic, the chaos and the near total lack of rules of the road but in between working and sitting in taxis, Dave got to know the city very well, started a blog, gathered a following for his online writing and eventually got a contract to write his book - published as Delirious Delhi.

      ~This book was just what I wanted~

      Delhi is the city that I love above all others and is a place where I never run out of things to do. With our tickets booked to go back at the end of this month, I'm already thinking about what we'll be doing. I've got several guide books and have read them from cover to cover too many times to count, but what I sometimes want is an insight into the city and not just another list of 'must see' attractions. I want a book that will explain things I've seen and help me to make sense of the absurd, crazy things that go on in India's capital city.

      I forget how I originally came across Dave and Jenny's blog but I loved what they had to say about the city. I liked what they wrote but I loathe the stop-start reading backwards in time constraints of a blog. I also got frustrated by the dozens of comments left on each post. When I realised there was a book, it went on my Amazon wish list and I waited for a copy to come along second hand and eventually cracked and ordered one.

      ~Lessons Learned~

      Although the book starts with the Pragers' first few days in Delhi when they mishear a man on the street and think he's selling door to door paella and ends with them leaving to move on to Singapore, this is not really a chronological account of their time in the city. Instead, chapter by chapter Dave explains what mystified him and what he eventually learned about different aspects of living in the mega-city. This is delivered in a wry and delightfully non-preachy way. They are honest about their ignorance, amusing with their observations, and display a sense of humour that most of the world thinks has been surgically removed from most Americans.

      Topics include the challenges of living in a very crowded place, how to survive the city's appalling traffic, trying to learn Hindi, eating fabulous food at every opportunity, dealing with health crises, going shopping and trying not to get ripped off. I learned a lot about office life which explained things I'd observed on business trips and during holidays. I got a good few tips on places to eat and to shop which I'll take with me and I also got a lot of reassurance that what he'd seen gelled very well with a lot of what I'd also noticed.
      I read this just a few days before the start of BBC2's new series 'Welcome to India' which started this month. One thing which really rang true and was illustrated really well by this new show was the Indian ability to make the most of their situation whatever it is. Take the Yorkshire expression 'Where there's muck there's brass' and transplant it into a nation of 1.1 billion people all striving to get along in the world. If you're looking for a nation predisposed to a 'glass half full' mentality, then it must surely be India. Prager ascribes this to a philosphical concept called 'jugaad' which represents a mix of making the most of what you've got and a drive to create innovative solutions to problems based not on what you wish you had but on what you've actually got or what you can find lying about the place.

      "Under the jugaad philosophy only we Americans whine that the air conditioning has gone out. Everyone else reflects in the good fortune of having had air conditioning at all, and gets their work done anyway"

      This is also the principle that leads people to build machines out of totally unpredictable parts or to make a living out of what he calls 'red light economies' - no! Not THAT type of red light work. Prager is referring to the retail opportunity represented by the chance to sell people stuff whilst they wait for the lights to change. I've seen this all over India but also in places like Brazil where the red light businesses mean you can buy almost anything you need - or don't need - whilst waiting for the lights to change. And we thought that the internet was good for retail but it's got nothing on selling knock-off copies of business books and packets of tissues at the stop line.

      ~Recommended Reading~

      My copy was imported from India where it would have set its original buyer back 399 rupees or about £5. Unless of course they bought a knock off photocopy at the lights for about half that amount. Prager actually says in his book that he hopes the reader didn't buy it that way as he need the royalties. It was a perfect book for me as I've been getting increasingly irritated by books - typically e-books - about India written by people who've been there for five minutes and taken a package tour. What Prager offers is insight and reflection on the things you will have seen and wondered about if you've spent any significant time in this city. If you've never been to India, then probably it's not for you. If you've just looked out of the windows of your tour bus, it might be a waste too. But if you've been multiple times, if you can picture the map of the city in your mind and relate to where he is and what he's trying to do, you'll probably be nodding along and picturing exactly what Dave and Jenny went through.

      Delhi - like any big city - is constantly changing and some of the irritations of his time in the city may have changed by now. It's not completely clear to me when he was living there but it seems to be the period in the run up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The road works and the Metro building that drove him crazy are mostly finished now but will no doubt have been replaced with other annoying construction projects. Some of the restaurants he mentions may well have closed down or moved elsewhere but even though the details may no longer be 100% right, it's not the details that matter in this lovely book. It's the buzz of this crazy city that he captures so well and it would take more than some roadworks or an extended Metro to change the spirit of the place. It takes an outsider to see how crazy things are but someone who has lived there to put the strangeness into a framework that helps to make sense of the bizarre and unexpected. For me Dave Prager got Delirious Delhi just right and I can only hope he may be tempted to continue to write about the city or India in general. Unfortunately though I'm just rubbish at reading blogs and will have to wait for him to publish another book.


      Delirious Delhi by Dave Prager
      ISBN 978-93-5029-131-3
      Published by Harper Collins

      Amazon are currently offering new copies of the paper back for a whopping £13.99 whilst my second hand copy cost about £5. It's a good book but I would't have paid the full price even though I'm obsessed with Delhi so I recommend to stick it on your wish list and wait for a good deal


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