As a city, Delhi has seen the birth of empires, the freedom of a country, unhappy pogroms and yet, it has flourished. This city of migrants, which everyone calls ‘saddi dilli’, is a city that hides many secrets within its layered veils and robes. And every so often, when a writer or someone goes hunting for something unique about the city, they usually find it and then some more. These 11 books – written by the likes of the inimitable Khushwant Singh in his typically irreverent fashion to Pakistani writer Raza Rumi’s discovery of Delhi where he asked why a man from across the border could feel at home and not feel ‘foreign’, to the history of the 1911 Delhi Durbar and into a deep dive the history of the many baolis of the city and the secrets the narrow bylanes of the city hold – will introduce you to a city which you thought you knew, but don’t.
Delhi Through The Seasons by Khushwant Singh
This is a nature lover’s diary, patterned after the traditional Baramasi of Indian poets. It tells us of the trees, flowers, fruits, birds, snakes, insects and animals that are found in Delhi and its surroundings, the fairs and festivals that the city celebrates as well as the story of clouds. It delves into why hailstorms come in spring and early summer and not in winter; how birds communicate with each other and why their calls vary with the seasons. Layered with paintings by Suddhasattwa Basu, this is a collector’s edition, a rare treasure.
Delhi Darshan by Giles Tillotson
A fascinating account of Delhi’s built heritage, from the traces of the earliest settlements at Indraprastha, through the grand legacies of the Delhi Sultans and the great Mughals to the ordered symmetries of Lutyens’ Delhi and the towering skyscrapers of Gurgaon. Filled with quirky details and insights, as well as a section on important monuments, this is a lively and informed account of the national capital’s built history.
Delhi Durbar by Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal
In 1911, British King George V’s desire to be crowned as the Emperor of India saw 30 sleepy villages of Delhi transform into a tented city with all modern amenities for the stay of the British royal couple, Indian Maharajas, Rajas and top British officials. King George V became the first reigning monarch to visit Britain’s most coveted colony, India. One million pound sterling was spent in 1911 to house 25,000 people at a Durbar that became well known for the announcement of the transfer of capital to Delhi. Attended by one hundred thousand people, this book tells the complete story of the royal tamasha.
Delhi: A Soliloquy by M. Mukundan
It is the 1960s. Delhi is a city of refugees and dire poverty. The Malayali community is just beginning to lay down roots, and the government offices at Central Secretariat, as well as hospitals across the city, are infused with Malayali-ness. Then comes China’s attack on India and for young Sahadevan and his family, life turns topsy turvy. With every crisis that India faces—the Indo-Pak War, the refugee influx of the 1970s, the Emergency and its excesses, the riots of 1984—Sahadevan is there, walking, soliloquising and aching to capture it all, the heartbreaks and the happiness.
A contemporary Malayalam classic, this is a masterful novel about ordinary people whose lives and stories have leached into the very soil and memories of Delhi.
Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri by Shashank Shekhar Sinha
An ambitious book, it traces the extraordinary pasts of the three imperial capitals, their monuments, settlements and extended geocultural connections, while presenting a graphic account of the iconic heritage sites – from the life and times of rulers who built them, their survival through periods of war, turmoil and conquests, to their present afterlives. Packed with intriguing and little-known stories about the monuments – busting several myths around them along the way. Steeped in history, culture, art, architecture and folklore, Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri is a unique and arresting portrait of three cities and six epochal monuments that have lived through some of the most pivotal moments in Indian history.
Delhi by Heart by Raza Rumi
A sensitively written account of a Pakistani writer’s discovery of Delhi. Why, asks Raza Rumi, does the capital of another country feel like home? How is it that a man from Pakistan can cross the border into ‘hostile’ territory and yet not feel ‘foreign’? Is it the geography, the architecture, the food? Or is it the streets, the festivals and the colours of the subcontinent, so familiar and yes, beloved. From the sufi shrines to the markets of Old Delhi and Ghalib’s crumbling abode, Raza uncovers the many layers of the city, connects with the richness of the Urdu language, observes the syncretic evolution of mystical Islam in India and its deep connections with Hindustani classical music. Delhi By Heart offers an unusual perspective and unexpected insights into the political and cultural capital of India.
Delhi Metropolitan by Ranjana Sengupta
Independence, four million refugees from Pakistan and the overwhelming presence of visible and invisible power that flows from New Delhi being the capital have transformed it from the imperial town it once was to a fearsome metropolis. And yet this largely unloved city deserves to be loved. This book shows how Delhi is a city created by refugees, from those fleeing plundered homes to the adventurers who have flocked to the city for employment or to be close to the hub of political power. The book tracks the changes from the time ‘going to CP’ was almost the only leisure activity for the middle class, looks at the subtle reinventions of government colonies and the shining new suburbs, and inspects the footprints of ‘Punjabification’. In a work of immense detail, at once informed and entertaining, Ranjana Sengupta proffers an answer.
From the Bylanes of Delhi by RV Smith
Shah Jahan’s love for kakris and tarbuz… the secret of Puranic haveli… the story behind the pir of bachon ka ghar… the miracles of the Sufi saints… Mughal emperors’ love for gangajal…. all this and more in this bouquet culled from the gardens of myth and truth that RV Smith has frequented for six decades to bring to his readers these stories. Smith knows the gossip and legends that spilled over in the city streets, the whispers that once floated down its lanes and bylanes. . . What a Delhi Christmas was like in the 1890s, how new year was celebrated after the siege and the slaughter of 1857 and how Durga puja came to Delhi and Jaipur. These stories keep the secrets of the cities safe from being lost forever.
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
This is an extraordinary portrait of one of the world’s largest cities. Sam Miller sets out to discover the real Delhi, a city he describes as being ‘India’s dreamtown—and its purgatory’. He treads the city streets, making his way through Delhi and its suburbs. Miller’s quest is the here and now, the unexpected, the ignored and the eccentric. Through his encounters with Delhi’s people—from a professor of astrophysics to a crematorium attendant, from ragpickers to members of the Police Brass Band—Miller creates a richly entertaining portrait of what Delhi means to its residents, and of what the city is becoming.
Baolis by Vikramjit Singh Rooprai
This book delves into the fascinating history and the great significance of forgotten, subterranean, man-made water structures, commonly known as baolis, or stepwells. The book walks us through the top 10 baolis, with two special mentions at the end. Besides giving a vivid description of the functioning and revival of the baolis, the book also focuses on the social importance of each structure.
Delhi: A Novel by Khushwant Singh
The principal narrator of this saga is a bawdy, ageing reprobate who loves Delhi as much as he does the hijda whore Bhagmati. Travelling through time, space and history to ‘discover’ his beloved city, the narrator meets a myriad of people—poets and princes, saints and sultans, temptresses and traitors, emperors and eunuchs—who have shaped and endowed Delhi with its very special mystique. And as we accompany the narrator on his epic journey we find the city of emperors transformed and immortalized in our minds forever. This is Khushwant Singh’s irreverent magnum opus on the city of Delhi.
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