Delirious City: Polity and Vanity in Urban India
Gautam Bhatia’s Delirious City is a must-read book for all who have a connect with the vibrant, culturally and historically complex city of New Delhi. Eminent artist and muralist Anjolie Ela Menon sums it up beautifully: “Delirious City is an extraordinary opus that establishes a new literary and artistic genre altogether. It encapsulates the diverse attributes of its author, the multifaceted Gautam Bhatia, who is the prolific proponent of many disciplines. He is at once a brilliant wordsmith, architect, sculptor, cartoonist, painter but above all an insightful critic of our times and particularly of the burgeoning urban matrix that is modern India.”
Replete with historical facts, the book is witty, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek and generally humorous. Bhatia portrays the essence of the city with simple anecdotes, architectural drawings and descriptions of daily observations, bringing to the reader’s attention instances that often remain unnoticed. “Delhi’s mean streets are stalked by two disparate groups — an agrarian underclass that moves between sewer pipes and the low huddle of slums and flyovers, and an instant aristocracy that rides in BMWs and Jaguars between malls and tennis clubs, perpetually stuck in traffic between cows and camel carts. The rush to eradicate history thrives in the breasts of both,” he writes.
The author accords a voice to the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city, as well as to distinctive personalities that reside in it, such as politicians, bureaucrats, labourers, builders, the rich and the poor. In doing so, he combines the narratives of tragedy, urban despair and personal desire to present the reality of this city and its people. He begins with a comment on urban life through an unusual description of New Delhi — “Delhi. Old and dying, yet reborn everyday in a new skin. An old, wrinkled woman painting her nails. This great city I call home belongs neither to history nor to imagination. It is described instead by dimensions. One day a small town, then a suburb, eventually a megacity.” He then oscillates between past, present and future, to uncover and make sense of the multifaceted capital city, all the while provoking the reader with his savage sense of humour.
Bhatia is the author of an architectural trilogy — Punjabi Baroque (1994), Silent Spaces (1994) and Malaria Dreams (1996) — that conveys the many social, cultural and anthropological aspects of architecture, with a focus on India’s architectural legacy. The format of this book is different, too. It is not confined within structures or genres. It is neither a coffee table nor non-fiction. Part memory, part art history, part visual culture, the book truly defies definition. What it reflects is the character of the city. Seen through a contemporary lens, it is rather “delirious” itself.
The table of contents lay out the tone and texture of the book which is rhyzomic/lateral/horizontal rather than linear. For instance, the chapter heads, such as ‘People, People, People’, ‘Consumptive Life’, ‘Us and Them’, ‘By Invitation Only’, ‘Ghetto, Nothing Goes Nowhere’, ‘A Welcoming Brothel’, ‘Hopeless Optimism’, and so on, offer a more experiential understanding of the book and of the city — more in the nature of the architect’s manifesto of the 1920s . Bhatia elaborates his take on this particular book in the opening lines of his preface, gently guiding the reader to unpack his personal manifesto of the city of Delhi.
He links the story of architecture to the sequencing and frame-by-frame approach of filmmaking. Thus, his mise en scene is quite unusual, too. His book is not a simple reading of the city. It is deeply layered and nuanced, like the palimpsest that we perceive the city of Delhi to be.
Delhi has been the muse of writers and photographers alike. A number of books have been written about the capital city — Khushwant Singh’s Delhi (1990), William Dalrymple’s fictionalised accounts of Delhi in City of Djinns (1993), JP Losty’s Delhi: Red Fort to Raisina (2012), which features essays by Salman Khurshid, Ratish Nanda and Malvika Singh celebrating the history of the city, and Malvika Singh’s light and breezy Perpetual City. With the several drawings, cartoons, paintings as well as handwritten notes which have gone into the art of book-making, Delirious City does stand apart.
However, at first glance, the book appears to be content-heavy, perhaps because of the condensed font and design. The busy design detracts from the author’s thoughtful, witty, dry sarcasm. An example is on pages 192-193, where three different kinds of fonts nestle with each other, in different sizes and structures. Not an easy mode for communicating with the reader. Detailed attention should have also been paid to the photographic reproductions in the book, which could benefit from editing and colour correction.
Alka Pande is an art historian and curator
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