Delirious Delhi: Publishing globally. TODAY.

This blog began in 2007. We left India in 2009. HarperCollins India published Delirious Delhi within India in 2011.

And now, finally, reverse globalization has taken effect: what began in India is finally available worldwide. Arcade Publishing has just released Delirious Delhi!

Delirious Delhi side-by-side

If you’ve been reading this blog as long as I’ve been writing it, then I think you’d really dig this book. It takes the best of what was written here, weaves it into a seamless narrative (NOT a bunch of posts reprinted) and then adds a couple hundred pages of content that are ONLY available in the book.

Now that it’s everywhere—the US, the UK, Singapore, Australia, you name it—I’d be honored if you’d give it a read. You can buy Delirious Delhi on Amazon or find it globally.

Delhi: The Lament of the Hungry Expat (my essay from The Book Review India)

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This essay was originally published in The Book Review India

If you’ve read Delirious Delhi, then this essay is essentially an epilogue: a postscript about the expat’s post-India life, and what it’s like to have lived in India and miss it so very much.

Delhi: The Lament of the Hungry Ex-Expat

By Dave Prager

I spotted the Indians entering Denver’s Botanic Gardens about fifty feet ahead of us. It was their clothes that got me excited: both ladies in the family wore saris.

I nudged Jenny with excitiment. She sighed. “Dave, this is getting creepy.”

Creepy? Since when is it creepy to follow strange Indians around a park hoping to catch their eyes, start a conversation, win their trust, become friends, exchange numbers, and accept an invitation to dinner—all because I want to eat homemade Indian food again?

I mean, doesn’t every American who once lived in Delhi do that?

*  *  *

The year-and-a-half my wife Jenny and I lived in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Market neighborhood changed me forever. Not just because of the career boost from my promotion to the Gurgaon office. And not just because the book I wrote about Delhi is spinning through HarperCollins India’s printing facilities even as this essay goes to print. No, it’s mostly because now that I’m gone, my stomach forces my brain to view every Indian I see as a potential conduit to the food I miss so much.

I’m not trying to be creepy. I just miss the food.

Before we moved to Delhi, I had no appreciation for the dynamics of the cuisine. I was perfectly content with the cheapest Indian buffet serving the stalest garlic naan and the driest tandoori chicken. In those innocent times, every dish on every menu sounded equally exotic and exciting; I’d order whatever I didn’t recognize and, with full ignorance as to both the quality and the composition of what I was eating, enjoy every bite of it.

But in the years since we’ve left Delhi, not a single Indian restaurant has achieved even the standards of my office canteen’s watery dal. I’ve yet to taste a paneer as milky and smooth as that from Saket Select Citywalk Mall food court. And even Singapore’s top-rated Indian restaurants were just a distant echo of what was, to me, the gold standard of Indian food: the meals our maid Ganga would cook for us three times a week.

(Wikipedia tells us that Annupurna is the Hindu goddess of food; experience tells us that Ganga is her earthly manifestation.)

We’ve tried the trendiest Indian restaurant on Denver’s South Pearl Street, the Singapore branch of Saravana Bhavan, and a dhaba in the back of a suburban Indian grocery in Aurora, Colorado; I’ve departed them all with my belly full but my heart empty. I’ve even purchased the same MDH spice boxes that Ganga used to cook her heavenly meals for us, faithfully following the recipes printed on the back and failing each time to come anywhere close.

Which is why I stare so hungrily at every Indian that I see.

*   *   *

We’re in a restaurant in Estes Park, Colorado, a mountain town near one of America’s most spectacular national parks. A bagel is in my hands but my tongue is tasting creamy dal makhani, because all I can focus on are the unmistakable accents emanating from the couple at the table next to us. They’re discussing hiking routes and camping spots; I’m hearing menu plans and cooking instructions.

“Where are you from?” I ask, leaning towards their table, hoping the answer is “Nizamuddin East” so that our conversation flows easily to kebab stands and butter chicken.

The man looks up. “Seattle,” he tells me, curtly. He turns back to his map.

I return to my bagel. Now it just tastes like a bagel.

*  *  *

After leaving Delhi, Jenny and I spent a year in Singapore and then returned to the States to start a family. Success: our baby daughter Georgiana is sweet, adorable, and the perfect tool to aid my quest to ingratiate myself to Indians.

She first played her part at the San Francisco airport. Approaching the gate for our flight back to Denver, I spotted an Indian couple and their infant son. Bells clanged in my head: she was wearing a salwar. Which meant she was born and bred outside the US.

I innocuously steered George’s stroller toward them.

Jenny rolled her eyes and walked off to get coffee.

I sat a few seats down from them, removed George from her stroller, and engaged in a deliberately-conspicuous bout of tongue-waggling and noise-making. Sure enough, George’s irresistible smile drew their eyes; and that was the opening I needed.

“How old is your son?” I asked. I didn’t actually care how old he was; I just wanted to confirm their accents. And as they proudly boasted that Nikhil or Naveen or something was a year or eighteen months or seven or whatever, all that my brain registered were pronunciations that implied a childhood immersed in sambar.  With chicken biryani clouding my thoughts and phantom thalis teasing my nostrils, I exclaimed (loudly, to mask my stomach’s rumbling): “Oh! You’re from India! We lived there for eighteen months!”

And from there, the conversation progressed just as I’d hoped. They were from Chennai, but they knew Delhi, and together we grew pleasantly melancholy reminiscing about places and tastes that were, for both of us, equally dear and equally far. By the time Jenny joined us with her coffee, we were chatting about old days like old friends, contrasting our transitions to each other’s cultures, recalling the restaurants we missed the most, and jointly lamenting the fact that nobody knows how to cook an uttapam west of Chowpatti Beach.

*  *  *

My nostalgia for Delhi generally fixates on food, but it can go deeper. At three o’clock on a workday, for instance, I’ll look blearily up from my computer and fantasize about the chaiwallah outside my Gurgaon office, just seven thousand miles to my left. Had it been three o’clock in that office, Dipankar and Murali and I would have paid him a visit and enjoyed his five-rupee respite from our responsibilities.

(Although this moment of freedom, too, leads my mind back to food. Because here in America, as I stand by the coffee maker, the nearest snack is at a convenience store a mile away. How can my country be considered a world leader when we’re so lacking in sidewalk samosa vendors?)

At these times, when I’m missing the camaraderie as much as the cuisine, I turn to the Internet. I vicariously join my Delhi friends as they motorcycle to Leh or eat parathas in Old Delhi. I toast the country on Republic Day. I cheer cricket players on a first-name basis. And I join them in experiencing the changing capital city—like when my former coworker Nobin switched from the office cab to the Delhi Metro for his commute to Gurgaon. From his seat, he Tweeted praise at the shining municipal infrastructure that warmed me in my chair half a world away.

I’ve even grown nostalgic for Delhi’s traffic, of all things. Imagine getting misty-eyed for MG Road! But it’s happened: though there was nothing in Delhi I hated more than my commute to Gurgaon, the traffic in Denver is, in a way, worse. Because when I descend the on-ramp into four orderly lanes of vehicles in which nobody honks, nobody jostles for advantage, and nobody takes to the shoulders to jump the queue, I realize that Delhi’s traffic, for all its misery, also contained a kind of freedom: the skill of the driver could alter the course of the jam. A good driver could seize ephemeral opportunities revealed by shifting vehicles to shave seconds off the commute, or to cross the Ring Road before the light turned red.

But Denver’s traffic is egalitarian in its oppression. Once you’re on the highway, you’re committed to the collective fate. Delhi’s traffic allows for individual heroics; Denver’s traffic is entirely communal.

*  *  *

But I live in America now. I accept it: derivative restaurants, watery tea, non-negotiable traffic, and streets that are empty of samosas.

Which is why I can’t imagine that I’m the only American creeping around Indians to spark culinary connections. Because those of us who left our stomachs in Safdarjung know that expat Indians must be coping with the same emptiness—except that expat Indians possess the wisdom to transform frozen okra and boxed spices into a glorious bhindi masala. They can tease bhangan bharta out of the most stoic eggplant. Their kitchens are their link to Delhi, and we former residents—or, at least, this former resident—want in.

So far, though, I’ve had no luck. At the San Francisco airport, for instance, our connection to that Indian couple was severed when boarding began for the Denver flight: only we stood up. Our new friends were waiting for a flight to Arizona, which meant that no dinner party was imminent.

Nor could I make any headway at that restaurant in Estes Park, where I looked up from my bagel with one last desperate attempt: “No, where are you originally from? India? Because we spent eighteen months living there!” To which the woman smiled gently and said, with finality, “Your daughter is beautiful.” Her tone left no further room for discussion.

Nor could I make it work at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where I’d spotted that Indian foursome entering ahead of us. Our meandering paths had crossed theirs a half-dozen times, despite Jenny’s best efforts to steer us away from them. Finally, near the Lilac Garden, I spotted my opening: the patriarch of the family was posing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law for a photo. I quickly offered to snap the four of them together.

He declined. In accented English. To which I replied in my own terrible Hindi, “Aap guessa hai!?”

The four of them looked at me.

“Hindi bollna?” I asked.

“Are you speaking Hindi?” the father finally asked me.

“Yes!” I beamed. “We lived in Delhi for a year-and-a-half.”

“Oh. We don’t speak much Hindi.”

They turned back to their photo. I turned back to my wife. And that night for dinner, I sautéed some onions and tomatoes, emptied a can of chick peas into the pan, and dumped in a few tablespoons of MDH channa masala mix.

It was not like Ganga’s at all.

portraits from Bangalore’s Krishna Rajendra Market

On my visit to Bangalore last month (as part of my Delirious Delhi book release tour), I wandered into the Krishna Rajendra Market. This multistory concrete structure, I quickly realized, is among the most picturesque markets in Asia.

I immediately reverted to Western Tourist Mode: I glued my camera above my gaping jaw and clicked my way through the drying chilies and pedal-powered sewing machines and the massive flower market on the ground floor.

And as I wandered, a vendor beckoned.

“Take my picture,” he said, smiling.

I did.

Other vendors and laborers watched. And then they waved me over with the same request.

Downstairs in the flower area, the same thing happened: one man beckoned…

…and then everyone else wanted their turn.

I have their addresses. The prints are in the mail.

Lutyens’ Delhi survival guide (my article from Indian Express’ Eye Magazine)

This article was originally published on Dec 11 in Indian Express’s Eye Magazine.

An expat’s guide to surviving Lutyens’ Delhi

by Dave Prager

Lutyens’ Delhi was built for expats. British ones, specifically: those early 20th-century genteelfolk who knew exactly which fork was meant for eating crumpets while riding down the Rajpath in a horse-drawn carriage, and for whom the word “genteelfolk” was surely invented.

Because these expats had made a long ocean journey from home, Lutyens’ job was to make them comfortable in this strange land. Which is why he gave them so much room for strolling under lace parasols, for fanning themselves demurely, and for beginning every complaint about the weather and the natives with the phrase, “I daresay.” In other words, Lutyens built New Delhi specifically to insulate his expats from the actual Delhi around them.

Today’s expats are different. They come in varieties far beyond Lutyens’ imperial mandate: they’re bhang-dazed hippies, budding middle management, Rhodes scholars, and grandmothers on packaged tours. They come to India for India, not for the Crown. And when they go to Lutyens’ Delhi, they generally go as tourists.

This article, then, provides the tips they need to survive their visit. (There are still expats who live in Lutyens’ Delhi, but this survival guide isn’t for them — if they can afford to live there, they probably don’t need much help surviving the city.)

Watch your wallet. One hundred years ago, Lutyens’ Delhi was built to facilitate the extraction of wealth out of India and into England. Today, it exists to extract wealth out of your wallet into everyone else’s. Hotel rooms, bottled water, taxi rides — anything paid for here comes with a surcharge.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to south Delhi, we saw an ad for a street food festival at one of Lutyens’ Delhi’s fanciest hotels. We hadn’t lived in India long enough to have braved actual street food, so we headed to this hotel, hoping to discover this chaat thing we’d been reading so much about. We had expected the hotel to have handpicked Delhi’s finest street vendors, transplanted them to its manicured lawn, with filtered water and organic vegetables for them to make their magic. What we got were the aloo tikki and gol gappas we’d soon learn to enjoy at Nizammudin Railway Station, except for 20 times above the market rate. That’s Lutyens’ Delhi for you.

Have an exit plan. We didn’t own a car when we lived in Delhi; for us, autos and taxis sufficed. This arrangement failed us only when we’d visit Lutyens’ Delhi. That’s because everyone else there has a car, a driver, and a second driver to drive the first one to the car — which means autos and taxis don’t ply there looking for fares.

Those are long, empty, lonely boulevards when you’re searching for autorickshaws to take you home, and all you can hear in the quiet of the night are the solitary autos put-putting half a mile away. When they finally chug into view, the dark shape in the passenger seat reminds you that next time, maybe you should remember to pay the driver who dropped you off, to wait.

Don’t try to walk. Expats love to explore cities on foot. But don’t try it here. Lutyen’s boulevards are mathematically precise and horticulturally identical, which means every street looks like every other street, with every roundabout offering five other directions of the same. Even the trees seem strategically placed to avoid shading the sidewalk. It’s pleasant to look at from the back of a speeding vehicle, but it’s a long and blistery walk between any two points.

Don’t assume ‘historic’ means ‘good’. The marble and granite that Lutyens laid over 10 square miles of farms, villages, and bits of the Old City may be aesthetically pleasing, but expressly imperial: it’s specifically intended to intimidate anyone not travelling in a gold-plated, stallion-drawn carriage. His goal was to insulate the powerful from those over whom they have power. What could be more undemocratic than a capital designed for an empire? And how is the world’s largest democracy impacted by centring itself in 1911’s equivalent of Mordor?

Fortunately, the expats for whom Lutyens built his Delhi no longer run the show. Those who go there today are driven by cultural curiosity, not by imperial decree. So if you decide to go for high tea to one of its fancy hotels, have some fun with history: deliberately eat your crumpets with the wrong fork. And then get very quiet. You hear that faint whirring sound? That’s Lutyens, spinning in his grave. You’re not the expat he wanted there.

Dave Prager is the author of Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital.

Highlights from Bangalore and Delhi (#2) launch events

Bangalore’s traffic apocalypse is very different from Delhi’s traffic apocalypse.

Delhi has epic jams: packed boulevards that stretch to the horizon; masses of vibrating, coughing vehicles; drivers and passengers for whom the queue in front of them dictates exactly what their fate will be for the next hour, but whom will battle each other every single inch anyway.

Driving in Bangalore is different: it’s death by a thousand minor intersections. You finally free yourself after waiting at one eternal red light, you see open road ahead of you, and you think, “Maybe the next light will go in my favor.”

But it will not.

There’s only one man who could overcome Bangalore traffic. And I spotted him as soon as I started walking around.

Continue reading on DeliriousDelhi.com >>

Highlights from the Mumbai reading


Delirious Delhi on display in Crossroads Bookstore, Kemps Corner, Mumbai

Mumbai is much more intense than Delhi. It’s India’s Manhattan: as a peninsula, its waters prevent a Delhi-like sprawl. So Mumbai has grown up instead of out.

Imagine the population density of Old Delhi multiplied across an entire city.

That’s Mumbai. You walk in the streets because every inch of sidewalk has been claimed for business. You ignore the speeding taxis.

Somehow they don’t hit you.

Mumbai abounds with elegant old buildings that have been swallowed by the pressures of the city…

Read more on DeliriousDelhi.com >>

Second Delhi book release event added!

If you missed the Delirious Delhi event at the American Center (or if you just want to get four more books signed), please join me at the Olive Beach Restaurant in Chanakyapuri on Thursday, December 8 at 7:00 pm.

It’ll be another fun evening of reading, conversations, food, drinks, and talking about the city we love. Details below.