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It’s almost unanimously agreed upon that Delhi is an intimidating city, and its bad reputation is to some extent justified. But of course most people feel downright surprised when they land in Delhi and discover that it’s not as horrific as they imagined. And most, hopefully, also discover that there’s much more to Delhi than just being the administrative centre and capital of the country, and there is so much beyond the corridors of power that has shaped this city over centuries.

If you’re planning a trip to the Indian capital, or if you just need something to read on the plane, then get your hands on one or more of the following—5 excellent books that will help any outsider (or local) understand, and maybe even appreciate, Delhi a little more.

1. City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple

City of Djinns A Year in Delhi by Williams Dalrymple

Twenty-three years after it was published, City of Djinns remains the essential Delhi book. A young Dalrymple writes with curiosity and love about the city which eventually became his home. With sharp observations he unravels the fascinating history of its seven cities and the empires which built their capital here. City of Djinns is sure to pique your interest in Delhi and enlighten you along the way. It might even help you find some love for this often-unlovable city.


2. Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms

Korma, Kheer and Kismet Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms

Another ex-pat chronicling Delhi’s heritage – this time the food of Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad. This slim ‘food memoir’ is a perfect read if you’re curious about Old Delhi and its famous cuisine. Each chapter is about Timms going out in pursuit of one particular dish and her interactions with the warm people involved in its preparation, ending with a recipe for recreating it at home. Do not read on an empty stomach!


3. Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi by Rana Dasgupta

Capital A Portrait of Delhi in the Twenty-first Century by Rana Dasgupta

Capital is an important book not least because it sheds light on the darker aspects of Delhi—the Delhi that people are aware and afraid of. It talks about the explosion of Delhi as a twenty-first century city and the unique set of conditions that led to it becoming as rich, arrogant and corrupt as it is today. Dasgupta’s central hypothesis is that Delhi is a city which suffers from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because of Partition, and he forms the book around this. The Delhi Dasgupta describes is not pretty, and it certainly won’t endear it to anyone, but it is an essential book to understand the city.


4. This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (a graphic anthology)

This Side, That Side Restorying Partition edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (a graphic anthology)

The partition of 1947, which led to the formation of India, East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, was a defining moment in India’s history. It also has special significance for Delhi, which became home to millions of traumatised refugees in 1947 and established special colonies and neighbourhoods for them. While not strictly about Delhi, This Side That Side is a great graphic anthology, giving a glimpse into how the present generation in all three countries negotiates its shared history and culture.


5. Grey Hornbills at Dusk: Nature Rambles Through Delhi by Bulbul Sharma

Grey Hornbills at Dusk Nature Rambles Through Delhi by Bulbul Sharma

Bulbul Sharma talks about a different kind of Delhi, concerning herself with the city’s immense green spaces and wildlife—avian residents in particular, while detailing which trees, flowers and birds are found where and in which season. While the historical heritage of Delhi is widely known, loved and appreciated, the city’s natural heritage is equally stupefying, though unfortunately dwindling. Reading this book will make you view Delhi in a different light, inspiring many to dash out to Lodi Garden with a copy of Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds.


Also read:

Delhi Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller

Delhi Unknown Tales of a City by R V Smith
Delhi: Unknown Tales of a City by R V Smith

A Free Man A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi
A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi

Delhi Mostly Harmless by Elizabeth Chatterjee
Delhi: Mostly Harmless by Elizabeth Chatterjee

And of course, great fiction: A Bad Character by our senior contributor Deepti Kapoor