Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Dave Prager is an author, humorist and copy writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, and on NPR and the BBC. He's a former son of Denver who has lived in some of the world's largest cities, including New York, Singapore and Delhi, and his new book, Delirious Delhi: Inside India's Incredible Capital, was released stateside by Arcade Publishing in early June. In a refreshing departure from other India travelogues written by Westerners, Delirious Delhi is not a navel-gazing tale of spiritual development set against an exotic backdrop that the writer never really permeates. Rather, Prager's book is a personal account of his and his wife's experiences, which were rich and varied due to their willingness to try anything, including learning key Hindi phrases and indulging in bhang at the Holi Festival of Colors. Westword recently met up with Prager to discuss his book, Indian politics and seeing monkey fights in Old Delhi.
Westword: Were you interested in travel books before you moved to Delhi?
Dave Prager: Not really. I wanted to avoid a lot of travelogue clichés, so my book is not spiritually oriented, nor is it written in the second-person perspective like a Lonely Planet book. It's a subjective book about my experiences, written in the first person. Two people can walk down the same street in Delhi and have totally different interpretations of what you see. There's just such sensory overload. When we moved, we were reading travel books here and there. There's a book called Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by a guy named Suketu Mehta, which is about how Mumbai is a terrifying place. The way he writes it, Bombay is filled with gangsters, organized crime syndicates, prostitutes and just intense humanity at every single step. My wife and I both read it in like, 2004, long before we ever dreamed of moving to India, so Jenny and I were terrified to go there. Then one day, after I had been living in Delhi for maybe a month, my boss comes up to me and says, "Dave, we have to go to Mumbai tomorrow for a meeting." I was quaking with terror, but my co-workers had to explain to me that I wasn't going to get killed; that the gangsters only kill other gangsters. I emerged unscathed.
Did you end up spending much time in Mumbai?
We spent a weekend there and then I spent a couple days there on my own. Enough to know that it's a much different city from Delhi. Delhi is like a combination of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.; it's a political center but it's just sprawling across a huge space like L.A. There aren't really any highrises but there is that urban sprawl. Delhi spreads out. It's also surrounded by suburbs. Mumbai is much more like New York, where it's very cramped and vibrant, and you're surrounded by tall buildings. It's globalizing faster, and therefore it's more cosmopolitan, so people stared at me less than in Mumbai. People are more jaded and worldly.
I think people don't realize how much different the cultures in India can be from one region to another unless they're interested enough to do further research. Like most countries in that part of the world, the colonial borders were drawn up with very little regard for the communities they divided.
Yeah, there are about twenty official languages in India; different traditions and peoples all kind of glommed together. I read something yesterday about how India's government is really slow to move forward on any issue because their process is built on consensus. Leaders have to include all the different cultures, languages, religions and castes, so consensus-building can often move at a snail's pace. I tried to follow and understand Indian politics, but it still remains pretty obscure to me. I would tell my Indian friends: "Man, I don't understand your political system at all," and they'd say, "It's okay, we don't understand it, either." But, it keeps them all together somehow.
Did you know all this beforehand? Did prior interest in Indian culture prompt you to move there?
Most of the research came after I realized we were moving. A huge reason that we chose to move to India was the food. We were bored in New York after eight years and we were looking for what to do next. We thought about maybe moving to China or India before we had any idea how we'd get there. But it really did come down to the food. Authentic Chinsese food, like if you go for dim sum, it's a weird gelatinous seafood paste, and you're not quite sure what you're eating. We figured that if we're going to move somewhere for food, we should go to India, because we knew we could eat Indian food every day and be happy. I don't know if I could do that with Chinese food.
Did you read anything while you were there that you remember?
There's a book called City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple --
--I assume that's "Djinn" like a genie and not "gin," like the refreshing beverage.
That's right. William Dalrymple lived in Old Delhi in the 1980s, well before the economy had liberalized, back when it was a much less modern place. Walking into the old city still feels like you're stepping back in time 150 years. I remember I was walking through Old Delhi and I turned a corner and saw a metal box filled with severed goat's legs. I was, "Wow, I don't know how to react to that." But then you keep walking, and you see a beautiful historic mosque, then you go around another corner and there's a crowd of people watching a monkey fight. It's an amazing place.
You mention seeing a lot of mosques. Is Islam more prevalent the further northwest you go in India?
Yes. The old city in particular has a lot of Muslim neighborhoods. The closer you get to Pakistan, the more mosques you typically see.
The border with Pakistan is pretty arbitrary. I think like even Bangladesh used to be called East Pakistan?
That's right. Do you know what happened when they drew that border? The 1947 partition? The colonialists basically carved out these Muslim areas, so all the Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh fled to India and all the Muslims in India fled. There's still a lot of fallout from that partition, a lot of strife between cultures. Two trains passing each other can cause a riot. Basically, millions of people migrating in both directions, they lose everything in the move and they blame and resent each other. The conflict in Kashmir is another example. It's a terrible situation. For American travelers, though, it does mean that Delhi is one of the few places in the world where they like Americans more than they like British people.
To keep up with Prager's schedule and hear updates about future readings and signings, follow his blog Our Delhi Struggle.
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.