I first met Adrija Roychowdhury in August 2019 while pursuing my fieldwork in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj Sunday Book Market, popularly known as Sunday Patri Kitab Bazaar. The booksellers sought attention from the media –– in a sudden, dramatic turn of events, the Patri Kitab Bazaar was forced to be lifted off the streets. Roychowdhury was one of the few journalists who appeared at the scene with deep concern and a sense of urgency. My interactions with her during the Daryaganj protests led me to follow her work.

Roychowdhury, who is a familiar name to many Delhi enthusiasts, came to the Indian capital a decade ago to study for a degree in history. For several years now, she has been archiving contemporary socio-political events and the history of the capital city in her articles for leading national publications. A few months later, when I met her in the Teen Murti Library, I told her in all sincerity, “I hope you will write a book on Delhi some day.” She mentioned she was working on it. I waited. The wait was worth it.

Oral histories

Delhi, in Thy Name is Roychowdhury’s ode to the city. She has collected the stories behind Delhi’s toponyms. The book is divided into six chapters dedicated to different regions of Delhi – Saket, Chandni Chowk, Shaheen Bagh, Pamposh Enclave, Chittaranjan Park, and Connaught Place. The choice of sites appears a useful way to bring in as many varied historical trajectories as possible.

Chowdhury observes, “Delhi is a city that has been built over centuries from varied groups of people. Each of these groups have contributed to the history of the city, significantly. My idea was to showcase the multiplicity of the city and I won’t say that the chapters are exhaustive in that regard. However, I have tried to bring in as many different stories as I could.” The book is indeed significant for its attention to the neighbourhoods that came in the period following the Independence.

The author’s passion for the city shows in her exhaustive research and groundwork. Delhi in Thy Name is a fine attempt at documenting “popular memory” by using street-level ethnography. As a fellow Delhi researcher, I was particularly intrigued by the writer’s mixed method of meticulous academic reading and rigorous street-level research. This has been particularly intriguing for me. “How people understand the names of the places where they dwell might also be different at different points in time depending on the given socio-political and cultural contexts,” she told me. “It was very important for me to give a central position to the voices of people in the book.”

An unusual map

Delhi in Thy Name gives more power to oral history, and not just “paper truths” that record the “official” history of Delhi. But “paper truths” are never enough to record a convoluted, layered history, where parts of it have escaped (or have been kept deliberately hidden from) the public eye. In that sense, Delhi, in Thy Name is a significant addition to the total historical narrative of the capital.

For instance, readers might find interesting the diverging perspectives of the residents of Saket on the naming of the area. Further, what the readers might also find useful is how the ethnography takes important digressions into the longer histories of a neighbourhood. The author looks at the etymology of names beyond the important public figures and marked events in Delhi’s history.

Why is “Shaheen” (Chapter Six) important to the identity of an Indian Muslim? What kind of selective nostalgia does “Pamposh” (Chapter Four) bring for a Kashmiri migrant? In the process of delving into these questions, the book both pursues and challenges the romanticism any Delhi enthusiast is often exposed to.

This is a book whose chapters can be read in any order. However, I recommend following the chronology, since Roychowdhury weaves and refers to the previous chapters. Consider the way she draws a connection between Saket and Shaheen Bagh on page189 of the book: “It is precisely in these corners that we find that for every subconscious ‘Saket’, there exists a conscious ‘Shaheen Bagh’.”

In your everyday engagement with the city, you may not focus on the name of the street that you are walking on, or why you have lived where you do for the last 30 years. This book makes it worth taking that pause to find out. Delhi in Thy Name is comprehensive yet precise in highlighting that there is indeed a lot in a name – pasts are erased, and new futures are likely to be imposed. Readers will realise quite early in the book, that it is in fact a response to the active renaming in the current political regime.

The vignettes from the past and the present in this book make up for missing pieces of the scattered puzzle that is Delhi’s story. It is a unique contribution to the history of Delhi that has opened a fascinating area of study combining historical and journalistic chronicling. In addition, Roychowdhury has created en engaging map by weaving in the stories of passive and active engagements of residents, political motives, and motifs of longing.

Kanupriya Dhingra teaches at the Jindal School of Languages and Literature, OP Jindal Global University. She earned her doctorate under the Felix Scholarship Fund from SOAS, University of London, in 2021.

Delhi, in Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City

Delhi, in Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City, Adrija Roychoudhury, Rupa Publications.