Representing Delhi: A Study of ‘Gaze’ Construction in Select Chapters of Mayank Austen Soofi’s the delhi walla (2010) series (hangouts, portraits, monuments and food +drink)
Saurabh Sarmadhikari is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English in Gangarampur College in Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal. He is pursuing his Ph.D degree from Tripura University, Agartala.
Delhi is a multicultural potpourri, as for ages the city has been the kingdom of several dynasties right up to the present times. The city has been home to myriad peoples with diverse cultures. To represent this multicultural ethos, numerous attempts, both in fiction and non-fiction, have been made. The non-fictional guide book series, the delhi walla (2010) is one such attempt. This paper intends to focus on one particular feature of Mayank Austen Soofi’s representation—how he constructs and regulates the ‘gaze’ of his readers as he ‘foregrounds’ various aspects of the city of Delhi. The methodology of the present study is based on John Urry’s re-interpretation of the Foucauldian notion of ‘gaze’, in support of the view that the gaze of tourists is skillfully re-organised/redirected by a host of professionals to construct ‘attractions’ in a tourist destination. This paper shall attempt to apply Urry’s theorizing of the construction of the tourist ‘gaze’ to some select chapters in Soofi’s the delhi walla (2010) series (hangouts, portraits, monuments and food +drink). Just as the ‘gaze’ of a tourist is re-organized by the designing and/or restoring a tourist destination (thereby making it ‘attractive’), similarly Soofi ‘constructs/regulates’ the ‘gaze’ of his readers in his narratives. This is achieved primarily by his selection as individual chapters the ‘mundane’ and ‘grand’ spaces/objects/ personalities of the Delhi cityscape. But more importantly, the captions that accompany the chapter-headings and the narratives that follow produce a unique representation/construction of the city. A semiotic and discursive analysis of select chapters of the delhi walla (2010) series would be undertaken in this paper to understand how this ‘gaze’ for the readers is constructed and a unique representation of Delhi is brought about.
Keywords: representation, Delhi, gaze, construction, travel guide.
In contemporary culture ‘representation’ is the basis of meaning production. Its position at the core of meaning production process has been established in the social sciences since the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1970s and the subsequent ‘social constructionist approach’. As Stuart Hall in his ‘Introduction’ to his edited volume Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997) observes:
…since the ‘cultural turn’ in the human and the social sciences, meaning is thought to be produced—constructed—rather than simply ‘found’. Consequently, in what has come to be called a ‘social constructionist approach’, representation is conceived of [as] entering into the very constitution of things; and thus culture is conceptualized as a primary or ‘constitutive’ process…(5-6)
The same idea is echoed by Paul Cobley in his Narrative (2001), “The ‘constructionist’ approach sees meaning neither in the control of the producer nor the thing being represented; instead, it identifies the thoroughly social nature of the construction of meaning.”(3)
This paper is concerned with how the cityscape of Delhi is represented by Mayank Austen Soofi in his the delhi walla (2010) series. Basically collection of narrative chapters that highlight the multicultural facets of the city, in the delhi walla, Soofi subscribes to the basic tenets of narrative representation. In social constructionist theoretical framework, whatever be the form of a narrative, be it oral, written or pictorial, language plays a central role in meaning formation. But again, language is nothing but a conglomeration of signs/codes that stand for things or ideas an individual wants to express and transmit to other people. Thus, it is language that acts as a means through which representation is made, as Stuart Hall in his ‘Introduction’ to his edited volume Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997) says, “Language is one of the ‘media’ through which thoughts, ideas and feelings are represented in a culture. Representation through language is therefore central to the processes by which meaning is produced” (1). Elsewhere in the same essay, Hall elaborates on this relation between language and representation further:
It is by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them - how we represent them - that we give them a meaning...In part, we give things meaning by how we represent them—the words we use about them, the stories we tell about them, the images of them we produce, the emotions we associate with them, the ways we classify and conceptualize them, the values we place on them. (3)
This observation of Hall has direct bearing on how narratives are constructed—through language with the further implication that at a more fundamental level it is the signs/codes constituting the language that ultimately determine the representation. As Paul Cobley in his Narrative (2001) says about narratives, “…narrative is a particular form of representation implementing signs…” (3).
This definition of narrative by Cobley brings us to the core concern of this paper—how Soofi represents Delhi in his narratives by ‘implementing signs’. This implementation of signs is closely related to the process of ‘gaze’ construction that finds particular currency in tourism industry and tourism practices. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines the noun ‘gaze’ as “a fixed or intent look” (“gaze,” def.). As far as this paper is concerned, it will follow the Foucauldian concept of ‘gaze’ that has been applied by John Urry and Jonas Larsen in their proposition of the ‘tourist gaze’. Foucault in his The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1976) introduces the concept of the ‘medical gaze’ where he says:
The clinic was probably the first attempt to order a science on the exercise and decisions of the gaze...the medical gaze was also organised in a new way. First, it was no longer the gaze of any observer, but that of a doctor supported and justified by an institution...Moreover, it was a gaze that was not bound by the narrow grid of structure...but that could and should grasp colours, variations, tiny anomalies...(quoted in Urry and Larsen 1).
This Foucauldian notion of ‘gaze’ has been taken up by John Urry and Jonas Larsen who in their study The Tourist Gaze 3.0 (2011) provide a new paradigm to the ‘gaze’ of tourists and how this ‘gaze’ is constructed. They observe:
Just like language, one’s eyes are socio-culturally framed and there are various ‘ways of seeing’…People gaze upon the world through a particular filter of ideas, skills, desires, and expectations, framed by social class, gender, nationality, age and education. (2)
But, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is a rather complex process. Urry and Larsen further note that, “We do not literally ‘see’ things. Particularly as tourists, we see objects and especially buildings in part constituted as signs. They stand for something else. When we gaze as tourists what we see are various signs...” (17).
Given this framework, travel involves ‘gazing’ and to be more precise ‘gazing at the other’ in the places visited. It has been further established by the theories of Urry and Larsen that tourists encounter this ‘other’ as signs/codes, and that production of meaning in tourism entails a studied manipulation/construction of these signs/codes to create touristic experiences. Soofi’sthe delhi wallaalso [Soofi’s the delhi walla also] follows this basic principle of meaning construction for its readers. Being a guide book for tourists, Soofi’s narratives too reveal clear patterns of signs/codes that are carefully constructed and embedded in them, their principal aim being to enhance the ‘tourist’ experience of his readers. A semiotic and discursive analysis of four of his narratives (one entry from each of the four books of the delhi walla series) would be undertaken in this paper to examine this process of ‘gaze construction’ of the reader towards the city of Delhi. Focus would also be on how the city is represented in the narratives along with this construction of ‘gaze’.
Café Turtle (‘hangouts’, the delhi walla)
In ‘hangouts’ of the delhi walla series under the category ‘Eat’, there is an entry on Café Turtle (56-57). The process of ‘gaze’ creation for the readers is evident from the very beginning of this entry. The sub-heading/caption for the chapter is ‘Tasteful tranquility’. The use of the words ‘tasteful tranquility’ is a perfect example of Barthesian myth. Myth, as Barthes conceptualizes it in his Mythologies (2009/1957), is related to the semiotic process of signification and is for him “a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a signifier of the second.” (137). Barthes calls the first system/level the level of ‘denotation’ while the second, that of ‘connotation’ or ‘myth’. Stuart Hall, in his essay ‘The Work of Representation’ (included in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997)), elaborates on this distinction between ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ as:
Denotation is the simple, basic, descriptive level, where consensus is wide and most people would agree on the meaning…At the second level—connotation—these signifiers which we have been able to ‘decode’ at a simple level by using our conventional conceptual classifications…enter a wider, second kind of code…which connects them to broader themes and meanings, linking them with what, we may call the wider semantic fields of our culture…the general beliefs, conceptual frameworks and value systems of society. (38-39)
At the level of denotation then, the words ‘tasteful tranquility’ refer to the tasteful décor and the tranquil ambience of the restaurant, but at the level of connotation the same words point towards a hierarchical assumption of clientele in that only ‘refined’ connoisseurs can truly appreciate the ‘tasteful tranquility’ of the place. Soofi’s use of these words – ‘tasteful tranquility’ – in his narrative/description ‘constructs’ Café Turtle as a niche place for his readers, who are also potential tourists, but who might venture to visit depending on their own concept of ‘cultural capital’. John Urry and Jonas Larsen have summarized this critical concept of ‘cultural capital’ (originally coined by Pierre Bourdieu in 1973) as: “Cultural capital is not just a matter of abstract theoretical knowledge but of the symbolic competence necessary to appreciate works of ‘art’ or ‘anti-art’ or ‘place’” (102).
The narrative begins with three signifiers that verily point towards this ‘refined clientele’ with adequate ‘cultural capital’: “Soft jazz, hand-painted thangkas, and hushed conversations” (56). ‘Jazz’ and ‘thangka’ act as Barthesian myths, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English defining ‘jazz’ as “music of African-American origin characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usu. a regular or forceful rhythm” (“jazz,” def.) and the Collins English Dictionary defining ‘thangka’ as “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a religious painting on a scroll” (“thangka”). All this at the level of denotation but these very signifiers along with the third signifier in the opening sentence ‘hushed conversations’ connote an ambience of refinement because jazz, thangkas and hushed conversations are accoutrements not usually associated with the hoi polloi and these signifiers even act as a deterrent to the ‘mass’ that would try to desecrate the sanctity of the place. The second sentence of the narration too points towards the niche character of this place: “Every city needs a bubble where you can be who you want to be” (56). The place is clearly constructed as the ideal place for the individualistic tourist with high ‘cultural capital’ in search of ‘tasteful tranquility’ in the bustling multicultural metropolis of Delhi. It is the place where “The book lovers read. The writers write. The fashionable display their Cartiers and Armanis.”(56) The signifiers are enough to mark out this place for the elite tourists.
Apart from using these signifiers (that also act as ‘myths’ in Barthesian terms), Soofi’s narrative clearly delineates Café Turtle’s position in the ‘intellectual tourist circuit’ of Delhi, “Home to Delhi’s ‘refined’ crowd, Café Turtle is the coffee shop above the iconic bookstore, Full Circle, at Khan Market.”(56) Here, we find a fine example of how discourse works within this narrative. Discourses in order to retain their position of dominance must necessarily exclude other discourses. As Marianne Jorgensen and Louise J. Phillips say in their Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method, “A discourse is always constituted in relation to what it excludes, that is, in relation to the field of discursivity” (27).The moment Soofi’s narrative posits Café Turtle as ‘Home to Delhi’s ‘refined’ crowd’ and its location ‘above the ‘iconic’ bookstore, Full Circle, at Khan Market’, the exclusiveness of the coffee shop becomes ‘established’, as it becomes the place to visit for any potential tourist with refined sensibilities.
That the narrative is bent on ‘constructing’ Café Turtle as a place of refined tastes in the otherwise brash Delhi is further accentuated by the mention that “…the point of this café is not its cakes and coffees. It is something to do with its character, which is intensely addictive” (56-57). The items that construct this ‘intensely addictive’ character are then carefully outlined thereby indulging in a ‘secondary construction’: “The lightning is soft. The décor is not loud. The stewards are not intrusive. There are shelves stacked with spiritual books. Black and white photographs of Jazz artistes adorn the walls” (57). This place, physically constructed primarily for its clients, in Soofi’s narrative becomes reconstructed for his readers who might be potential tourists. But] the narrative, apart from constructing the reader’s ‘gaze’ towards this coffee shop, simultaneously represents/constructs the city of Delhi also for the readers obliquely commenting on the social habits of the city. As Soofi says, “Each table has a bottle in the centre, with tender green stems of money plant sending roots out into the water. The entire effect is so soothing that the most noisy Delhiites lose their natural brashness and start speaking in hushed undertones as soon as they settle down” (57).
The narrative ends with another ‘construct’ emphasizing the niche character of Café Turtle: “But the Café Turtle experience is incomplete without exploring its sister concern, the bookstore below. To browse the shelves for an hour, to buy a novel and then walk up the wooden stairs and settle down to read—with something as simple as pita bread and hummus—is an experience almost bordering Proustian tranquility” (57). The name of Proust again connotes an elegance and exclusiveness beyond the ken of the average reader/tourist. In fact, this last signifier ‘Proust’ acts both at the semiotic and the discursive level. As a semiotic signifier it operates as a Barthesian myth and as discourse it acts as an excluding agent—only the ‘truly’ refined would supposedly find the place entertaining thereby getting the others discursively excluded.
Nicholson Cemetery (‘monuments’, the delhi walla)
The next narrative that this paper seeks to analyze is the entry on Nicholson Cemetery (24-25) included in the section ‘Old Delhi’. This narrative is also a fine specimen of ‘gaze’ construction for the readers/tourists. What attracts the attention of the readers at the foremost is the layout in the page where the title of the entry, ‘Nicholson Cemetery’; the caption accompanying the title, ‘Weep not’; and the basic tourist info of the place (like the location of the place, metro stop, which days it is open and an one-liner significance of Nicholson Cemetery) are provided. This information is provided as if on an entry ticket to the Cemetery in which the phrase ‘ADMIT ONE’ is written. This layout constructs the place as a tourist destination at the very outset. The chief reason of the place’s claim to prominence is also printed in the layout ticket: “Discover graves of the British killed in 1857” (24). The caption accompanying the title heading “Weep not” (24) goes hand in hand with the mournful associations of the place.
The first sentence of the accompanying narrative creates an alternative gaze for the readers. That this particular place is not on the regular itinerary of the general tourists and that the delhi walla series is a guide book with an exception is evident from this observation of the narrator: “It is a mystery why guidebooks have been indifferent to the (deathly) charms of one of Delhi’s oldest British cemeteries” (25). The tone is set from the outset that the gazes the narrative will create for the readers will be a unique one, a clear example of discursive practice where to establish the primacy of a particular discourse all other discourses are excluded from the field of contention.
The ambience of the cemetery is presented as a landscape whereby the reader’s gaze is directed towards the traditional ideas of landscaped gardens, “Guarded by a cross-shaped gateway, Nicholson Cemetery has a sloping, grassy landscape dotted with tombstones, some intricately carved, some stark and simple” (25). The usual tropes of constructing a cemetery for the readers ‘gaze’ then follows, “Neem, date and tamarind trees watch over like sentinels, while thick bougainvilleas, weighed down with flowers, shed pink petals over the graves of ‘dearly loved’ children and ‘beloved’ spouses” (25). Reference is made of the Biblical verses on the tombs, the images of stone angels that dot the place. The USP of the cemetery, that it houses many graves dating from the 1857 uprising, is mentioned.
But, alongside the construction of the particular space of ‘Nicholson Cemetery’, the city of Delhi, where the cemetery is situated, is also constructed simultaneously. The effect is like this: in Delhi you can find Nicholson Cemetery, and it is in Nicholson Cemetery you would find the graves of soldiers killed in the 1857 uprising. This tone of exclusiveness in the narrative is again discursive in essence because it isolates the narrative from the other run of the mill travel guides. The narrative, being faithful to the genre of travel guides however, points to the most prominent grave in the cemetery—that of “Brigadier General John Nicholson, who was nicknamed ‘the Lion of Punjab’” (25). The narrative ends with the information that “On the far side, towards the Ring Road, marigolds adorn the new graves of Indian Christians” (25) thereby presenting/constructing Nicholson Cemetery as a destination where the past cohabits with the present.
Sumanta Roy (‘portraits’, the delhi walla)
Sumanta Roy, who the caption says is a ‘Consumer’ (24), is the subject of the next narrative this paper seeks to analyze. Even before the narrative proper starts, a few words of Sumanta Roy are quoted as a teaser that sets off the process of ‘gaze’ creation at the individual level as well as the level of the city of Delhi: “Brands can boost your confidence and make you feel 10 feet taller” (24). In fact, the entire the delhi walla series might be read as a ‘discursive structure’ as it seems to emphasize that to represent/construct the city of Delhi comprehensively, a study of its ‘individuals’ has been undertaken which the other travel guides usually gloss over. As such, these other travel guides and their constructions are effectively excluded from being considered as authentic. Indeed, for the readers of the delhi walla series, the city is constructed as being inhabited by a myriad horde of individuals, some as famous as Khuswant Singh, the author and some as insignificant as Ram Swaroop Sharma, who is a homeless man.
The narrative on Sumanta Roy, the ‘consumer’, begins with the name of a Chinese restaurant in Khan Market, the ‘Sidewok’. The typical Delhi consumer is presented/ constructed for the readers by his refusal to enter the restaurant until the doorman opens the door. As the narrative says, “A man of style, he [Sumanta Roy] is a brand-sensitive consumer who expects good service when he pays for it” (25). What follows in the narrative is a catalogue of brand names each of which stands as a signifier for ultimate consumerism: “Dressed in a red Jeffrey Rogers sweatshirt and Seven jeans, this 29-year -old IT professional walks up the stairs carrying a brown Juicy couture bag and a Louis Vuitton wallet. His left arm bears a Chinese tattoo and his right a Guess gold watch studded with Swarovski crystals” (25). The information that he [Roy] is wearing “white-and-green-striped Topshop panties” (25), the designer brand that celebrities like Kate Moss loves, in effect constructs not only a fairly clear-cut picture of an out and out individual consumer but also of the city of Delhi that houses these consumers.
The narrative contains several quotations from Sumanta Roy that form part of the narrative strategy to represent/construct the gaze of the readers regarding the individual. The narrative also offers other details about the consumer apart from his designer clothes: “He buys his groceries in Khan Market, holidays in Bali, and attends parties in fashionable south Delhi restaurants. He also hangs out in PVR Saket shopping complex for its pavement bookstalls, beer bars and clubs” (25). As with the names of the designer brands, these activities of Sumanta Roy too act as signifiers that construct a lifestyle of Delhi’s affluent class as well as the city of Delhi that provides these facilities for this class to engage with. In this construction of the portrait of Sumanta Roy who “misses his hometown of Kolkata terribly” (25), Soofi also brings up/constructs/ represents the multicultural facet of the metropolis of Delhi. Roy stays in Delhi but he rues, “In Kolkata you can party till 7 a.m.; not possible in Delhi. It also has a rich Anglo-Indian culture and people there grow up on books and music” (25). The narrative then delves deeper in constructing the portrait of Sumanta Roy, with his individual traits, for the readers: “Sumanta inherited his passion for reading from his father, who died of cardiac arrest four years ago. He often advised his son to have a dictionary as his best friend. After Sumanta’s father was cremated, he followed the Hindu ritual of shaving his head, despite his relatives saying that there was no need to do so” (25).
The narrative ends with the mention of his father’s coming to terms with Sumanta’s ‘alternative lifestyle’. This mention of ‘alternative lifestyle’ (25) again constructs a particular ‘gaze’ for the readers: at the individual level it is Sumanta’s adjustment with his father regarding his ‘alternative lifestyle’ and at the general level of representation of the city of Delhi where people with ‘alternative lifestyles’ are accommodated unlike many smaller cities where they are stigmatized. The final sentences of this narration/entry from a quotation of Sumanta Roy points to this conglomeration of gaze construction at the individual level and at the level of the city of Delhi: “People dream of my kind of life. Tell me how many people in Delhi own a Louis Vuitton?” (25).In Soofi’s narrative, the person Sumanta Roy becomes an example of synecdoche, where as an individual consumer represents a class of consumers, who in turn makes up/constructs the multicultural avatar of the city of Delhi.
Butter Chicken (‘food+drink’, the delhi walla)
The next analysis is on the narrative of ‘Butter Chicken’ (14-15) included in the ‘Mains’ section of ‘food+drink’. Soofi’s narrative introduces this particular food item as one of the signifiers of the city of Delhi itself: “If Delhiites are sometimes called fat, aggressive and lascivious, then butter chicken must share part of the blame” (15).What happens here is interesting because narrative construction of the food item as well as the city happens simultaneously. Butter chicken is introduced/constructed as “King of gravies” (14) and the narrative foregrounds the origin of the dish: “It originated in the 1950s at Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj. Famed for their tandoori chicken, the cooks recycled the leftover juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. Tandoor-cooked chicken pieces were then tossed in this sauce, and butter chicken was born.” (15). That this dish soon became part of Delhi’s culture which subsequently got exported elsewhere is part of the narrative design of constructing the ‘gaze’ of the readers towards a definite cultural symbol of the city, representing the city nationally and internationally.
“Today, eating butter chicken in Moti Mahal is like reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet” (15). This particular construction in the narrative again highlights the confluence of semiotic and discursive elements as far as ‘gaze’ construction of the readers is concerned. A classic example of Barthesian ‘myth’, here the name of Hamlet denotes a classic play of Shakespeare, but at the level of connotation the dish of ‘butter chicken’, because of this comparison, is elevated to the status of a classic. At the same time, this ‘classical elevation’ works as a discursive structure. First, Hamlet is a classic, a niche item to be appreciated by connoisseurs only. Second, comparison of ‘butter chicken’ with Hamlet, apart from making it a ‘classic’, points to the exclusionary character of discursive structures. The narrative suggests that in order to savour the real taste of ‘butter chicken’ one has to be as refined and cultivated as one must be to appreciate Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Moti Mahal’s ‘butter chicken’ might be eaten by all and sundry but can be appreciated only by the select few.
The narrative then turns the reader’s gaze to the popularity and spread of the dish outside Daryaganj, where it originated: “The dish has spread from Daryaganj to every self-respecting non-vegetarian eatery in Delhi, over to the highway dhabas of north India” (15). Another beautiful instance of ‘gaze’ construction is evident in the way the narrative describes the texture of the dish and the best way to have it: “Best had with tandoori roti or naan, butter chicken is extremely creamy, with a thick, red tomato gravy. The sauce percolates so deeply into the chicken pieces that they become juicy and soft, instantly melting in your mouth” (15). As stated earlier, representation/construction of the city of Delhi also goes hand in hand with the construction of ‘butter chicken’ for the ‘gaze’ of the readers: “The dish is so extravagantly buttery, that to a calorie-conscious diner, it may seem as gross as the showiness of nouveau riche Delhiites” (15).
The primary function of narratives is representation. But, representation involves a manipulation of signs/codes as the narrator ‘constructs’ the narrative for presentation to his/her readers. This ‘construction’ involves ‘foregrounding’ certain elements at the cost of the others. Herein comes the concept of ‘gaze construction’ because through this process of ‘foregrounding’ and ‘highlighting’, the narrator regulates the gaze of his readers. The process is similar to the practices of tourist guides in any place of tourist interest. Just as the tourist guide points out and ‘constructs’ the tourist place/space for the tourists through his verbal narrative, the writers of travel books and guides does the same through written narratives (with pictures accompanying at times). Mayank Austen Soofi, the author of the tourist guide the delhi walla, indulges in the same practice of ‘gaze construction’ for his readers. The four books in the series have the stated aim of introducing the city of Delhi at a micro level for tourists, as the back cover of the books says: “Since 2007 he [Soofi] has written a blog called The Delhi Walla, in which he documents the minutiae of the city he loves.” Thus, this series the delhi walla serves a dual function: first, of representing the city of Delhi for its readers: second, of serving as an example of how ‘gaze’ is constructed for the readers (who are virtual tourists) through the medium of the narrative.
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