Search for all things novel
History is what first springs to the mind of Rudrani 'Chiki' Sarkar, the Tolstoy-reading publisher of Penguin India, when she imagines Delhi. However, from the sound of it, those probably weren't her first thoughts five years ago when she first arrived back in India from Britain.
Sarkar had left a publishing job at Bloomsbury Publishing in London, where she had worked for several years after obtaining a degree from Oxford University, but things didn't get off to a rosy start.
'I missed London terribly the first year and cried every day. I still miss London,' she says.
Of course, that hasn't prevented Sarkar from energising her native country's publishing scene. When she went to India as the new editor-in-chief of fledgling Random House India, Sarkar quickly began to build a reputation for publishing the award-winning debuts of new novelists, such as Muhammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. She became publisher at Penguin India, the country's largest and most prestigious book company, last year.
'I had no idea whether India was going to be the final destination. It's hard to read the future, but I am happy to have got here,' Sarkar says.
Dating to 1450BC, Delhi's past is found all over the city: from tombs standing on congested roundabouts, 15th century stone structures on golf courses to shrines of poets and saints opposite garden centres. Once the capital of two powerful empires - British New Delhi and Mughal Old Delhi - the city's imperial past has sculpted much of its current-day geography.
Lutyens' Delhi, named after the Edwardian architect of its design, is an ordered reminder of colonial authority from spacious tree-lined promenades to quietly grand bungalows for then imperial officials (now populated by India's business and political elite). It is also India's seat of government (also built by the British) and where many iconic government structures are located. To its north, Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) was constructed around the mid-17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan. Today, visitors can view the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque complex in Asia, and the Red Fort, the expansive Mughal palace complex, while pottering about with a kebab (brave stomachs required) in front of crumbling Mughal palaces and butchers and carpet shops.
So, if Sarkar could pick one place, would it be Old Delhi or New Delhi? 'New Delhi, because it has some of the most beautiful old monuments anyway: Humayun's Tomb, the marvellous medieval complex in Hauz Khas Village, Khirki Masjid near Saket,' she says, adding that there's one place that is especially special to her. 'Lodhi Garden. It's a park built around medieval tombs, and I run there three times a week and always feel so lucky to have it,' she says.
Sarkar says compared with Mumbai, Delhi has yet to inspire great fiction and non-fiction in the same way. However, since returning to the capital she has witnessed shifts in its sociocultural fabric.
'It's slowly becoming hipper in a more laid-back, casual way, and the Metro has revolutionised the way people use the city and travel,' Sarkar says.
There are issues, she adds, that mar Delhi's ascent - the city's weak infrastructure, limited civic spaces and ill-maintained museum and heritage properties, for instance. 'The problems are endless.'
The emigree's criticism doesn't mean she's aloof from her adopted city. Sarkar can reel off a list of essential places to see, stay and shop.
For accommodation, she recommends Zaza - a stylish yet affordable guest house in the Nizamuddin West area. If you want to splash out, Sarkar favours Aman New Delhi. 'It's quiet, private, has enormous rooms with plunge pools and terraces and a great spa,' she says.
Sarkar says she very rarely eats breakfast in Delhi outside her home. The only exception she'll make is at Saravana Bhavan for a south Indian breakfast or the Bengali Market for filling chole batura (spicy chickpeas served with a deep-fried pancake).
For lunch, she likes Gunpowder in Hauz Khas Village, which also serves southern Indian specialities, or for relaxed international food, Cafe Diva in GK1. The latest hot spot, she says, is The Pot Belly, a Bihari cafe in Shahpur Jat. For dinner, Sarkar goes for Himalayan food at Yeti in Haus Khas Village.
Shopping is a delight in Delhi, especially for exotic fabrics and homeware. Sarkar says a trip to the Sabyasachi boutique at Carma is a must - 'It's the fashion designer's utterly magical store in a historical building in Mehrauli,' she says. For the best collection of carpets in town, she advises you head to The Carpet Cellar, while Good Earth in Khan Market, she says, is 'India's most delicious store'. For organic food, one of the very few in the city, The Altitude Store is your best bet.
Sarkar also recommends The Bookshop in Jorbagh, which she says is Delhi's finest.
How has the Indian publishing market changed since she arrived at Random? 'It's become more vital, the best-selling books sell more, there are more publishers, and the past five years have seen the rise of commercial writing from diet books to college romances.'
How does she spot the country's next literary star? 'By first falling in love with the book,' she says. Who could disagree?
Where to stay
Zaza G-49, Nizamuddin West (bed-breakfast.asia)
Aman New Delhi, Lodhi Road (amanresorts.com)
Where to eat
Saravana Bhavan 46 Janpath, Connaught Place
Bengali Market Tansen Marg
Gunpowder 3/F, 22 Hauz Khas Village
Cafe Diva N8, N Block Market, GK1, Greater Kalaish 1 (diva-italian.com)
The Pot Belly 116 C, 4/F, Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas Village
Yeti 50A, 2/F, Hauz Khas Village
Where to shop
Sabyasachi Sabyasachi@Carma, H-5/11 Mehrauli Road (sabyasachi.com)
The Carpet Cellar 1 Anand Lok, Khel Gaon Marg, Siri Fort Road(carpetcellar.com)
Good Earth 9 ABC, Khan Market, (goodearth.in)
The Altitude Store 110 Mehar Chand Market, Lodhi Road, Near Indian Habitat Centre
The Bookshop in Jorbagh 13/7 Jorbagh Market