Misguided Guidebooks?

'Authentic' travel guides may be masking global reality

| May / June 2004

My two favorite restaurants in Delhi are Karim's and T.G.I. Friday's. Karim's is a local institution, a first-rate tandoori joint that's said to be run by descendants of the royal chefs who once served the Mughal court. I love the place for its huge traditional tandoors and the men in dirty kurtas pasting the flatbread called naan to the ovens' inner walls with metal poles. And for the food, of course -- the chicken burra especially, a tandoori chicken far removed from, and far superior to, the bright-pink version famous around the world. Half a bird, a stack of the world's best naan, and a side plate of onions and tomatoes for less than five bucks. Naturally, Karim's is in all the independent guidebooks. Hell, it embodies practically everything the indie guides -- your Rough Guides, your Footprint and Moon handbooks, and of course your Lonely Planets -- stand for: tradition, value, authenticity.

Word of the T.G.I. Friday's is much harder to come by. To be sure, South Delhi's T.G.I. Friday's has all the tacky touches of its brethren in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Aurora, Illinois: nachos and wings on the menu, bright red-and-white stripes on the shirts of the staff, roadhouse kitsch stuck randomly to the walls. But never mind the setting. It's the scene at this T.G.I. Friday's that makes it just as worthy a destination as Karim's. I could find only one guide, though, that even mentioned the place (Footprint's India Handbook, which notes, in passing, that it has a 'good 'happy hour'').

During the nightly happy hour, South Delhi's T.G.I. Friday's is the place to see the city's new generation of yuppies. The air is thick with the aroma not of turmeric and cardamom but of fried cheese and potato skins, and there's not a sari in sight. The place is packed to overflowing with young Delhiites at play -- decked out smartly in trendy casual wear, quaffing two-for-one drafts, chattering into cell phones. This is not the India of postcards but rather modern India as it actually is.

The introduction to the eighth edition of Lonely Planet's India guide begins, 'With one foot swathed in ancient traditions and the other striding into the entrepreneurial e-age, few countries on earth embrace diversity as passionately as India.' I couldn't agree more. But why, then, does the India of Karim's -- traditional, otherworldly India -- get so much greater emphasis in the pages that follow?

Therein lies the guidebook paradox. They can be invaluable resources, pointing you to the kind of traditional restaurant you went to India to visit, not to mention a decent hostel on that first confusing night. In a very real sense, the indie guides -- and the budget-oriented, anti-package-tour style of travel they inspired -- are a big reason why so many of us find ourselves in places like Delhi in the first place. More subtly, though, these guides also attempt to indoctrinate their readers in a sort of backpacker Orientalism, ignoring or at least denigrating anything that emerged after the birth of the backpacker culture in the early 1970s.

Karim's courtyard is practically in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, the colossal 17th-century mosque built by the Mughal dynasty, a line of Muslim emperors in India from 1526 to 1857. With its location near this centerpiece of Old Delhi, the restaurant is perfect guidebook fodder. But more recent invaders -- like T.G.I. Friday's or the McDonald's on Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi -- supposedly have nothing to do with the 'real' India. Some sucker on an all-inclusive tour might stop to find respite from the searing spices of 'real' Indian restaurants, but you wouldn't be reading an indie guide if you didn't lust for authentic adventure. The lonely planet you're looking for -- and the Lonely Planet you carry in your backpack -- doesn't include such tawdry fare. Right?

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