Books

What we are reading and re-reading

BOOK REVISIT

One hundred years One hundred voices

This volume is more than what it describes itself as. “The mill workers of Girangaon: An oral history” is how the intriguing title is described, but this book stretches well beyond the treasure that it is for history lovers and chroniclers. It’s a unique warp and weft of the city of Mumbai, lakhs of its working classes, the trajectories of their personal lives with that of the cotton textile mills which once defined Bombay, the culture and cuisine that it spawned, the music and literature and memories that they carried well after the textile mills area – Girangaon because girni is mill in Marathi – had been superimposed by the neo-liberal commercial spaces with their glass-façade towers replacing the tall chimneys of the mills, and more.

The textile mills’ strike involving 2.5 lakh workers was well-documented, the space of nearly 600 acres occupied by the mills in land parcels in the heart of the city had received attention from planners and architects, the political and commercial aspects of the fateful decision to allow redevelopment of the “surplus” land in the mill precincts was debated and protested too, but what went through the minds and lives of mill workers and their families through it all remained a blank area. Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, with their astute observations flowing from their work as activist and planner respectively, and intimate knowledge of both Girangaon and its residents, fill in the blank in ways that record the voices of mill workers for posterity.

Little details that can only come from years of familiarity with the area and their grounded perspective of social justice make this book a treasure. The opening essay by Dr Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, Cambridge-based historian and political scientist, elevates both the intellectual fibre and intrinsic value of the work of Menon and Adarkar. The gallery of rare photographs gives visual depth to the oral histories. This volume is for keeps – and to return to again and again for anyone interested in Mumbai’s central area and the voices on its streets.

BOOK REVISIT

Varieties of Environmentalism - Essays North and South

“The centrality of nature to (Patrick) Geddes’ theory of town planning is evident in the one general treatise he wrote on the subject, as well as in several dozen town plans he wrote on assignment in India between 1915 and 1919, all of which reveal a subtle understanding of the ecological processes in the formation, functioning, rise and decline of cities…At a more philosophical level, Geddes was an early harbinger of that ‘general revolution in science now in rapid progress, the change from a mechanocentric view and treatment of nature and her processes to a more and more fully biocentric one'” goes a section of the book devoted to environmental movements across the global North and South. Here, Geddes, appears as a cameo — a happy coincidence for Question of Cities in an edition devoted to the polymath — but that is only one of the reasons to return to a book that is nearly 25 years old. 

The reference to Geddes, biologist and town planner among other hats he wore, came in the context of the work of Lewis Mumford and others who worked at the intersection of urbanisation or urban form and ecology. The focus of the book was on environmental movements, conflicts, ideological anchors, and key players. When it was published, Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier had managed to significantly alter the conversations on environmentalism in the poorer countries of the South given that the emphasis in discussing environmental movements was on the countries of the North. In the immediate years after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there was an awakening of sorts in the world that studies about environmental movements till then were heavily biased in favour of the developed countries of the North while the world’s poorer nations, it was believed, were “too poor to be green”. Yet, countries across Asia and Latin America had a bewildering variety of environmental movements rooted in their soil and culture, whose expressions were different from those of the movements in the wealthier North. 

The authors parsed these movements, discussed the orientation of the environmentalism of the poor, and explored the conflicting priorities and approaches between the movements of North and South which had come to the fore during the Rio Summit. They bring us descriptions and analyses of movements, personalities, and projects across North America and Europe contrasted with those in Asia and Latin America, and do not shy away from registering the conflicts. The chapters on the environmentalism of the poor, poverty and environment, and cross-cultural environmental ethic firmly placed the book on the shelves of environmentalists in America and Europe. With this one, Guha, whose writing on ecology was to be later over-shadowed by that on history, and Martinez-Alier, then an economist at the University of Barcelona, fulfilled the key purpose of writing books: Opened minds and influenced opinions. Nearly 25 years later, it remains a relevant, even a necessary, book to pick up.

BOOK READ

Metronama: Scenes from the Delhi Metro

When a piece of shiny new infrastructure such as the metro network is introduced into a large city, it does not merely provide transport options to people but interacts with the urban fabric, even changing it in many ways. The metro in Delhi does not – did not – mean the same thing to all people. It liberated some, especially women who did not own or could not afford a car and did not want to use the city’s dreaded bus services; for the poorer inhabitants of the city, it meant a level of exclusion in a ubiquitous aspect of their city, the clean stations at odds with their bastis nearby and the gleaming air-conditioned coaches at great variance with dirty and stinky buses. This book captures it all – and more.

There are detailed descriptions of various processes and places such as the Metro Bhavan which oversees the transport network, there are voices and more voices, including that of women who found the metro liberating in their lives, there are insights into the impact of the metro on Delhi’s urbanisation, and there are visuals brought on paper such as the reference to children excited by their reflections in the metro windows. Sadana, an anthropologist, brings the finer aspects of the field into her observations and inferences when she explores themes such as how well – or not – the metro has integrated into Delhi’s rhythms, what the metro network means in terms of public space in the city, the spatial struggle that the metro is now part of as veteran activist                                                                   Dunu Roy tells her, and so on.

Without making heavy weather about urban sociology, Sadana brings several layers of it to attention vis-à-vis the metro in Delhi. Between the pages of this deceptively simple-looking book, there are references to the symbolism of the designs used, the complicated tendering process through the words of an architect who was involved, women’s compartments against the general ones, and voices of several people to whom the metro has come to mean something. Through it all, what becomes a steady hum in the background is Sadana’s exploration of the core question of who does the metro really serve and, therefore, how does it impact the city as a whole. There are parts that the author could have delved deeper into, but it is an important addition to the non-fiction literature on cities.

BOOK READ

The City Makers: How Women are Building a Sustainable Future for Urban India

Between lofty words such as women’s empowerment and its demonstration in terms of transformation in women’s lives, there lies a great deal of granular and painstaking work. Scores of non-governmental organisations – mainly women’s organisations – have silently done this work for decades but few have chronicled it, fewer have been studied or evaluated. This is an important gap in documentation. ‘The City Makers: How Women are Building a Sustainable Future for Urban India’ seeks to fill the gap with intimate knowledge of the processes and pains that went into positively impacting lives of nearly 1.7 million women, as it claims, across India through the Ahmedabad-based Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT).

The MHT, an initiative of the iconic Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) whose work of mobilising marginalised women into cooperatives has won international acclaim, has been focused on marshalling urban poor women to access permanent houses and basic amenities since its inception in 1994. The book documents this in great depth and fine details, bringing alive the role of some of the women through their stories and achievements. There are tales of struggle, success, and solidarity among the women as they negotiate the difficult terrain of policy and paperwork – handheld by the MHT – to build and own houses, negotiate with government and private sector officials, make meaningful contributions to urban planning, include concepts of sustainability, and so on. The book documents MHT’s work across India, including in tribal areas, and spans from training women and drawing on collective strength to helping them articulate demands and develop tangible projects on ground. Every chapter provides lessons.

Written by Renana Jhabvala, recognised for her stellar work in organising women in the informal sector and her long association with SEWA, and Bijal Brahmbhatt, who has headed MHT for decades, the book benefits from their intimate knowledge of the work and familiarity with the processes that the organisation has followed, which an independent chronicler may have missed out on. However, intimacy becomes a hurdle when it comes to dispassionate evaluation of the work, the processes or its philosophy of partnerships with corporates. The critique, if and when done, will have to lean heavily on the documentation in this book; even if it does not come to pass, the book is an important addition to our knowledge of how women’s empowerment is made a reality.

BOOK REVISIT

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier

When “Triumph of the City…” was published a decade ago, there were poor jokes about its unwieldy title. Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard University and its author, seemed to not mind. A strong voice propagating the magic of free markets on cities, Glaeser brought his ideology to bear on how the city economy brought out the best in people who were richer, smarter, healthier and happier than those in suburbs or nearby rural areas. Using reportage and analysis, and writing in a conversational tone, Glaeser was upbeat about economic advantages of cities, their multiplier aspect, and benefits of urban life; he was challenging or overwriting the notion of cities as unsustainable, dirty, poor and crime-ridden. 

Glaeser’s free-market perspective in lauding the modern city – a construction of the capitalist enterprise itself – sat uneasy with those who swore by Jane Jacobs ‘school’ of urban design and planning; his approach to environmental aspects and equity issues in cities was tested in the last decade – not favourably. However, the book offered a racy read on the successes and failures of urbanism taking the reader into a number of cities in the US and the world. Glaeser described how New York had healthier people, some industrial cities thrived but others like Detroit crumbled, how temperatures in January determined house prices, how environmentalists on the West Coast of the US had harmed the environment, and so on. 

Indian cities featured too as Glaeser travelled to Bengaluru, then Bangalore, and compared it to the Silicon Valley to place the cities – and city-making – in the technology boom in India and the US. Kolkata was in the book too but not in a flattering way. Glaeser peppered his narrative with history (Baghdad as intellectual mecca), economics (throughout the book), and prescriptions (what can be done to discourage urban sprawl and suburbanisation). Parts of the book read well a decade later, others sound redundant or overtaken by economic cycles and ecological crises such as Climate Change and extreme weather events. But it’s worth a read for both the serious student of urbanism and the party-chatter who wants to sound knowledgeable about cities.

BOOK READ

Outcaste Bombay – City Making and the Politics of the Poor

This is a story of Bombay, or Mumbai, as it’s rarely narrated or heard. In the hands of Juned Shaikh, former journalist and presently history professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, the city reveals layers that are hidden in plain sight. Shaikh narrates the story of the city at the intersection of industrial capitalism, class and Marxism, city planning and housing with his thoughtfully selected tools of the records and minutiae merged with language, literature and poetry to show how caste is ever-present – and determines so much about life – in a supposedly cosmopolitan city.

There are town planning reports and historical documents of the colonial era in the book, then there’s Marathi by Dalit writers and poets, references to jalsa and loknatya, weaving in of Baburao Bagul and Namdeo Dhasal, going into slums and sex workers’ areas among others to demonstrate the power of caste in commercial and industrial relations, in work opportunities and lack of them, in housing and use of space, and therefore in the making of the city itself. “By 1972, Bombay City had experienced three transitions. The first was horizontal spatial change, from Bombay to Greater Bombay, which accelerated the process of suburbanisation…The second was in the modalities of planning, from city planning to regional planning including the proposed creation of Bombay’s doppelganger, New Bombay…The third was the attitude towards slums of city, regional and national governments…Dalit literature thrived in the context of the production of urban space…most Dalit writers grew up in spaces designated as slums and they depicted it in their writing”.

Shaikh examines caste in the city but never lets the lens of industrial capitalism, which shaped colonial and modern Bombay, to fall off. From how merchants secured finance for their factories from their caste networks to how workers were incentivised to migrate through their caste webs and how housing in slums mostly followed caste or community lines, Shaikh is brutal in his analysis that the urban did not annihilate caste. “Capitalism has the propensity to take what it finds or leech on existing social relationships that help it accumulate more wealth,” he writes and expands on how it subtly played with caste which “was seminal to the production of urban space”. This interdisciplinary book richly adds to the writing on the city. If there’s a bone to pick, it’s that the book ends too soon; bringing in more voices, especially of women, might have given us more to engage with.

BOOK READ

Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi

There are books on cities and then there are rich tapestries of urban life between covers. Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi is the latter. It is unlike any book on the national capital and surrounding region in that it brings together a complex set of realities of urbanisation across three broad themes – social change, community and state, structural and social inequalities – each one informed by rigorous research and capturing the social science in the seemingly mundane aspects of life in Delhi-NCR. It’s a treasure also because it approaches the city and social science research bearing in mind that it is a uniquely Indian city that bears little to no comparison with international cities where these themes have been deeply studied. In this, it lays down a new framework in how to slice through urbanisation in India and how to study a complex and thriving city.

Twenty authors cover geography, demography, housing, services, migration, energy, pollution, crime, marriage, religion, caste, class, politics and politicians, spatial and social inequality with data analysis, depth writing and conceptual frameworks across 14 chapters. Edited by Sanjoy Chakravorty, professor of geography and urban studies and director of global studies at Temple University, and Neelanjan Sircar, political scientist and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi is the outcome of focused research at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, CASI, at the University of Pennsylvania.

The book, published last year, is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in cities in India, the process of urbanisation, and people who make cities into the multifaceted – often contradictory – pulsating places they are.

BOOK REVISIT

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

“When that monster cyclone comes towards Chennai or Mumbai, what are you going to say to it? ‘No, you’re coming for the wrong person. You should go and attack the US’.” These lines and similar others became part of conversations on Climate Change six years ago when author Amitav Ghosh unveiled his non-fiction work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh, master story-teller who has woven ecology into his fiction earlier, addresses the urgency of the Climate Change in this volume which deserves to be re-read as the world tethers on the brink of the crisis as never before. In it, Ghosh reminds us that Climate Change “is the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms”.

A fine illustration of literature addressing a vital ecological-life issue of our era, the book eschewed the predictable approach of facts and data to use stories and questions based on research. It makes for important reading again because Ghosh, instead of focusing on the purely literary, dives into the complex terrain of globalisation, capitalist expansion, corporatisation, and politics in tracing Climate Change. For change to happen, contemporary culture can start by questioning the conventional framework of development, and fostering collective reflection and responsibility. These have become more crucial with every passing year since the book was published. Read the IPCC reports for science, then re-read The Great Derangement for science with literary lyricism.