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Encapsulating Definitive Epochs

Nikita Sud

By Howard Spodek
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 329, Rs. 795.00


Howard Spodek is an old Gujarat hand, having written authoritative books on the modern history of Saurashtra, including Rulers, Merchants and Other Groups in the City-States of Saurashtra: India, Around 1800 (Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism, Temple University, 1974/77). He is also a historian of global, and Indian, urban change. As the author informs us in the introduction to the book under review, he has visited Ahmedabad since 1964.   This book brings together Spodek’s long association with Ahmedabad, his familiarity with the ups and downs of the city, as well as his skill of encapsulating vast, definitive epochs of history. The analytical frame for the book is provided by Asa Briggs’s formulation of the ‘shock city’, a ‘centre of problems, particularly ethnic and social problems’, which provokes sharply differing reactions (p. 5). Designating Ahmedabad as the shock city of twentieth-century India, Spodek sees the city as being at the front lines of the problems of the nation. At the same time, in many arenas of industrial organization, institution building and political leadership, he also portrays Ahmedabad as being at the cutting edge.   Divided into three parts: The Gandhian Era, 1915-1950, The Westernizing City, 1950-1980, and Creativity and Chaos, 1969 Onwards, the book takes us through the undulating social, political and economic history of Ahmedabad in a long twentieth-century. While the moulding of the city by the logic of capital, simultaneously productive as well as destructive, is not the central theme of the book, this could well have been the lens for this study. Instead, Spodek’s analysis is centred on biography, and the big personalities and organizations that have shaped Ahmedabad.   We first encounter Gandhi’s return from South Africa, the setting up of the Sabarmati Ashram with its experiments in indigenous production techniques, multi-caste social living, and a nascent form of umbrella nationalism that sought to include textile industrialists, labour and a range of other constituencies from the city. Next, we are introduced to the leaders of nationalist Ahmedabad such as the lawyer and municipal administrator Vallabhbhai Patel, the literary and idealistic Indulal Yagnik, and the entrepreneurial nationalist Ambalal Sarabhai. Under the influence of Gandhi, we see Vallabhbhai building the political machine of the Indian National Congress in Gujarat. We also witness the very different organizational skills deployed by Anasuyaben Sarabhai, Ambalal’s sister, in forging the Textile Labour Association, with its triple purpose of labour welfare, industrial collaboration rather ...

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