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Retrieving A Vanishing Past

Prashant Kidambi

By Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar
Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2004, pp. 430, Rs. 695.00


In a recent essay, the political theorist Partha Chatterjee has suggested that since the 1990s, ‘there has been an apparent shift in the ruling attitudes towards the big city in India’. In his view a new vision of a global, post-industrial city has come to dominate the fantasies of India’s rapidly expanding urban middle classes. This is a city, in Chatterjee’s view, ‘that has seen the demise of traditional manufacturing that was the engine of the industrial revolution’. Its importance derives from financial and service-related activities driven by the telecommunications revolution; it is ‘the node of an inter-metropolitan and global network carrying out information processing and control functions’. Yet, he contends, ‘while the new metropolis is globally connected, it is fre-quently locally disconnected from large sections of its population who are functionally un-necessary and are often seen to be socially or politically disruptive’. The combined effects of the ‘intensified circulation of images of global cities through cinema, television, and the internet’ and the ‘urgent pressure to connect with the global economy and attract foreign investment’, he suggests, has had important consequences for the ways in which the urban poor are now perceived by social elites and the state. On the one hand, there is a ‘growing assertion by organizations of middle-class citizens of their right to unhindered access to public spaces and thoroughfares and to a clean and healthy urban environment’. On the other hand, ‘manufacturing industries are being moved out of city limits; squatters and encroachers are being evicted; property and tenancy laws are being rewritten to enable market forces to rapidly convert the congested and dilapidated sections of the old city into high-value commercial and residential districts.’ ‘If this is the new global bourgeois vision of twenty-first century urbanity,’ Chatterjee concludes, ‘then this time we may have successfully grasped it.’   Undoubtedly, Chatterjee has a point; the onset of economic liberalization since the early 1990s has transformed the face of contemporary urban India. Nowhere is the impact of these changes on the lives of the urban poor more starkly on display than in Bombay. As Rajnarayan Chandavarkar notes at the outset of his cogent introduction to Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar’s engaging oral history of Girangaon, the city’s famed mill district: If you stand at night on the roof of one of the recent, still under-occupied high-rise buildings erected on the property of a defunct ...

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