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Informality, Illegality and Technology

By Ravi Sundaram
Routledge, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 248, Rs.495.00


For many of its older denizens, who recall afternoon siestas and shops shuttered at sun-down, Delhi's transformations over the last two decades have been nothing short of bewildering. The rhythms of time and space in the city have been stretched, squeezed, wrung out and left to dry in an always uneasy compromise between the hawker and the RWA, the migrant and the local cop, the suburb-headed sedan and the work-directed bicycle. In this ambitious volume, Ravi Sundaram sets out to document Delhi's 'pirate modernity', a robust and vital mix of informality, illegality and information technology which, he argues, has shaped the life-worlds of Delhi's residents-elite and subaltern-since, at least, the early 1990s. The two central chapters of this book are its strongest and, taken together, elaborate the core ideas of Sundaram's argument. Entitled 'Media Urbanism', the second chapter is built around the theme of proliferation. It argues that in the aftermath of the over-extension of the state, which reached its zenith during the Emergency, the 1980s saw a shattering of centralizing initiatives. Beneath the surface of the epochal events of that decade there was a steady burrowing of informality and illegality which created the conditions for the emergence in the 1990s of a full-blown pirate city. Drawing on Solomon Benjamin's idea of the 'suitcase entrepreneur', Sundaram argues that these figures started to build up the networks. At one end these were densely local, at the other, they spread out from South-East Asia to the Indian metropolises and would become the basis for the supply, successively, of colour TVs, audio cassettes, computer parts and CDs and DVDs. The need to make the 1982 Asiad a media-based spectacle also meant a nudge-and-wink encouragement to these networks by the state. Illegal colonies also started to dot the landscape that Jagmohan had tried so recently to sanitize. The vision of a centralized city dictated by the planner's layout was thus decisively repudiated. The chapter ends with remarkably compelling readings of three marketplaces-Lajpat Rai Market, Palika Bazar and Nehru Place. Each of these was shaped in the 1980s and went on to have unpredictable afterlives from the mid-1990s. Each ended up with opaque winding corridors filled with a promiscuous mixing of legal, illegal and semi-legal vendors-the spatial layout mirroring the proliferating commodity circuits that were entailed. 'Pirate Kingdom' complements the previous chapter by focussing on the emergence of technologies that enabled proliferation-audio cassettes from the 1980...

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