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Engaging with the Urban Predicament

A.G. Krishna Menon

Edited by Vimal Shah
Published for The Asiatic Society Of Mumbai by Promilla and Co.,/Bibliophile South Asia, Mumbai, 2010, pp. 257, price not stated

Edited by Bharti Chaturvedi
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2010, pp. 171, Rs. 350.00


To describe the conditions in our cities in negative terms is now a familiar litany of urban living in India. This is as much the result of entrenched inefficiency and endemic venality of municipal governance as of our inability to understand the dynamics of Indian urbanism. It makes all of us, citizens, administrators, politicians and urban planners complicit in the tragedy of our cities. As economic development and social transformation accelerates, the complexity of Indian urbanism increases and gets more difficult to deal with. Quixotic dreams of ‘world class cities’ are floated in desperation by decision-makers to draw our attention away from the festering problems of our cities, which only exacerbates them further. Thus, one reading of our urban predicament is that we cannot afford to treat the complexities of urbanization as terra incognita, but need to engage with it knowledgeably as concerned citizens in order to create livable cities. In the past there were few opportunities to acquire knowledge of cities because so little that was written on the subject was available for general consumption. Consequently, most of what they knew about cities was based on either personal experiences of European and American cities or the easy access to the literature on foreign cities. Thus our quotidian understanding of Indian urbanism is derived from foreign models. This dependence on foreign benchmarks to judge and plan our cities is the hallmark of not only public expectations but, regrettably, professional perceptions as well. To correct this anomaly requires easy availability of literature on the subject of Indian urbanism to change our expectations and perceptions of our cities. The situation is happily changing with the noticeable growth in the genre of writing about our cities in recent years. Whether it is in the form of stories like Breathless in Bombay by Murzban F. Shroff or well researched historical narratives like Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City by Ranjana Sengupta (both reviewed in The Book Review, Vol. 32, No. 10), there are a variety of books available today to acquaint the public with various aspects of the city and urban living. Reading them, the urban resident could become more aware of the ground realities of the urban environment in India and thus potentially empowered to negotiate urban issues. The two books being reviewed, one about Mumbai and the other about Delhi are different to the two books I have cited and illustrate other ...

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