PhD Dissertation Defense

Listen below to the audio of my talk and presentation at my dissertation defence in the Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology and STS (Science Technology & Society), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on 29 August 2013.

The title of my thesis was Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay, 1870-1920.

My thesis committee was chaired by anthropologist Professor Michael M.J. Fischer and political scientist Professor Sudipta Kaviraj of Columbia University, and historian Professor Merritt Roe-Smith of MIT were my  additional advisors. I was awarded and graduated my doctorate in September 2013.

Future Sense

Published in shorter form in TimeOut Mumbai, 25 April 2013.

Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities
London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)

History-of-Future-Cities-678x1024This new book by American journalist and writer Daniel Brook is an essential addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in how cities like Mumbai both aspire and attempt to fulfill ambitions of becoming global and modern metropoles. An adventurous narrative of St Petersburg/Leningrad, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai, embracing more than three hundred years of modern history, Future Cities is a refreshing comparitive account of global cities outside of their nation-states.

Brook romps through the take-off periods of St Petersburg in the 1700-1800s, Shanghai and Mumbai in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Dubai in the late 20th century, comparing the growth of these custom-built “gateway cities” in Russia, China, India and the Middle East.

These “windows to the world” were purposely created to expose and reform their backward peasant and colonial populations to modernity and globalisation. By contrast with their inland bureaucratic capitals – Moscow, Delhi, and Beijing – these novelties contrived by reforming emperors, merchants, and imperialists created new settlements and lifestyles by importing and imitating the latest “Western” forms of architecture, industry and public life.

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Handbook of the Bombay Archives

I am proud to share online this freely downloadable PDF of The Handbook of the Bombay Archives (B.G. Kunte, ed., compiled by Sanjiv Desai and R.S. Pednekar, Mumbai: Government of Maharashtra Department of Archives, 1978).

Elphinstone College, Mumbai (location of Maharashtra State Archives)

Long out of print and unavailable, this is an essential guide to the Maharashtra State Archives, one of India’s richest and best managed repositories of historical documents, located at Elphinstone College in Kala Ghoda. Enjoy and share widely!


ChaloBEST: Sustainable Mobility for Mumbai

chalobest_final02ChaloBEST began in January 2011 as a studio-based learning experiment at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) to make public transportation data available over the web, SMS, smartphones, and print media using free and open source software, open geospatial and civic data, and crowd-sourcing by commuters.

Our aim is to make transport more social and mobility more sustainable for all citizens in Mumbai. In 2012 we were supported by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) as first-prize winners in the Sankranti Transform Urban India competition held at the India Urban Conference 2011. See my final ten-minute talk to the jury below.

For technical documention see our project wiki and for the software code see our project on Github. All of our work in ChaloBEST was been made possible through the kind assistance of officials of BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking) to our students and volunteers in Mumbai from 2011 to 2014.

Do Buildings Have Agency?

Published in shorter form as “Do Buildings Have Agency?” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLVI No.30, 23 July 2011

Neera Adarkar, ed., The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (Gurgaon: imprintOne, 2011)

Can built forms have their own subjectivity? Architects, geographers and urban planners would surely answer this question in the affirmative. By contrast, most historians and social scientists have long viewed all non-human artefacts as “socially constructed”, and the structure and agency of the physical environment has remained weakly conceptualised, even in urban studies.

Given the number of published works on the deindustrialisation of Mumbai and the decline of its textile industry – including an award-winning oral history of mill workersi co-authored by the editor of this new anthology on chawls – it is significant that the most ubiquitous form of working-class housing in the Mumbai had not yet been studied in any depth until nowii. Galleries of Life is a salutary exploration of the history, architecture, culture and politics of chawls which creatively examines the tension between historical nostalgia and contemporary urban change in Mumbai.

Buildings can nurture, constrain, limit and transform those who inhabit or pass through them. Generic typologies mass produced on an industrial scale – apartments, tenements, chawls, skyscrapers and slums – are generative of their peculiar milieus and practices. Like other forms of housing, Mumbai’s iconic chawls are basically physical containers which give shelter and provide shape to social reproduction. But urban housing and the built environment can “act back” on communities and society. Housing as social space can signify a bundle of rights and claims, a locus of legal and property relations, a stage for politics and performance, and a set of resources for survival and mobility.

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Skyscrapers and Sweatshops

A shorter version of this review  was published in Mint Lounge on 28 May 2011.

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).

The past two decades have seen large cities in North America and Europe decisively rebound from a painful postwar history of technological change and spatial restructuring. Since the 1980s, urban centres throughout the developed world have been built new business districts and gentrified into consumer zones, as educated workers and families returned to cities hollowed out by decades of de-industrialisation, suburban flight, and social upheaval. Urban manufacturing hubs and ports whose fabric was shaped by the production and shipment of goods and commodities were left behind by finance, information and business services in a new global economy centered in cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris.

This post-industrial city has since become the archetype for mega-cities across the world, and Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City is a tribute to the endurance of the age-old metropolis and the capacities of its citizens to rebuild spaces and reinvent economies. Weaving historical comparisons with policy discussions and the passion of a committed urbanist, the book is a foray by a respected academic economist into mass market non-fiction. Like Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalisation or Samuel Huntington’s on the clash between the West and Islam, Glaeser’s styles his theories into simple universals. Globalisation works hand-in-hand with urbanisation, therefore the world is “paved, not flat”. Civilisations don’t simply clash, but also exchange goods and transfer ideas through via cities which are “gateways between markets and cultures”.

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A Rule of Property for Bombay

This book review appeared in edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36, 4 September 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010).

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”.

The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay.

Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians. Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development.

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