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Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay’s Streets in Motion reminds us, among many things, that it is never too late to ask some obvious questions. Two central curiosities nudging Bandyopadhyay’s broad research inquiries point to the gaping hole in two leading fields of critical scholarship – one, a consolidated historical study of an Indian city across the long twentieth century and two, an examination of the street as a logistical cum politico-cultural entity. What at first appears to be a baffling oversight – both in Urban History and Infrastructure Studies – soon resolves into a complex methodological quandary. Urban historians have only ever so rarely toed the line of India’s independence, much less moved beyond, to study the postcolonial lives of Indian cities thus leaving the second half of the twentieth century entirely open to the scrutiny of ‘more contemporary’ Urban Studies. Infrastructure Studies has in the recent past produced a fascinating oeuvre of rich scholarly work, especially in the domain of circulatory infrastructure from pipes and waterways to waste management and urban transportation (Anand, 2017; Bjorkman, 2015; Butt, 2020; Chowdhury, 2021; Fredericks, 2018). How did the (twentieth century) street fall through the cracks of such rigorous and incisive scholarly investigation?
Streets in Motion demonstrates why such ‘obvious’ questions have eluded scholars for so long. To weave a compelling historical narrative on a century that is fractured into innumerable political and ideological contingencies would require more than a careful perusal of ‘the archive’. Indeed, Bandyopadhyay shows us that the archive itself would have to be thought anew before one can undertake such a formidable operation. But more importantly Bandyopadhyay illustrates the joys of introducing indiscipline in our rigid disciplinary frameworks. To be sure, Bandyopadhyay is not the first or even an early advocate of interdisciplinary research, but he has certainly illustrated the degree to which disciplinary foundations need to be shaken up to answer some of these obvious but difficult questions. My discussion here will primarily focus on this much-needed bout of indiscipline replete in the pages of Streets in Motion.
Rather than viewing the street as an infrastructural artefact, Bandyopadhyay attends to the ways in which the street facilitates contingent levels of mobility and produces “mobile subjectivities” (2). By seeking to study streets in motion, Bandyopadhyay explicates the ways in which the exigencies of capital orchestrated the speed and urgency of movement across time and space in the twentieth century. Motion then becomes shorthand for the many ways in which we often qualify a pulsating city in plain speak – a city that never sleeps, a city that is forever on the move.
Ahuja (2009) had similarly illuminated the significance of movement in a world that was increasingly being dictated by the productive and accumulative logics of capital. Borrowing from Lefebvre, Ahuja had called them “rhythms of capital”. Even though Ahuja’s work was not premised on an urban site, the conceptual contour of Ahuja’s work has unmistakable overlaps with Bandyopadhyay’s. The book had investigated the ways in which people and goods were circulated via a circulatory infrastructure (roads, railways, canal ways, etc.) throughout the long nineteenth century colonial Orissa. Bandyopadhyay does not cite this important text, despite deploying similar themes – social space, transport, mobility, and infrastructure – to build his thesis. It is what Bandyopadhyay does next that sets him apart from extant scholarship. Rather than emphasizing on the uniformity that was achieved through the rhythmic configurations of capital, he argues for its opposite. By introducing a dialectic between motion and obstruction, Bandyopadhyay explicates how the universality of motion was routinely punctuated by localised obstructions – “Motion ceases to be the same everywhere because of the contingencies of obstruction” (16).
It is this feature of obstruction that injects indiscipline into Streets in Motion – first, as a recalcitrant force that inhibited the “utopia of frictionless motion” (72), and second, as a quotidian practice that far exceeded the punitive and legal scaffolding available in official documentation. Here, obstruction emerges neither as an aberration nor as an afterthought; by folding itself into the inertia of motion, it reimagines the free play of motion into distinct and contextual sets of calibrations. Bandyopadhyay does not use obstruction as shorthand for popular resistance; taking a more sophisticated approach he offers a genealogy of how state and non-state actors alike were engaged in the work of creating impasse. By showing us that the street is not merely the site of politics, rather the street itself is politics, Bandyopadhyay effectively signals that the historian too has to exit the dusty entrails of sarkari archives and view the street as archive.
Over the last decade, Bandyopadhyay has written extensively on the politics of archiving arguing for the necessity of reading the Hawker’s Committee archives as a ritual in self-legitimation. Here, he expands on that work by offering a staggering longue durée of how a whole range of actors and communities rendered precarious and vulnerable by ‘public works’ initiatives devised multiform strategies to disrupt the technocrats’ vision of a planned city throughout the twentieth century. To launch obstruction as a disruptive force against the totalizing agency of motion, Bandyopadhyay had to carve out a third vector that could not be exhaustively subsumed under public and private property discourses. He showed us that the everyday life of the twentieth century street is best understood as a common resource that was collectively shared, maintained, inhabited, and experienced by hawkers, refugees, and pavement dwellers, often lumped together as a homogenous category – ‘urban encroachers’ – in official discourse. In so doing, Bandyopadhyay does not simply pry open ‘the other side of the archive’; instead, he carefully unpacks the historical contingencies that are deliberately and brazenly erased from encroachment reports.
To imagine the city outside the neat delineations of legal possession and illegal occupation, Bandyopadhyay had to design his fieldwork as an immersive exercise – it is a work that has manifested itself through his decades-long involvement in Hawker Sangram Committee operations, the years he boarded up in refugee colony PG rentals, and his itinerant walks along the changing cityscape of twenty-first century Calcutta. It would be disingenuous to describe his methodology in the dry academic language of ‘activism’, ‘autoethnography’ or ‘flaneuring’. If there could be a rigorous method of capturing and articulating ‘the word on the street’, it is this.
There is however one point that must be flagged here. For a work that has invited its readers to rethink Calcutta as a ‘people’s city’, Bandyopadhyay’s work succumbs to one significant limitation. Readers (not excluding those familiar with Calcutta) will often find themselves overwhelmed by the abundance of information regarding streets, intersections, and contiguous neighborhoods crammed into every page of this book. Streets in Motion would have been more accessible if such rich descriptions came with visual indicators including hand drawn maps, newspaper cuttings, wall graffiti, and more photographs. Bandyopadhyay’s singular reliance on poorly scanned and illegible official maps (there are only five) often compromises the original objective of viewing urbanity from the streets. Perhaps, Bandyopadhyay will redress this shortcoming in future editions.
Ahuja, R (2009) Pathways of Empire: Circulation, ‘Public Works’, and Social Space in Colonial Orissa, c. 1780-1914. Hyderabad. Orient Blackswan.
Anand, N (2017) Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Politics in Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bandyopadhyay, R (2011) Politics of Archiving: Hawkers and Pavement Dwellers in Calcutta. Dialectical Anthropology 35(3): 295-316.
Bandyopadhyay, R (2022) Streets in Motion: The Making of Infrastructure, Property, and Political Culture in Twentieth-century Calcutta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bjorkman, L (2015) Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press.
Butt, WH (2020) Accessing Value in Lahore’s Waste Infrastructures. Ethnos.
Chowdhury, R (2021) The Social Life of Transport Infrastructures: Masculinities and Everyday Mobilities in Kolkata. Urban Studies 58 (1): 73-89.
Fredericks, R (2018) Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labour in Dakar, Senegal. Durham: Duke University Press.
Anwesha Ghosh received her PhD from the University of Toronto in 2020. Currently, she is with the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India. Trained in literary studies and history, Ghosh’s research offers an interdisciplinary outlook towards understanding the processes of colonial urban formation.