Properties of Rent: Community, Capital, and Politics in Globalizing Delhi by Sushmita Pati is a book about the transformation of Delhi, not the “world-class” Delhi that has most often formed the subject of scholarship, but a Delhi that inhabits its outermost villages, where a jarring blend of working-class tenements, garment factories, and receding farmland jostles alongside designer boutiques. In this hybrid context, Pati is interested in the social life of rent, which she argues is missing from scholarship on capitalist urbanization. She starts from the place that rent can be defined, simply, as “an expression of possession” (9). From there, she investigates what turns out to be the multiple social lives of rent, from ground rent, to rent seeking, to rental housing. To study the varied careers of rent, Pati conducted ethnographic research and dug into mid-20th century legal archives pertaining to two urban villages at Delhi’s southwest periphery, Shahpur Jat and Munirka. Dominated by a rural proprietor caste known as Jats, these villages are not ephemeral phenomena about to be swallowed up by the city. Neither is this a story of agrarian castes being dispossessed by swanky real estate and nefarious state acquisitions. Rather, this is an untold story about how Delhi’s villages and their Jat clans hold their ground, providing the political, economic, and emotive motor force for powering everyday urbanization where we least understand it—at the city’s turbulent frontiers. 

For urban scholars this book has much to offer. It builds on a body of work on agrarian urbanism that not just explodes the boundaries between rural and urban but insists on understanding how agrarian land, class, and caste relations come to be reconstituted and leveraged in urban real estate markets and state projects in uneven ways (Balakrishnan and Gururani, 2021; Cowan, 2018; Levien, 2018; Upadhya and Rathod, 2021). Beyond its contribution to urban theory, Properties of Rent offers a guide for how to think capitalist urbanization anew, from the ground up. At a most fundamental level, Pati shows us how language and idiom delimit how we think and talk about capitalism. Consider her glossary (p. 244) derived from painstaking ethnography: Hindi words like bhaichara (“brotherhood”), kunba (“family unit”), and kameti (Hindi pronunciation of “committee”) used by her informants cannot simply be literally translated. These terms, as Pati explains, are windows into the workings of value (both economic and emotional); how value is generated through communal land arrangements based on a “brotherhood” of caste, kinship, and belonging; how the “family unit” effectively functions as a joint stock company for renting out properties; and how the “kameti” is a mechanism for families to pool finance for land investments. These and other key terms gleaned from her ethnographic interviews are idioms that scaffold a “small” theory of capitalism.

By moving seamlessly between theory and empirics across nine chapters, Pati carries through on her promise to do “small” political economy in the world of “big” theory. Throughout the book, she is careful to distinguish between global capital and vernacular rent: the former, in her framework, is based on the anonymous circulation of finance at a macro scale, while the latter is based on face-to-face transactions of money. The former runs on high-risk speculation, while the latter is rather more mundanely “organized around the spine of a community” (11). The former runs on multinational debt and credit, formalized, centralized, digitized; the latter flows through hand-to-hand cash and credit based on informal moral and predatory economies. Why should we care about vernacular rent? Because vernacular rent works sometimes together with, but mostly at odds with, global capital; it is the frictions and complementarities between capital and rent that make accumulation in the global city possible. 

The study of caste in India’s political economy of urbanization has been a relatively muted subject. We know that caste is not a static social hierarchy, and we know that caste is not restricted to India’s villages. But beyond broad strokes that dichotomize oppressor (e.g. Brahmins) versus oppressed castes (e.g. Dalits), and beyond descriptive reports of segregation based on purity/pollution and core/periphery binaries in urban areas, we don’t know enough about how caste in all its complexity and contradiction churns capitalist urbanization. There are many difficult questions to be asked: What role do intermediate landowning and money-lending castes and ethnicities play in lubricating housing and land markets in a neoliberal era? How and why do intermediate castes become internally differentiated by class and labor? How do dominant middling castes dispossess Dalits of their land? How and under which circumstances have Dalits become landlords themselves? How has the exploitation of marginalized groups, particularly newer migrants to the city, been perpetuated not just by dominant castes but also by oppressed castes? And what have been the ramifications of deepening Hindu nationalism and the cooptation of Dalits and Bahujans into rightwing politics? 

Pati begins to answer some of these questions, making forays where few other scholars have gone. Neither do the village-level studies of so-called dominant castes (e.g. Srinivas, 1959) nor does scholarship on the Green Revolution and caste-labor relations (e.g. Harris-White, 2003) provide a template for her to follow. It is the path-dependent and Delhi-rooted circumstances of Jats as culturally subordinate but economically dominant and landholding—as rent seekers in the license raj era and rentier capitalists in the neoliberal era—that Pati traces out—circumstances that were and are different from India’s rich farmers but are similar to other intermediate castes discussed in the literature, including “bullock capitalists” (Rudolph and Rudolph, 1987) and “fraternal capitalists” (Chari, 2004). We don’t have enough studies of the middle castes; this book is a key contribution as such to the critical caste literature.

What emerges from her reflections on caste and capital, ultimately, is that oppression and resistance are almost always two-way streets. Much like Jats feeling robbed of their clout and fight the state on what they see as unfair land decisions, they also mete out sexist, casteist, and racist behavior on those they perceive as inferior, especially Dalits and northeast Indian and African migrants to the city. In a sordid tale of misogyny, racial violence, and hypocrisy, northeast women are sexualized and commodified through prostitution rackets in which everyone is complicit. This brings me to a set of questions about affect and emotion surrounding rent economies, and what cultural Marxist Raymond Williams (1983) once called “structures of feeling”—thought patterns and meaning systems that people hegemonically accept and parrot (often stoked by media frenzy) yet are neither presented in fully worked out form nor are necessarily rooted in truth. Crucially, structures of feeling are not just free-floating emotions, but are consequential for material and economic outcomes—voting, budgets, and planning decisions are all to some extent fueled by inchoate and popular structures of feeling relating to ethics, corruption, and abuses of power (Ranganathan, Pike and Doshi, 2023). Pati suggests that anger, hurt, nostalgia, and macho pride (dabangg) are key emotions driving Jat behaviors. Can these be characterized as structures of feeling? If so, what consequences have they for certain urban transformations in Delhi and not others? What is the relationship between structures of feeling and “small” political economy? A tighter connection between affect and rentier capitalism may have been helpful for the culturally attuned reader. Still, this is a most welcome and superbly crafted contribution to the critical urban studies literature writ large and scholarship on caste, property, and capital relations in the city more specifically.



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Malini Ranganathan is Associate Professor in the School of International Service and a faculty affiliate of the Department of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies at American University. An urban geographer and political ecologist by training, her research in urban India and the U.S. studies the political economy of land, labor, and environmental injustices, as well as intellectual histories of anticaste, abolitionist, and anticolonial thought. Her coauthored book, Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics and Publics of the Late Capitalist City, is forthcoming with Cornell University Press in April 2023. She is co-editor of the 2022 book Rethinking Difference in India through Racialization: Caste, Tribe, and Hindu Nationalism in Transnational Perspective published by Routledge in 2022.