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or all the critical scholarship on capitalist urbanization and uneven development in the postcolonial city over the past two decades, we know curiously little about rent. In Properties of Rent, Sushmita Pati’s stunning and meticulous account of urban villages on the outskirts of Delhi, India, provides a corrective, starting from the premise that the margins of this global city “run on rent”. Rent is far more than an economic relation denoting the temporary use of property. Rent is also a social, political, and emotional relation woven together by caste, kinship, and community; as such, rent decides who lies inside and who lies outside registers of value. A brilliant book that is a must-read by urbanists of South Asia and beyond, Properties of Rent tells us first and foremost why vernacular theories of capitalism matter. Here is a work of small political economy in a world of big theory.
To understand how cities in the global South are made and remade, it is not enough to study the circulation of finance capital and the speculative nature of global property markets. We must also pay attention to traditional exchanges of cash rooted in ancestral collectivities such as bhaicharas (brotherhoods), kunbas (families), and other jati or caste networks. It is these on-the-ground cartels of rentier capitalism that churn elections and voting behaviors; violence against women, the caste-oppressed, and minoritized groups; and claims to national and city belonging. In an era of rightwing populism in India and around the world, we need sharp theories of capitalism. Pati’s book is a most welcome addition not just to urban studies, but to the political economy of this historical moment more generally.
I had the pleasure of inviting a range of critical urban scholars to participate in this review forum for Pati’s book. Shubhra Gururani underscores how Pati skillfully narrates the strategic import of villages to rent economies, and how rural proprietors mobilize the space of the village and its traditional institutions to articulate with expanding reaches of global capital. Ben Theresa focuses on how two critical “properties” of rent, control and collectivity, are foregrounded in Pati’s story. Finally, my own review credits Pati for telling an untold story caste and the city—how intermediate landed castes known as Jats shape transformations at Delhi’s turbulent frontiers.
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.