Trying to understand Indian urbanism is like the proverbial story of the blind men trying to describe the elephant. Scholars, professionals and engaged commentators who have written about the phenomenon and consequences of postcolonial urban development in India have provided partial insights into the nature of the beast they have ‘touched’, but in sum, its complexities have eluded the kind of understanding that would have enabled any agency, state or market, to effectively engage with its welfare and maladies. Under the circumstances, one could perhaps even consider managing Indian urbanism like taming a rogue elephant with inadequate knowledge about its propensities: the stark reality of the degraded quality of the contemporary urban spaces provides strong evidence that seventy years of concerted efforts to manage the consequences of urbanization have failed.
Books on Indian cities and city planning have tried to understand this failure and recommend solutions. They have generally viewed specific issues from particular perspectives, but the book being reviewed is of interest because it presents multiple perspectives through diverse disciplinary lenses, which look at a variety of contemporary urban spaces. It therefore offers a more nuanced picture of the complexities of Indian urbanism and a holistic understanding of urban spaces in modern India.
In June 2015, a seminar was held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, ‘to contend with the effervescent world of contemporary Indian cities’. It was conceptualized by the editors of this volume, both historians of colonial India, keeping in mind issues relevant to urban history, but to their surprise, the call for papers elicited an overwhelming response from younger scholars researching a diverse range of issues related to contemporary urbanism. They realized that these scholars were not pursuing familiar academic discourses as the seminar had intended to examine, but were empirically exploring the multiple ways the fate of modern Indian cities was being mediated through power struggles between the city dweller and the government. Their studies put to question the current models and approaches employed to manage urbanization in India. Changing track, the editors decided to go ahead with the seminar in the hope that the papers presented would provoke ‘a re-think about concepts and categories which have endured in academic discourse on urbanism’ and thereby extend its frontiers. That was an inspired decision and the book fulfills their objective.