Aquestion calculated to test the mettle of even those intimately familiar with the history of colonial Calcutta—what is common to Mahesh-chandra Das De, Aghor-chandra Das Ghose and Jaharilal Sil? These names will not occur in any roll call of honour but as pamphleteers of urban phenomena such as storms, bridges and fish epidemics, they were nonpareil. Their pamphlets from the last third of the nineteenth century inaugurated a robust new non-bhadralok public discourse which arose firmly from the margins.
Das De and his ilk are part of the new dramatis personae who walk the pages of Anindita Ghosh’s latest book. Ghosh points out that most studies of colonial Calcutta have produced ‘lopsided narratives’ marked by the ‘overwhelming centrality of the Bengali educated middle classes’. For the bhadralok, Ghosh argues, the city was a site of ‘ruin and corruption’, as opposed to the countryside which was ‘fresher, purer and more idyllic’.
For the lower classes, on the other hand, the city was productive of spaces created out of a continuous negotiation between the licit and the illicit, the public and the private, a dialectic that continues to this day.
The first section of Ghosh’s study is devoted to the municipal and technological reorganizations of the city in the late-nineteenth century. Drawing upon data from the 1891 census and other sources, Ghosh looks at the changes in housing, sanitation and street layout in ‘Urban Space, Technology and Community’. Another key document of the period is a 1914 report by the chief engineer of the Calcutta Improvement Trust, E.P. Richards, the ‘first ever planning document for the whole of Calcutta’. Interestingly, parts of the city at the end of the First World War were a ‘replica of the London skyline’, something from which the current Chief Minister of West Bengal might take heart! But this was accompanied, Ghosh reminds us, by a prohibition on building thatched buildings, one of the many costs of turning the city into a model of London. In this context, Ghosh offers a throwaway paragraph which she might have unpacked in more detail—the rising heterogeneity of urban spaces and the gradual—but by no means total—dissolution of habitation ordered by caste and calling.
Alongside the reordering of the city spaces, Ghosh examines the new urban genres which were emerging from the streets. This takes us into the familiar staple of Battala publishing such as songs, farces, tracts and pamphlets, as well as the contemporary press. There is both awe and unease at the new technologies which were revolutionizing the city’s landscape, most noticeably in the case of the first pontoon bridge built over the Hugli in 1874. It is intriguing, notes Ghosh, that while the educated class such as the Tagores remained silent about the bridge, it drew praise and censure in equal measure from the pamphleteers. Similar responses were evoked with the coming of the tram, the new sewage system, piped water, gas, and so on. The songs, in particular, are taken up in the second chapter, and Ghosh details the many municipal landmarks which caused the Calcuttan to break out into song: ‘the illumination of the Howrah Bridge in 1879, the laying of the tramway in 1880, the laying of the tramway … and even the municipal drains’. But there were also periodic responses to cyclones and disasters, perhaps the first writings on climate change in this part of the world.
Much of the chapter ‘Songs, The City And The Everyday’ is devoted to an account of street performance genres such as the kobi songs, and their creation of a public sphere which combined the protocols of print and performance. This is where the work of the pamphleteers assumes significance, an area which has only recently begun to receive critical attention. The title of one such pamphlet is Poler Panchali, i.e. the ‘song of the bridge’, while another, called Drener Panchali celebrates the new drainage system. These were reflections, Ghosh argues, of how the city had begun to afford opportunities to social groups other than the dominant bhadralok to claim city spaces for themselves, a project which continues to be played out to this day. The songs also helped familiarize such groups to a world which was rapidly changing and helped create a sense of belonging, helping to ‘clarify multiple positions on women, migrants, bhadralok, and the colonial government’.
‘Sexuality, Scandals And The Urban Order’ is devoted to a subject which has received a fair degree of critical attention, especially if one thinks of the Elokeshi-Mahanta case. Ghosh refers to a number of other cases illustrative of the sexual politics of the city, but one cannot help feeling that this chapter demands fuller treatment on its own. Ghosh makes several interesting points about the urban geography of prostitution in the city, and its encounter with ‘civic morality’, but the link between unorganized labour and the sex trade needs to be more fully explored. In any case, it would be interesting to examine if and what kind of new possibilities of access and agency were opened up for women as a whole as the city reorganized itself. For example, a pamphleteer called Nandalal Roy imagined how women from middle-class families would now visit the bridge over the river and construed it as a moment of rupture. Towards the end of this chapter, Ghosh also refers to the beginning of unorganized strikers and trade disputes, especially in the transport sector, as well as the famous bazaar rivalries. While the material in this section is fascinating, one wishes it was better organized.
For followers of detective fiction, ‘Criminality, Class And Moral Anxieties’ holds particular interest as much of it is taken up with the figure of Priayanath Mukhopadhyay, the policeman-turned-crime writer. By his own admission, most of his stories, published in the periodical Darogar Daptar, were based on his own cases, and present a fascinating account of the new genres of criminal activity that the city had made possible. But Priyanath’s stories can be read as social commentary, and inaugurate a new discursive space in writing about the city. A corollary of these tales is the rise of a new ‘topology of crime’, in which the city can be read in terms of its policing. Thus, following Priyanath, the city is divided into safe and no-go areas, creating an ‘illusion of luminal spaces … that pose untold dangers and are in constant need of securing’.
Ghosh concludes her already ambitious study with a look at the city in times of protest and riots. Starting with the Shambazar riots of 1891, Ghosh looks at a series of clashes between the police and the urban poor which cut across ethnicity and community. But it was from the time of the Curzon’s proposed partition of Bengal that street protests took on a more political turn. In the process, public spaces within the city were defined anew: ‘perhaps the most spectacular transformations took place on the city’s streets, converting them from arteries of colonial authority and commentaries to tributaries of mass protest.’ This was the beginning of the art of bringing the city to a complete standstill which the city was to learn so well, and in which all sections of the city’s populace were to be participants. Ghosh ends her book with a reference to the ‘extraordinary downward reach of the public sphere’ of this period. Her work bears ample testimony to this, and restores a measure of agency to hitherto muted perspectives and voices.