As a historian, I appreciate the author’s interest in the history of Indian urbanism (I have misgivings about the use of the term ‘urbanization’ which surely cannot be used for the centuries before the 20th) and could wish that more historians would share this interest. India’s long and glorious history is a cliche beloved of text-book writers and politicians. But how limited is the content of textbooks. The history of art forms, of cultural regions, even economic history (as distinct from the history of economic policies) is somewhat limited. Historical geography is one of the most fascinating aspects of South Asian history, but this is so seldom studied. As a subject of research it enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in the 1930s when the Geography Department of Madras University did launch into the histories of areas and of place-names, but this petered out. Professor Ramachandran’s first chapter is a useful historiographical survey, and may induce students to move into the field of historical geography once again. If they do, it is hoped that they will avoid the dependence implicit in the author’s statement about Indian geographers of the early 1960s—’The peer group from whom (they) sought guidance shifted from Europe to America’ (p. 8).
For himself, the author declares that his work has ‘a strong bias in favour of an Indian point of view on all aspects of urbanization’ (p. xiv). Very laudable, but what exactly does it mean? To begin with, the reader would like to know how Indians described their towns, how they painted urban scenes, how they mapped them. There is nothing about all this. Chapters 2 and 3 (‘The History of Urbanization’ and ‘Urbanization Processes’) have useful information, but also some assumptions which one comes across very often in writings dealing with the whole subcontinent and over a long period of time. One is that of seeing Indian history as divided into three ‘periods’. Historians have perpetrated this, but even those of them who use the terms ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ would balk at the use of concepts like ‘Aryanization’, ‘Per-sianization’ and ‘Westernization’, which at once makes it impossible to see the continuities and the regional variations. More dangerously, it can lead to statements like the following! ‘The acceptance of the Great Epic Tradition helped to unite urban society’ (p. 78)—this may be true of the present day, when the Doordarshan Great Epic unites urban society every Sunday morning! For the centuries from 1000 A.D. to 1520 ‘the anti-urban bias of the Vedic tradition received renewed support, and Hinduism began to shift to its original rural traditions’ (p. 52) and ‘the people of the Hindu-Muslim city are still captives within the four walls of their experience—an experience derived from history, of doubt and distrust’ (p. 59). Is this what students of Delhi University are going to learn about Shahjahanabad? For some reason, by p. 340 the author views the ‘medieval Indian city’ in a different light; ‘The medieval Indian city symbolized unity, grandeur, and liveliness of culture and trade.’
A second all-too-common assumption is that urbanization is a good thing and, conversely, that the lack of it is to be deplored. ‘It is unfortunate that the successors to the Harappa culture did not make any attempts to carry forward the levels of town-planning attained by (them)’ (p. 33). Like many town-planners, the author is attracted by the bulldozing approach to urban renewal—’to liberate the captive cities would require a total restructuring of their living quarters’ (p. 59)—this surely is no Indian view, rather that of Haussmann in 19th-century France. By the end of the book, he is sceptical of the ability of government agencies to cope with India’s urban crisis. ‘The indomitable strength of the people provides hope for India’s urban future’ (p. 340). Strength?—the strength of the real estate developer; or the desperate strength of the squatters pushed out from an impoverished countryside to the cities?—do these provide hope!
Chapters 5 to 10 discuss patterns of urban settlements. Questions of categories and definitions are frequently raised. We know that census officials are always having difficulties with defining towns, but is it really necessary to devote a chapter to these debates? Central-place theory too is well known to geography students, and could have been dealt with more briefly. As one reads on, one has the sense of being cooped up in a research library, away from the noise and traffic and colour of Indian towns. It is very useful and necessary to slot Indian towns into climatic and linguistic categories, into administrative and demographic hierarchies. But towns are built by people, inhabited by people, destroyed by people. There are no people in this book.
Narayani Gupta teachers Modern Indian History at Jamia Milia Islamia College, New Delhi.