ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The City Extended

House, But No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay's Suburbs, 1898-1964 by Nikhil Rao, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012; pp 312, Rs 2,283.

It is ironical that, despite being the sum of many histories, Mumbai chooses resolutely to live in the present. The city, such as it is, is perceived on an as-is-where-is basis by both, its inhabitants and those entrusted with making urban policies, making few concessions to how it came to be. The erstwhile islands, the earlier Koli and Agari settlements, the landownings from the 17th century, the migration leading to the Fort and Native Town and the spurt in planned suburbanisation at the turn of the 20th century all palimpsest today into a new tabula rasa, ready for overwriting future change. Author Nikhil Rao describes “...the rise and proliferation of apartment living as the distinctive feature of the growth of Bombay from about 1918 to 1960,” is a knowledge honoured more in the breach than the observance.

In his book House, But No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964, Rao, who teaches history at Wellesley College in the US, traces suburbanisation in Bombay to its genesis in the setting up of the Bombay City Improvement Trust (BIT). The BIT emerged in the aftermath of the plague epidemic that beset the Native Town in 1896. The colonial state took upon itself the task of bringing hygiene and sanitation to the city by creating new housing stock (improvement schemes) along modern “sanitary” lines in dense areas like Nagpada and Agripada, for the working class. These new schemes were intended to be spacious, well lit, and ventilated. New streets with broad, west-east boulevards were planned to bring “healthful breezes” from the west into central Bombay. The Trust also sought to open out hitherto undeveloped areas for urban inhabitation by both reclaiming land from the sea and acquiring land to the north of the old city that had traditionally been used for rice farming, toddy-tapping and fishing. The Trust made efforts to include northern areas like Matunga, Sion, Dharavi, Mahim and Worli into the perception and jurisdiction of the city.

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