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

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Roads Are Like Families

Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization by Sumanta Banerjee, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp 175, 750.

Sumanta Banerjee’s Memoirs of Roads is many things at once but above all, it is a lively history of Calcutta city from its precolonial past to its neo-liberal present seen through roads that are not simply creations of planners but are the embodiments of complex social relations. Roads—be they dirt track or tarmacadam and cement concrete—are actually agents of lived experience as they connect people, transport goods and foster new urban configurations. For the author, roads are even more than homes—they are like family as they yield feeder lines, and smaller alleys or “galis” as they are known in Calcutta. And it is his ability to personalise the story of roads that makes the book much more than an exercise in understanding urbanisation and its impact on the demographics of the city, its social/spatial relations. In fact, the theoretical elements in the book are not especially new or unsurprising and, for the most part, subscribe to the well-known theses of capital accumulation predicated upon absorption of surplus product for producing surplus value, of chronic eviction and dispossession of the poor to make way to beautification and civic harmony, and of the various imperatives that drove colonial urbanism. It is in the empirical details and the carefully assembled story of roads that the book makes a valuable contribution to the history of Calcutta and its roads, and through it the lesser-known story of social realities, of subjective experiences and economic changes that underpinned Calcutta’s transition from small villages to a colonial and modern city and then to a megalopolis.

The focus of the book is Calcutta as it developed into a city, spatially expressed in new settlement clusters, roads and civic structures and socially in new relations and articulations between residents, subjects and citizens. These articulations were complex, often antagonistic and violent with roads, and their use emerging as crucial sites of negotiation. On many occasions, roads were built in collaboration, on others the planners were thwarted in their intentions by local residents who did not conform to the dictates of the ruling dispensation. Banerjee uses some of these instances to critique existing scholarship, for instance, he suggests that Anthony King’s schema of the three phased colonial urbanisation is not entirely tenable. According to King, the first phase of development in the period up to the early 20th century was determined largely by military, political and cultural imperatives, in the second period, that is, from the 20th century, town planning and the social disciplining accompanying it was prominent in the metropolitan centre and found limited and selective adoption in the colonies and in the third and final stage, urban planning became part of a larger global ideology and structure. Banerjee does not disagree with the schema as such—but alerts us to the difference in point of emphasis and timing. In the case of colonial Calcutta, for instance, the work of construction had finished by the middle decades of the 19th century, the project of urbanisation carried important indigenous contributors just as by the end of the 19th century, urban-educated Bengalis began to demand more amenities for themselves.

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Updated On : 6th Feb, 2018
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