Memoirs of Roads. Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization

Banerjee, Sumanta
X, 175 S.
€ 16,43
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Nitin Sinha, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

In a true sense, Memoirs of Roads is a memoir of multiple things at once: it is a memoir of roads, by-lanes, and golis (alleys) of Calcutta through which the historical past as well as the contemporary pulsating rhythms of urban spaces come alive; it is a memoir of a city’s urban history told through a rather neglected theme of research in South Asian history writing (roads) but also extended to incorporate the social and political meanings of buildings and neighbourhoods, and forms of sociability and political changes; and it is also a kind of memoir of erudite scholarship of Sumanta Banerjee whose gaze for unusual, slightly odd yet critical themes of history, is presented here in a lucid and insightful manner.

The urban history of Calcutta, dating back to the presence of Europeans from the eighteenth century, and particularly focussing on the nineteenth, has been a theme of direct or partial research for long. In selecting three roads of the city to hinge the narrative on, Banerjee invites us to reflect on two things, which he does not develop to the full length as one would have wished for: first, he indirectly encourages us to take the materiality of infrastructure – here roads – very seriously when writing the social history of the urban. The key frameworks which he uses are of capitalism, urbanization, colonial and national politics, and increasing global politics of movement of capital and services – all of which are, unsurprisingly, predictable. The author could have enlarged the scope by integrating infrastructure and technology, which is in the background, to explicitly explore the domain of contestations of power. He allures to this point – by reminding that roads also produce cultural and spatial barriers (pp. 31–32), or they can become „sites of pitched battles between residents and the police“ (p. 156) – but leaves it underdeveloped.[1]

The second point is of methodology. In approaching the history of roads, in way Banerjee does, various scales, particularly spatial and analytical, inter-penetrate each other. As according to 2010 figures, some 70,000 people in Calcutta lived roadside (p. 12). So, the main arteries of communication also tell us the histories from the margins and of the margins, of groups such as hawkers, vendors, footpath and slum dwellers, and domestic servants who otherwise are usually scripted out of the narratives of growth and development. As smart cities and expressways capture the developmental imagination, Banerjee’s evocative phrase – „every road has a life of its own“ (p. 13), reminds us to diligently filter minute details from a range of sources – literary to street directories – to include both elites and subalterns. The sources help construct the past, which if only accessed through official archival material would have dulled the vibrant hues of the past and the present, the social and the political, which Memoirs of Roads absorbingly offers. On this point, it can be added that a little more contextualisation of British traveller accounts for gleaning information on native crowded quarters of northern Calcutta was desirable.

The urban history is told through three roads – Bagbazar Street, Theatre Road, and Rashbehari Avenue – existing in the metaphorical ties of a family.[2] That „fractured and dependent urbanization“ is the core thematic of the book is clear (pp. 31–34) because before setting on to describe each of these in three separate chapters, the two prefacing chapters chart out the history of colonial and postcolonial planning, stressing the fact, quite rightly, that unlike the mainstream belief, Calcutta had three parts and was not divided into usual two (Black and White) towns. This early history of the eighteenth-century growth (for instance, between 1706 to 1756, during which the number of streets went up from two to 27 along with the creation of some 52 lanes and 74 by-lanes, which further increased to 438 by 1866) is sometimes overlooked, which Banerjee convincingly uses to show the clear intention of some form of urban arrangements and control which the mercantile-colonial state wanted to impose. Road making was an important field of state policy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, in which private and collaborative indigenous traders and partners also played a role.

Each of the chosen three roads represents a specific constellation of an era. The grand matriarch, the Bagbazar Street, represents the „rise“ and „decline“ of the native northern part inhabited by banians, the „nouveau riche“ who accumulated wealth through commercial collaboration with the East India Company in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But each of them also represents the process of dynamic change. So, the „decline“ of the traditional urban cluster of Bagbazar, also hinging around the religious and culture importance (it was the neighbourhood where Ramkrishna had become a cult figure and from where Vivekanand started his mission of social change), saw the „rise“ of the new government-employee service class of people such as young Girish Ghose who set up Bagbazar Amateur Theatre in the 1860s. The „modernity“ gained through theatre and library, by the early twentieth century, transformed the Bagbazar Street area into a „radical political hub“ (pp. 100–102).

Populated through slum- and jungle-clearing, the midwife Theatre Road and the evolving European cluster around it, represented Calcutta’s White Town in the nineteenth century in which business speculation of individual Europeans and state initiatives geared towards spatial-racial exclusion came together. The comfort of elites – either European or Indians – required the labour of underprivileged subordinates. Together with bungalows sprang bustees (tenements) that housed mehtars (waste-cleaners), servants, and a range of service providers who were eventually removed by the turn of the twentieth century, as by that period „aristocratic“ (princely rulers and zamindars) and „modern“ elites among Indians had also moved into this part of the town. Unlike Bagbazar, this area further witnessed the rise of high-rise buildings, symbolising a vertical move in occupying the city space but the „incongruous coexistence“ persisted not only historically through the co-existence of blacks and whites until the 1940s, but also Indian middle classes and the footpath dwellers today.

Repelled by the name of Main Sewer Road (built at the expense of Rs 1 crore, i.e. 10 million, over a three hundred yard long sewer) by the Calcutta Improvement Trust, the Rashbehari Avenue, the new name adopted in 1931, symbolised the aspiration and sensibility of the Bengali urban middle class, which Banerjee in his scheme of maternal ties of urban communication classifies as the road representing „Bengali middle class homemaker“. Dotted with orchards, gardens, and slums – that provided rent to the middle class landholders – by the 1940s, it has become a „full-fledged Bengali neo-middle class locality“ (p. 143), which was distinct from Bagbazar but also not completely premised upon the rupture between the rural and the urban. The Ballygunge railway station ensured a connection which allowed vegetable and fish sellers to serve the middle-class requirements, as also dhobikhanas (washer men and women quarters) existed until the 1970s.

Each of these clusters of the city, within the limits of their dynamic shifts, represent new continuities from their own pasts, which according to Banerjee stands in contrast to the new wave of residential construction in Rajarhat, which he briefly describes in the conclusion. The three roads represent three modes and moments of urbanisation of Calcutta. Weaving the narrative through sewerage, garbage and rosgolla (a Bengali sweet), through the lives of rich banians and lawyers to those of sweetmeat sellers, through buildings made up of concrete to those of vegetables grown on swamps, and wading through the times of colonialism to that of current globalization, Memoirs of Roads is a book of historian’s penchant for interesting, minute details which are painted in broad brush.

[1] On this see, Aditya Ramesh / Vidhya Raveendranathan, Infrastructure and public works in colonial India. Towards a conceptual history, in: History Compass, 2020, (28.05.2020).
[2] See, Lakshmi Subramaniam’s review of this book, Roads are like families, in: Economic and Political Review 52/42–43 (2017), pp. 25–27.

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