Neighbourhoods in Urban India edited by Sadan Jha, Dev Nath Pathak and Amiya Kumar Das published by BLOOMSBURY in 2021 strengthens the sociological perspective in urban studies. Revisiting and alluding to several classical and contemporary urban scholarly works and adding great value at the same time. The book highlights three major dimensions, so far neglected in the study of neighbourhoods in India
1) fluidity of practices,
2) contested subjectivities and
3) experiential dynamics.
As the editors, Sadan Jha, Dev Nath Pathak and Amiya Kumar Das maintain in the introduction “….it is about a space of dwelling for both—the home and the city. Without this space of neighbourhood, one can neither get an entry into the home nor access to the city. Therefore, we argue for this in-between space like the one that is not about being a threshold, some kind of spatial rite de passage, but as one that has its own interiorities, complex practices and convoluted histories” (pp 3). The edited volume is the culmination of papers read at a conference on a similar theme and subsequently anonymously blind peer-reviewed, many rejected, and the ones included were revised several times.
The book through its carefully researched and empirically grounded cases is spread into twelve chapters and four themes. All of them essentially examine the neighbourhood as a spatial-social category drawing from phenomenological traditions. The editors allude to Martin Heidegger that ‘space is neither an external object nor an inner experience’ (Heidegger 1971: 154) and phenomenological explorations of the later decades of the 20th century, the chapters in this book make a case for subjectivities located in the space called neighbourhood and spatial experiences embedded in the social and the historical.
They add that the chapters are oriented towards exploring four core rubrics of spatial subjectivities, namely (a) value regimes, (b) inequalities and exclusionary dimensions of space rooted in the logic of caste and community, (c) gendered forms of spatial relationships and (d) the politics of planning and housing in and through which dwelling in space takes its material manifestation. Together, an account of these allows reconstructing a wider picture of neighbourhood subjectivities.
The editors also undertake a robust review of literature as they trace the history of the neighbourhood on a global scale. For the benefit of the readers, they allude to significant (some of the “forgotten”) texts on urban studies. These
include ‘The City and the Local Community’ (1923) and ‘The Neighbourhood in Social Reconstruction’ (1914). They also trace how neighbourhoods from the mid-1920s gave way to the community centric logic, segregated units of neighbourhoods in terms of common experiences and the sense of territorial linkages. To that when in the 1960s the ‘neighbourhood revolution’ took place and ‘a score of neighbourhoods began to argue vigorously for their own versions of local revitalisation in the later 1960s’.
At this moment, Jane Jacobs offers us to look at neighbourhoods at three levels: at the level of streets, at the district level and, finally, thinking of the city itself (made up of hop- and skip relationships) as a neighbourhood. Jacobs writes that we need to abandon conventional planning ideas about city neighbourhoods. The ‘ideal’ neighbourhood of planning and zoning theory, too large in scale to possess any competence or meaning as a street neighbourhood, is at the same time too small in scale to operate as a district. It is unfit for anything. It will not serve as even a point of departure. (Jacobs 1961: 118–119).
From here to other scholarly works like Duneier 1999, to that of slums (Caldeira 2000; Sharma 2000; Simone 2019) to ghettoes emerging in the aftermath of communal violence (De 2016; Jaffrelot and Thomas 2012: 43–80), the editors
situate their unit of analysis to contemporary urban India. The book sets out to unpack the social life in neighbourhoods. In an interrogative sense, the book operates with probing questions such as ‘how does the social and the spatial come together to shape an understanding of the sociality that is quite distinct from the givenness of some dominant rubrics like caste, community ties or religion in Indian society?’
The rest of the volume is a collection of detailed studies from across urban India. These include Jain neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad with local references like derasar and upashray, to the idea of neighbourhood among Kashivasis, residents of Kashi (the modern city of Varanasi) residing in an Ashram in Banaras, to a Christian para in Kolkata, to Jhilmil, a Dalit refugee colony in East Delhi.
In short, the book offers fresh insights on a subject that is of interest to urban designers, architects, sociologists, historians, geographers, heritage conservationists and smart city officials all at the same time.
About the Author
Dr Binti Singh, Associate Professor, Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA), Mumbai