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By Anindita Ghosh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Nineteenth-century Calcutta, the capital of colonial India until 1911, was a city of divergent interests. For British colonialists the cosmopolitan city represented economic and technological successes, which included a thriving jute trade and the introduction of modern infrastructure. Conversely, among the native bhadralok, or the educated upper and middle class "gentlefolk," Calcutta symbolized immorality and decay, configured in their representations as the space where traditional values broke down. Alongside colonialists and the bhadralok, an urban poor, composed of marginal groups such as migrant workers, sex workers, and low paid occupational groups, also populated the colonial city.
Anindita Ghosh's book Claiming the City: Protest, crime, and scandals in colonial Calcutta, c. 1860–1920, promises to analyze the numerous ways in which this urban poor, often represented as passive consumers of the colonial urban experience, laid claim to the city. Drawing from a wide array of archival and non-archival sources, the book's most significant contribution to the history of colonial urbanism is its extensive documentation of the everyday realities of the urban poor in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century India. Chapter One explores these realities with a careful study of the urban expansion of the city. Of particular importance is Ghosh's discussion of the development of urban infrastructure (mechanized travel, gas lighting, and water and sanitation services), which proved to be a source of inequity in the city. Related to this technological transformation, Chapter Four focuses on low-paid occupational workers, including milkmen, scavengers, and hackney-carriage and bullock cart drivers to name a few, who challenged the operation of Calcutta's municipal regime. In this chapter Ghosh forcefully delivers on her promise, revealing how the city street emerged as the space of contestation. The diversity of her examples successfully complicates our assessment of Calcutta's urban experience. She demonstrates how strict adherence to colonial ordinances was a rare occurrence among low-paid workers; the everyday reality of their lived experience required innovation. Bullock cart drivers, for example, poised a challenge to the supremacy of motor traffic; their continued presence in the city was aligned with an urban populace that for colonial officials was classed as "irresponsible, undisciplined, and yet to be 'modern'" (180). In other instances, low-paid occupational workers employed strikes, threats and other forms of protest to challenge and disrupt colonial administration. In their refusal to accommodate modernization these workers reveal a powerful claim on urban space.
In Chapter Six Ghosh further expands on the forms of refusal that characterized Calcutta in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by charting a series of riots and protests that dominated Calcutta. In bringing to light these events, such as the 1898 Plague Riots (organized in response to governmental measures to manage the outbreak of the disease), Ghosh reveals an early tendency towards violence/protest/riots as modalities for dissenting against the colonial state. Here she suggests that non-nationalist resistance foreshadowed later acts in India that followed in the twentieth century. She advances towards what she describes as perhaps the "most important aspect" of her book, "[tracing] the antecedents of the kind of 'ground level' political society that later populist ideologies, such as Indian nationalist and religious fundamentalism, were able to tap into" (31). Ghosh invokes Partha Chatterjee's notion of "political society," a term to describe social groups engaged in activities that often violate the law in order to survive, but who "make [their] claim to a habitation and livelihood as a matter of right,"1 in order to more rigorously analyze the urban poor's claim on the city. Her attention to "political society" could perhaps be strengthened with greater theoretical breadth in analyzing the modalities of subversion. While Ghosh draws on Henri Lefebvre, works like Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, for example, could also be useful in expanding our larger sense of the urban poor's tactical approach to draw a clearer connection between the activities of the late nineteenth century and the looming anticolonial struggles.2