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  • House but no Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964 by Nikhil Rao
  • Will Glover
House but no Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964 By Nikhil Rao. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

The apartment building is such an ordinary and ubiquitous feature of every large city in South Asia today that, apparently, almost no one has contemplated its history. Until now, that is.

According Nikhil Rao, whose new book is a superb corrective to this longstanding omission, the South Asian version of this global residential type emerged first in Bombay, around the 1920s. Rao distinguishes the apartment building from older forms of multistory, multi-family residences like the chawl (a two- to five-story building comprising of a linearly-arrayed series of one or two-room cells entered directly off a common verandah, with shared toilet facilities on each floor), that served Bombay’s nineteenth-century textile mills as inexpensive worker housing. While chawls and the apartment buildings Rao describes shared certain features in common—for example, both were “single-use” residential spaces (because commercial premises were disallowed in both)—only the apartment dwelling was “self-contained,” meaning that toilets and bathing facilities were internal to individual units rather than shared. This seemingly minor detail is, for Rao, one of reasons the apartment dwelling came to predominate in Bombay’s rapidly expanding urban perimeter.

The reason has to do with whom these early apartment buildings were marketed to: high-caste, white collar, lower-middle class, largely immigrant residents from “South India” (an omnibus category that was first brought into existence, according to Rao, in Bombay). These were people unable to secure a foothold in the city’s older central districts, and unable to afford the stand alone “bungalow” homes Bombay’s early twentieth-century developers originally envisioned for the city’s northern suburbs. The Bombay apartment—originally a three-storey building set within a low-walled compound and containing six “self-contained” units—was both affordable for this newly enfranchised urban class, and architecturally suited to caste-derived sensibilities regarding domestic hygiene and morality.

While Rao dutifully compares and contrasts suburbanization and apartment living in Bombay with its better known Anglo-European parallels, the strength of his study lies in the wealth of details, and attention to discreet, local historical conjunctions, that make Bombay’s a unique story. In the first chapter Rao details how the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) shifted its focus away from slum clearance in the built-up southern quarters of the city—which elicited vigorous and continuous criticism from city residents—to supplying ample housing plots in the city’s newly annexed northern suburbs, including Dadar and Matunga. Rao’s detailed discussion of how the BIT “unyoked the land from older forms of tenure and introduced standardized leaseholds”—through a combination of legislation, imagination and subterfuge—is a singular contribution to India’s urban history and one that should inspire comparative studies of similar processes elsewhere in India (65). Once this process was substantially complete, around 1915 in many areas, a new network of streets, building plots, and other urban infrastructure was laid out to suit the BIT’s garden city visions: a tableau of single-family households in convivial neighborhoods enjoying decentralized civic amenities. Because filling out the details of this vision was left largely to private developers, however, the reformatting of Dadar-Matunga produced something decidedly less convivial: namely, an unprecedented wave of land speculation that quickly drove prices beyond the means of most buyers. With an economic slump falling hard on the city at the end of World War I, visions of middle-class bungalows spaced generously apart from one another on their own piece of land foundered on the reality that few potential buyers could afford to live this way, especially given the inflated price of land. Instead, a denser landscape of “Bombay flats” made more sense economically, both for developers and for the “lower-middle-class, upper-caste residents” who would come to occupy them.

Rao describes how this new social formation cohered in Bombay in subsequent chapters focused on the literate, high-caste Tamil community who migrated to Bombay following anti-Brahman...

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