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  • House, But No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964 by Nikhil Rao
  • Sujata Patel (bio)
House, But No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964. By Nikhil Rao. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. x+ 300. $30.

This book can be read in two ways: as a text on the formation of the middle class in early-twentieth-century India, and as a history of the making of modern Bombay. It is thus a work that simultaneously discusses the sociology of a class formation and the history of the planning and suburbanization of Bombay. Whichever way we read it, it is clear that the key element [End Page 1003] that structures the book is the nature and state of the housing economy and the new technologies driving this economy in 1920s Bombay to create what people in that city have called the “flat system,” known in the Global North as apartments. Thus at one level this is the story of the organization of this new modern economy and the groups involved in the supply side of this economy—the cement and sanitation businesses, real estate and property investors, architects and designers, and civic officials. At another level, it is the history of those who are on the demand side—a mobile, educated, migrant middle-class community of “South Indians,” who got this identity by staying in this one locality—the Dadar-Matunga area. This group represented, over time, a new lifestyle and articulated a new politics of citizenship, both of which were later emulated by the next generation of migrants into Bombay.

These intertwining stories describe how a new form of housing evolved in colonial Bombay through the constitution of the Bombay City Improvement Trust, which led to the growth of what is known today as the self-contained flats system. This system, characterized by life in multistoried, multifamily, and multiroomed buildings with toilets internal to the flat, created new, modern patterns with new forms of private-public divisions and demands for civic citizenship. It also modified narrow caste prejudices and helped people develop pan-caste identities. The result is a fascinating narrative.

The book makes three major contributions. First, it frees itself from the binaries that have structured contemporary historiography of colonial cities, which divided the space into a white core surrounded by black peripheral towns. This historiography also argued that local governance was mainly organized for and claimed by whites and later the elite natives. Instead, the meticulous evidence put together by Nikhil Rao indicates how in Bombay the municipality intervened to cater to the new, educated, upper-caste migrants coming into the city by freeing land from agriculturists and converting it into suburban territory. In the last chapter, Rao contrasts the development of the Dadar-Matunga area through the Bombay City Improvement Trust scheme with the Town Planning Scheme put into place after the 1950s in Salsette, where another middle-class community emerged in a completely different kind of planning process. In the latter case, the independent government left the property in the hands of its original owners, who agreed to convert their land from agrarian to urban uses after having it reformatted by government-approved town planners. The book thus discusses how over the long term these interventions allowed for a land market to develop in urban areas.

The second major contribution is to suggest that apartment living was not a distinctive feature of the urbanization of the cities of the Global North; it also existed in the Global South. However, its growth was due to local attributes and it expanded as a result of local circumstances. Also, it [End Page 1004] has a distinctive style—hence the title of the book—house and no garden. Over time, this form of housing came to be universalized across India as a characteristic design for living for the middle class, who wanted it to represent a distinctive mode and lifestyle; and one can see its new variant in the Delhi Development Authority colonies.

Lastly, this book makes significant contributions by, in particular, bringing together different kinds of sources: government and judicial records from the archives, oral histories and detailed interviews...


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pp. 1003-1005
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