In Outcaste Bombay, historian Juned Shaikh interrogates assumptions about city's cosmopolitanism in 20th century
Using historical and literary sources, Shaikh throws light on the nexus between caste and class identities in Mumbai.
“Caste was seminal to the production of urban space, and urbanity was central to the making of Dalit cultural politics in the city,” writes journalist-turned-historian Juned Shaikh in his new book Outcaste Bombay: City Making and the Politics of the Poor (2021). He is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he teaches courses related to modern South Asia, colonial India, urban history and labour history.
Published by University of Washington Press, this book interrogates assumptions about the cosmopolitanism of Bombay in the 20th century. Using historical and literary sources, Shaikh throws light on the nexus between caste and class identities. He writes, “Caste was obscured in the discourse that focused on the built form, such as elite concerns about slums, sanitation, garbage, filth, and illegal space. The illegality of slums shrouds caste in our times too.”
Here are some excerpts from an interview with the author.
How did your work as a journalist in Mumbai shape your political consciousness, your intellectual journey, and your pedagogic practices as an academic working in California?
Being a journalist in Mumbai introduced me to the world beyond the little bubble I had grown up in — family, friends, neighbours, relatives. I had read about this world in books and newspapers, but in Mumbai I had to navigate it on my own. Trying to rent a place in the city, commuting in trains and buses, gives you a perspective on the world. You realise that life for most people in Mumbai is hard. Journalism gave me a crucial insight into the relationships of power in the world; class, caste, gender, and ethnicity are vectors in these relationships. This helped me rethink the relationships in the bubble I came from and has propelled my intellectual journey and pedagogy. My scholarship explores these questions and I teach my students to understand power relationships in the world.
What differences do you recall between your experience of urban life in Mumbai where you migrated for your journalistic career, and Pune where you were raised by your parents?
The first difference was the sheer size of the city. In Pune of the 1980s and ‘90s, one could travel from one part of the city to another on a bicycle and later, on a motorbike. The other difference was the long history of neighbourhood relationships. Most of the families in my neighbourhood have been living there for generations. The friendships and ties dated back three to four generations. In Mumbai, at least the parts of the city I lived in, this was not the case. New Bombay was new in name and its social fabric was new. The other difference is almost counter-intuitive. The parts of Pune I grew up in had a lot of social diversity. Many neighbours were Sindhis; their families had migrated after India’s partition. Sindhi language and food were an integral part of my childhood. Other neighbours — Muslims, Parsis, Marwaris, Christians and some Dalits — were there even longer; their families either worked for or did business with the residents of the British cantonment. People associate Bombay with cosmopolitanism, but by the time I was trying to rent there in 2000, the city had ghettoised markedly. I realise of course that the experience of renting is a particular experience, you are often on the move after 11 months and therefore you can’t become familiar with neighbours nor they with you.
In the introduction to Outcaste Bombay: City Making and the Politics of the Poor, you write, “My mother may be barely literate, but possibly because of that, she always encouraged me/us to study and read.” How did she respond when the book was published?
She was delighted but also disappointed to learn that academic books barely make any money for most authors. There are just not enough sales.
Why did you choose to study the relationship between industrial capitalism, caste and class in 20th century Bombay through literary sources in Marathi and English?
For the colonial period — the first half of the 20th century — there were a rich array of sources that I tapped into including government reports, intelligence department reports… the chapter on Bombay’s Marxists draws on these reports. The British penchant for recording minutiae can be used productively by historians, as long as they don’t lose sight of why the British were collecting information: they were collecting information on Marxists to crush them. But what they collected helps the historian get an insight into the world of Bombay communists and their views on capitalism, class, and even caste. But these rich sources dry up in the postcolonial period. Either records were not archived properly, or were not collected with the same obsession, or were hidden from the public gaze. One then had to get a bit creative and use things that are in the public domain, like literary sources. These sources, like Anna Bhau Sathe’s writings or Baburao Bagul’s short stories, were pointing to the problem of capitalism, caste, and class too.
Were there any specific events, people or epiphanies that nudged you in this direction?
The 1990s shaped me; I was a teenager and a young adult in this time. The defining events of the 1990s were economic liberalisation, communal violence, caste-based political parties and the increase in violence against Dalits, and the emergence of the US as the most powerful country in the world. Many of these changes had profound implications for Bombay, which officially became Mumbai in this period. I wanted to develop a critical and historical understanding of these changes. The debates in Indian newspapers and news magazines of the time helped me find a footing, reading Ambedkar on caste was eye opening, living and working in Mumbai for a few years gave me some experience and perspective. Finally, I was extremely lucky to get into graduate programmes (in the US) and find work that allowed me to, and continues to provide the chance to, read, think, and learn from scholars and students.
What criteria did you use to zero in on the poems, novels and manifestoes you studied?
I selected poems, short stories and plays by authors who were from the city, wrote about living there, discussed caste and class, and participated in movements that aimed to bring about social, political, and literary change. For instance, Anna Bhau Sathe’s play Silent Procession (Muk Miravnuk) performed for a working-class audience in the 1940s discussed the complex workings of tenancy and sub-tenancy in the city’s chawls from the perspective of the labouring poor. The lives of tenants and subtenants was upended with the stroke of a pen — the landlord’s decision to sell the chawl and the municipal corporation’s decision to shut it down for maintenance and reconstruction. They protested this by organising in the streets and walking to Mantralaya. Their silent procession turned violent. Bagul’s short stories highlight the precarious lives of the poor and the lower castes in the city. He humanises characters detested by society — the sex worker is also a mother, the mawali is also a father thinking about feeding his children.
What did you say to those who told you that casteism thrives in villages, but not in cities?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that there are multiple types of casteisms. Most people associate casteism with overt incidences of prejudice, violence, and dishonour. We believe that these are exceptional cases that occur in rural India so it is easier for city folks to disassociate themselves from it. But casteism and caste are mundane too — arranged marriages are one example of it. Similarly, housing societies for people of the same caste is another example. Caste also shapes our access to educational institutions and jobs or could shape our assumption about somebody’s intellectual ability. These, assumptions and opportunities had, and continue to have material effects; it shapes one’s economic conditions for instance. Which means that one has to think about both, caste and class.
Based on your research for this book, would it be accurate to say that Bombay’s cosmopolitanism is perhaps over-hyped and is possibly a myth manufactured by nostalgists?
Cosmopolitanism assumes two things: a comfort with social and cultural differences and a moral commitment to the well-being of fellow citizens. This ideal requires a commitment on the part of people as well as groups and institutions to uphold it. Even in the early 20th century, groups petitioned the municipal corporation to stop plans for a meat shop in Dadar/Matunga arguing that people living in that locality were vegetarians. The commitment to live with cultural difference requires practice too, which was absent. Similarly, even if theoretically, the elite may be reasonably comfortable with each other’s cultural differences, they are not too bothered about the well-being of the poor. And even if the poor lived with social and cultural differences in slums, they could and did turn on each other, sometimes violently.
In the book, you write, “Capitalism has the propensity to take what it finds or leech on existing social relationships that help it accumulate more wealth.” Could you please help unpack this for our readers, with some Bombay-specific examples?
Capitalism is motored by the desire to accumulate value, profit, wealth. In the 19th century, some Bombay merchants diversified their wealth from trade, mostly opium trade with China, by starting textile industries. To start an industry, you need lots of money. In the absence of nationalised banks, since these were colonial times, a prospective industrialist raised money by tapping his caste and kinship network. He built a factory, imported the machinery from Europe, and now he needed lots and lots of workers so that the competition for work would drive down the wages. To get these workers to the factory gates he relied on caste, again. Mukadams/jobbers recruited workers from their caste networks. They patronised the workers, got them work in factories, lent then money in times of need, took a cut from their pay, and coaxed them to work longer hours. Thus, even the coercion and disciplining of workers depended on caste. Sometimes, workers would come together to demand higher wages or bonus and go on strike. To break strikes capitalism relied on caste and religious differences too. In the US, race performed a similar function. In the UK, it was ethnicity — Irish versus English workers.
How does caste intersect with urban planning and slums?
It’s not just Dalits, but people from different castes and religions live in slums. In the early 20th century, many Dalits stayed in slums because they had difficulty renting in chawls due to the practice of untouchability. In any case, they had mostly low paying jobs in mills or docks, so many could only afford living in slums or tenements that were declared slums after a period of time. In the postcolonial period, for slums to not be demolished, you need tenancy rights and political patronage. If you could manage that, you could continue to live there. Some Dalits, who were politically organised got access to slum rehabilitation and slum redevelopment schemes. But those who could not had to live with the reality and fear of demolition and eviction.
If the very essence of modernity is to create something new, how can it be anchored in the caste system that is steeped in tradition and centuries of oppression?
Modernity does not reinvent the wheel, it uses whatever it finds useful, including the wheel. In fact, modernity invents tradition. Without calling something traditional, modernity would not make sense. Caste has been around for a long time, but it took its current form — its rigidity, its emotive appeal — in the 19th century i.e. in modern times.
How does industrial capitalism continue to solidify caste and class inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic? Is this something that you have been thinking about?
Almost 80 to 90 percent of India’s working population work in the informal sector which includes a range of occupations — barbers, cobblers, construction workers, domestic workers, landless laborers, drivers, workers in small factories etc. A majority of them are lower castes, Dalit castes, Muslims, tribals, and women. These are the people who walked hundreds of kilometers to get home and face tremendous food insecurity. So, you are absolutely correct, caste and class inequalities have become even more intense during the pandemic.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect
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