Sheetal Chhabria's Making the Modern Slum requires the reader to dismiss a core assumption behind much of urban history. This is the assumption that the city—any city—is a preformed object, something through which power “operates,” a spatial container with pregiven insides and outsides, self-contained enough to be a “character in a plot” (8–9). In five well-argued chapters, Chhabria instead shows how Bombay, the “city,” was produced as an “effect” of contingent, iterative processes driven by the needs of capital (179).
Early in the book Chhabria argues that precolonial Bombay was a long-standing node in an extensive “rurban complex” (historian Frank Perlin's term), one that stretched across premodern Eurasia, linking “agrarian and industrial functions, monetary production and credit, documentary practices and organizational forms” in such a way as to provide institutional continuity to the movement of people, goods, and political authority (28). Though the East India Company built a walled fortress to secure goods and people against rival powers (ca. 1660s), it also recruited Indian merchants and cultivators alike, offering house sites, access to materials, and arable land outside the fort to promote commercial expansion. “Bombay,” in this sense, implied no strict division between city and country, urban and rural, or industrial and agrarian realms. In early colonial Bombay, Chhabria argues, “the power of capital was constituted … by connecting agrarian, industrial, and commercial functions together” (55).
Recurring famines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced incremental changes to this dispensation. Displaced famine victims seeking protection from starvation were not as welcome in Bombay as the cultivators and merchants the Company initially recruited. Through trial and error, controls over movement were gradually put in place. The deserving poor were separated from “vagrants” through practices of surveillance, prohibitions on movement, and selective dispossession and accommodation. These were the space-partitioning practices through which “town” space and “agrarian” space first became distinct from one another (37). By reframing famine as an “agricultural” problem and restricting its victims to temporary residence only, Chhabria argues, these policies of separation and exclusion “led to more and clearer demarcations of the city” (55).
The book's chapters trace the processes by which “city” objects (people, economic activities, building types) increasingly demarcated a separation from a rural “outside.” Different types of crises played a central role in these processes, since crises presented opportunities for leaders to intervene in the organization of Bombay's space, modes of inhabitation, and processes of production. In the working out of each crisis—Chhabria explores recurring famine, the plague epidemic of 1896, and economic depression in the 1930s, among others—Bombay was “made anew again and again to more closely approach the image of ‘the city’ that had increasingly come to circulate among imperial elites across the world” (12). That image was of the city as a “framing device for the economy” (21).
Chapters 2 and 3 explore the impact of famine on Bombay in depth. Bombay's large “floating” population—migrants who moved between the city and the village according to rhythms set by the harvest—had to be distinguished from intermittent famine refugees (even though they were sometimes the same people). When classified as surplus agricultural labor, migrants were encouraged to urbanize; when classified as vagrants and indigents, they were barred from the city altogether (77). A discourse of colonial “beneficence,” the paternalist claim to providing famine relief and a “healthy” city to an increasingly differentiated population, authorized these practices of inclusion and exclusion. In chapter 3, Chhabria explores how both private capital and the state differentiated “durable” from “impermanent” forms of housing, arguing that buildings themselves came to stand in for the qualities of the people they sheltered. The net effect furthered the classifying and objectifying work of demarcating the city, as housing became “an innocuous and measurable technical shorthand for the complexity of unequal life” (112).
Chapters 4 and 5 examine transitions in the “methods and objects of governance” initiated by the 1896 plague epidemic in Bombay (113). Unable to control the spread of disease through the kinds of localized, piecemeal solutions that characterized earlier interventions, Bombay's overseers turned to larger-scale, more coordinated projects, moving away from asserting control over “bodies” and toward controlling the “environment as a whole” (121). This marked the beginning of town planning in Bombay, and the City of Bombay Improvement Trust is Chhabria's primary focus. Chapter 4 addresses the institutional responses to the spread of disease in the city, and chapter 5 describes how those responses served to further financialize buildings and space in Bombay. Chhabria analyzes the Trust's operations—which entailed both land clearance and housing redevelopment—as an “indirect method of rule,” ensuring the health of the city not through quarantines and inspections but through the hygienic reordering of space. By displacing and rehousing “a significant portion of the city's laboring and poor populations,” Chhabria argues, the Improvement Trust became, by default, “the poor's permanent landlord” (138).
The Trust's focus on low-income housing in the 1920s and 1930s also brought the “newly identified problem of the slum” into focus (136). By this point in the book the reader knows that “the slum” constitutes all that was excluded from the congealing definition of the city: “agriculture, rural migrants, bonded laborers, traditional occupations, overcrowding, illicit networks of circular migration, usury, and the alignment of unhygienic practices and unsanitary lifestyles in ways that debilitated the flow of capital” (181). Deeply integral to processes of city making itself, Chhabria argues, the slum “made invisible the process of rural colonization and migration on which the city depended” (181). The slum offered an alibi, therefore, for the adverse incorporation of the “rural” into the “urban.”
Making the Modern Slum will disappoint readers eager for a materialist history of the settlement type announced in the title. It may also disappoint those hoping for new archival discoveries. For the most part, Chhabria uses the same sources more conventional historians of Bombay have used—famine and plague reports, Improvement Trust and Municipal Commission records, decennial censuses, Bombay Legislative Council proceedings, and so on—but she forces us to read those sources differently, and she does so with creativity and rigor. This book offers a more poststructuralist account of the making of Bombay than is found in other urban histories written from the same sources. Its originality inheres in the way Chhabria refuses to grant “the city” objective status. While some readers may be disappointed by her explanation for the modern slum, few will remain unchanged by this book. It is a forceful, passionate, and well-researched challenge to our assumption that cities predate urbanism, and its relevance extends well beyond the “limits” of Bombay.