The urban slum is a living critique of the political economy of the city. By virtue of its existence, it is a comment on the failure of a political economy to provide certain kinds of lifestyle to its people.
— Ashish Nandy

In the US, they are calling them “tent cities.”  In other places, they go by the more familiar names of slums, squatter settlements and shantytowns.  In Brazil they are called favelas, in India, jhuggis.  What connects them all, however, despite their different locations and contexts, is what Ashish Nandy suggests above.  They all point to a limit of political economy, they all exist at the margins of urban intelligibility.  Their names are simply ways of saying: they don’t fit, they don’t live the way “normal” people should, they don’t have the right “access,” they don’t have “enough.”  Their existence in urban space is shrouded in a defining negativity, even when they are targeted by paternalistic states for welfare, care and aid.

In India, slums are an accepted fact of urban existence.  Some are more “settled” than others, producing generations of slum dwellers and generating complex relationships internally as well as with the external city.  It is commonly known and stated that a city like Delhi or Bombay simply could not function without the slums and those that dwell in them.  Their “cheap” lifestyles and labor are what make “normal” lifestyles in such cities possible.

In Delhi, slums have existed since at least colonial times, when they were early targets of the colonial state in its quest to “sanitize” the new capital city of India.  But not only did these slums pose a potential “health hazard,” they were also fundamentally opaque to the gaze of governmentality, thus necessitating a colonial lens through which to make such spaces intelligible.  Some of the earliest slum demolitions came from this period.  But they continued in the postcolonial era as well.  During the emergency period between 1975-1977, when democratic rule was suspended by Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay took the opportunity to forcibly remove such “eyesores” from New Delhi.  In contemporary “Neo Delhi” (i.e. Delhi under the spatial and temporal regime of neoliberal urbanism), the desire to create a “world-class” city seems to necessitate “slum resettlement” in the name of “urban renewal” and “redevelopment.”  But such demolitions can only be partial at best, for the state knows better than anyone that the city could not survive even one day without the millions who reside in Delhi’s numerous slums.  So just as many become “regularized,” and their residents are promised basic services and infrastructure, though most of the time these remain merely promises.

In the United States, perhaps things haven’t deteriorated to such “third world” conditions yet.  Or perhaps they already have.  It is both ironic and appropriate that the “tent city” currently receiving the most attention in the domestic press, the one in Sacramento, is situated right on the banks of the American River.  This underlines both the singularity of the American case, as well as the ways in which it fits into the larger critique of urban political economies that slums, jhuggis, favelas, and other such settlements all embody.

I think several things need to be pointed out with regard to “tent cities.”  The first is that such “tent cities” are not new in America.  Neither is homelessness.  New York City under Rudy Giuliani got rid of homelessness not so much through social programs and aid, as much as by getting them out of the line of sight of most urban residents.  Many were simply shipped off to places like California and Hawaii, where new “tent cities” precariously materialize along the “public” beaches outside of Honolulu.

Second, it is a mistake to assume that homelessness and the “tent city” phenomenon are merely results of the current economic recession.  Of course, such homelessness has increased in the past several months, as foreclosures and job terminations have mounted with every passing day.  But what has happened with the proliferation of images of “tent cities” in the public sphere and Oprah Winfrey’s televised visit to Sacramento is nothing less than a redistribution of urban intelligibility.  In the midst of such images, it no longer seems unreasonable to imagine America as a “third world” country in its own right.  Perhaps here is where we can begin to make our larger critique of political economy, moving beyond Sacramento, California, and indeed, beyond even the United States, in order to make larger, global connections.

A redistribution of urban intelligibility transforms the scope of urban politics.  What is remarkable is how quickly and without reservation Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered to provide services, protection, and welfare for those that were before seen simply as “homeless.”  Mayor Johnson even spoke of “legalizing” the “tent city.”  How does squatting illegally on public land make one eligible for the state’s care?  If they are breaking the law, why are they entitled to welfare?  These are precisely the kinds of questions asked everyday in urban India and across the third world.  And this is precisely where the connections between slums on the American River and slums on the Yamuna River, or those on the Amazon or the Rhine become more interesting.

The fact that the inhabitants of “tent cities” in Sacramento are becoming the targets of the state’s paternal care should not lead one to believe that their treatment in America is qualitatively better or more “humane” than in India, where slum dwellers hardly even register in the government’s books, except at election time.  For even though slum dwellers are often patronized by political parties and consolidated into voting blocks on the basis of promises of services and infrastructure that almost never materialize, I would argue that the dwellers of “tent cities” are in just a precarious position as those of jhuggis.  Both signify the limitations of the urban political economies from which they are excluded, even as these limitations may exist at starkly different levels in the US and India.

So why are they called “tent cities” in America and slums everywhere else?  Probably because the word “slum” conjures too “third world” a context.  Americans probably prefer not to imagine themselves as belonging to a “developing” country.  To me, the name “tent city” evokes a more haunting urban reality.  It sounds more post-apocalyptic, even if the word “tent” suggests the temporariness of such settlements.  My point is that the fact that “tent cities” are being targeted by the state for care, or that they may soon be “legalized,” due to their newfound intelligibility in the public sphere, means that America too shares in a feature all too common in the third world.  For all its development, all its abundance and opulence, America too is a political economy that must readily admit to itself that it cannot provide adequate housing for its population.  I read the state’s willingness to provide care and legal legitimacy to “tent cities” not so much as a sign that they are a temporary phenomenon, but rather, that they will soon become merely another form of the urban slum.  In other words, “tent cities” will be a fixture on the urban frontier of the global economy, be it on the banks of the American River, or on the Ganges.

The slum is also simultaneously a critique of the basic assumptions and normative frames of the so-called ‘normal city’… It is through the perspective of the slum that the city looks very different. And that vision of the slum, that perspective of the slum, captures something which the ‘normal city’, despite all its intellectual powers and endeavors and efforts, can never really capture. This is a city it cannot cognize. The slum is a reminder not only of economic depravation and social suffering, but also that another view, another city, is possible. Another view of the city which is fundamentally not compatible with the ‘normal city’….The ambition of the slum is nothing less than to be an alternative city.
— Ashish Nandy


Moving around Gurgaon just a few weeks ago, I had the strange feeling that I was in the midst of a ghost town. Signs of a city in decay were all around. Abandoned cranes sat idly beside the skeletal frames of half-built skyscrapers, which were steadily collecting dust. Rocks, dirt, and debris littered all sides of the road, which itself was cracking up and falling apart. And not a tree in sight, as if some sort of post-apocalyptic malaise had set in and rendered bio-diversity redundant.

And yet, what an unusual sort of ghost town this would be.  For it can be said that Gurgaon has yet to really live as a town.  It is instead better seen as an empty promise, or, at best, a promise so far unfulfilled.  So what kind of a ghost town is it that dies without ever truly coming alive? Indeed, Gurgaon hasn't lived in the sense that one would expect the proverbial ‘ghost town’ to have lived.  A ghost town’s best days are always behind it.  Its residents long ago deserted it, and history itself has left it behind. Its presence is spectral, the cracked and crumbling walls and general urban decay point to a past that was, a past disconnected from today, even if the materiality of built form persists (as in the picture above).

Gurgaon, in contrast, is and always has been, since its neoliberal conception, a city whose best days were to be ahead of it. It was promised as the "millenium city," a city for the "new" India's bright, confident, and prosperous future.  Its investors and tenants were heavily staked to such a temporal imagining of Gurgaon, an imagining powerful enough to radically transform Gurgaon from a sleepy industrial village surrounded by farmland into a transnational showcase of resplendent architecture and privatized urban design. 

But cruising just weeks ago through its half-built (or half-decayed) skyline on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, the gargantuan sized billboards on both sides of the road appear even more haunting, as their sanitized images of high-rise condominiums set in idyllic environs and postmodern corporate office buildings surrounded by lush green campuses form a stark visual contrast to the parched post-industrial landscape of the “new” Gurgaon. The images on the billboards are accompanied by words: "world-class living, just a stone throw away from the city....a world connected to your dreams..."  They are designed to evoke a feeling of escaping Delhi, or perhaps even India. And this is why many have chosen to relocate here; not only does it provide a safe (but not too distant) retreat from the chaos and clamor of Delhi, but it is also a mere ten minute drive from Indira Gandhi International Airport. For NRIs and investors from America and other western countries, Gurgaon provides a way of entering India without actually being in “India.” It allows transnational elites to live amongst, but never really with, the majority of the inhabitants of this country. And in this sense, the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway isn’t merely a road, it’s a portal. As one leaves the airport and crosses the expansive toll gate into Gurgaon--with its inverted apex always hidden on the other side of where you enter from--you become teleported to a space and time that is not here and now, but “elsewhere” and “coming soon.” This is precisely what these billboards are advertising--this promise.  And it is at most only a promise, because the actual landscape of the city is nothing like what the sanitized images and idyllic conditions might imply. It is the residents of Gurgaon, those spectral agents who reside in this ghost town, that are deeply invested in such a promise. And such an investment is not merely financial. Though the financial aspects are impossible to over-emphasize.

Gurgaon is a ghost town in reverse. Its temporality is disconnected from the present. Its urban space is spectral. It is a simulacrum under construction, or perhaps the better word would be de-construction. To understand the fragmented spaces and disjointed times of this city is also to understand the virtuality of the global economy at its urban frontier. I understand Gurgaon not merely as a suburb of Delhi, but as a symbolic and material embodiment of the city's latest avatar: “neo” Delhi. This is a Delhi transformed by the ideology of neoliberal urbanism, which I take to be the intentional and unintentional design of a new spatio-temporal experience of the city. The crucial link to make here is not between two distinct urban spaces, Gurgaon and Delhi, for they bleed into each other increasingly. Rather, the crucial connection has to do with financial fetishism and urban form, between the speculative fuel that drives the global economy and the built environment that materializes in urban space. That such city spaces and financial speculations are half-hazard, schizophrenic, unstable and unsustainable, only underscores the larger critique of neoliberal urbanism that needs to be made at this time of great global recession.


I began writing this blog as a metaphorical pivot in the geo-spatial history of capitalism. Back in September 2008, as I crossed the Atlantic from Newark and flew over northern Europe and western Asia and finally landed in Delhi, I was the shifting global economy personified. On the eve of a global recession (cum depression), I departed from North America and arrived in South Asia. But my movement was merely foreshadowing the larger transformation that is taking place in the global economy, as America no longer constitutes the epicenter of the economic universe, and emerging Asian economies seem to be the only ones in the world capable of holding on to any semblance of normalcy in these immensely troubling times.

Now as I return to the United States for a brief stint (I'll be back in India next week), I cannot help but reflect on the effects of this paralyzing recession (cum depression) on the American psyche. I turn to the latest article of Thomas L. Friedman, one of the loudest proponents of economic globalization in the American public sphere, in order to index a transformation in the popular discourse of the economic recession. Here is a brief fragment:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic
crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents
something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us
that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply
unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the
wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

This is a lot coming from someone like Friedman, who for the past decade or so has been preaching the merits of neoliberal economics (that is, the economics of privatization, reduction in social spending, liberalization of trade and deregulation of financial markets) to the developing world. Neoliberal globalization, Friedman has consistently harped, is the only real path towards economic and social development, and to resist its power is not only an exercise in futility, but also a social injustice, as globalization for Friedman is singularly capable of healing historical wrongs, class inequalities, cultural and religious irrationalities, everything.

Returning to a rather traumatized America is rather informative, then. Now Friedman's messiah is not capitalism as such, but rather, the "green" revolution. But until now, Friedman's approach has been to reconcile environmentalism with the ideology of capitalism, making the "green" of the environment subservient to the "green" of monetary profit. In his search for "sustainable" modes of economic development in the midst of not only an ecological crisis but also a financial one, Friedman may now have to rethink this approach, and look more seriously at how the culture of capitalism is itself caught in an existential bind. Without a radical transformation, one that critically re-thinks our unquestioned attachment to unlimited consumption, "free-trade," and never-ending and ever-increasing economic "growth," neoliberal capitalism is likely to destroy the world that we as humans have leased for the past 10,000 years. In this respect, I find it intriguing that someone like Friedman is now willing to take a hard look back at the last 50 years (when American dominated globalization began, and set the international framework for neoliberalism as an ideology to proliferate), and search for where things went wrong. This is nothing if not a start...



The other day me and my friend Pallu were on a motorcycle heading for Pallu’s house in Indra Vihar in north Delhi.  As we were about to make the turn into his neighborhood, we saw a large SUV stopped in the middle of the main road a hundred yards ahead, and a group of people were assembled.  Pallu, instead of turning right into Indra Vihar, kept going straight towards the crowd.  When we got there, we saw a young man pinned underneath his over-turned ice cream rickshaw.  Just next to him was a scooter driver sitting on the curb, nursing a cut on his leg.  His scooter was tipped over on its side and lying in the middle of the road a few feet from him.  Behind both the ice cream wallah and the scooter driver was the stopped SUV, which had apparently come to a halt right in front of the accident.

After parking the bike on the side of the road, Pallu immediately came to the ice cream wallah’s aid and helped him get up from under the rickshaw.  Me and several others got to work attempting to stand the heavy rickshaw with its large attached refrigerator back up on its wheels.  The ice cream wallah’s mouth was bright red with fresh blood, and he had a bad gash on his right wrist, which he was holding tightly with his left hand.  Pallu was asking him if he was alright, and the ice cream wallah, clearly dazed, had to take a seat on the sidewalk to regain his orientation.  Later on Pallu told me that he smelled alcohol on the young man’s breath.

Meanwhile, the scooter driver had stood up by now and was explaining to the crowd what had happened.  He was just driving straight on the main road and he saw the ice cream wallah in front swerving uncontrollably in front of him.  As the scooter was attempting to pass on the right, the ice cream rickshaw swerved dangerously close to the scooter, at which time the wallah tried to drastically change direction, causing the whole vehicle to tilt and collapse on its side.  The scooter driver, in order to avert the ice cream rickshaw, found himself running into the curb on his right, causing him and the scooter to slip and topple over.  The driver of the SUV had seen the whole accident unfold, and he confirmed the scooter driver’s version of the story, adding that the ice cream wallah had been swerving for quite some time before and clearly was not in control of his vehicle. 

Pallu, taking the side of the ice cream wallah in the face of a gathering crowd, tried to deflect attention away from the ensuing blame game, saying, “Hey, leave this guy alone, he’s hurt.  Just let him get up and get some help.” 

After regaining his senses, the ice cream wallah must have realized that the fault was his, and following Pallu’s advise, took his ice cream rickshaw, and immediately began pulling it away from the scene.  He wanted to get away before any police came.

The scooter driver didn’t want to let the ice cream wallah off the hook.  “Where is he going? Don’t let him leave! It was all his fault.  He could have gotten me killed with his driving.  Let the police talk to him.”

By the time the police came in their jeep a few minutes later, three or four pot-bellied men in dark uniforms and thick mustaches came and assessed the scene.  After gathering the details of the accident one of them asked where the ice cream wallah was now.  At which point Pallu said quite directly: “Why don’t you just let him go.  He’s a poor man and I think he just wants to get to his home.”

To my astonishment, the police man agreed, saying: “Okay, the poor bastard probably learned his lesson.”  The scooter driver, too, had given up his demand to apprehend the ice cream wallah, and took his scooter home.  The police left, the crowd dissolved, and we went on our way to Pallu’s house.

At Pallu’s house, we discussed the ambiguous space of the law in Indian society.  The law is rarely black and white, in any society.  And yet in certain places it is more flexible and negotiated in everyday life.  The relationship this flexibility has to the state and the state’s legitimacy in India is precisely what was demonstrated through this accident between the ice cream wallah and the scooter driver.

Imagine something like this happening in the US.  The first thing that would have happened is a surly police officer would come to the scene and command the parties involved: “License and registration.”  Regardless of one’s answer, the question already puts the cop in an unambiguous position of absolute authority.  If you do not have a license or registration, there is no further conversation, you are quickly apprehended or fined accordingly.  The police are like robots equipped with guns and the law is part of a larger machine that is made up of different gears that function like clockwork (the police, the lawyers, and the judge).  Once caught in this legal machine, you are crammed through the component gears relentlessly until you are spit out of the machine’s butt end.  This is the American justice system.  It is also the reason why the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

At the level of everyday life, that is, at the level of small conflicts and confrontations that happen between people on the streets, there is much more room for negotiation in India.  This of course, has both positive and negative side effects.  Corruption in India is commonplace, particularly among the police, who regularly take bribes and choose to ignore the law.  This is a direct result of the loose space of (il)legality that exists in everyday life.

But this loose space also allows a guy like the ice cream wallah, who was clearly in the wrong, to get out of this situation without having his life ruined by a drunk driving charge (as would have almost certainly happened had the incident occurred in a place like the US).  Nor is it likely that the ice cream wallah would have had a proper license or registration for his vehicle.  Perhaps he wouldn’t have even had a legitimate form of identification.  As Pallu informed me later, the young man’s accent revealed that he was from the impoverished state of Bihar, which sends tens of thousands of young men to cities like Delhi and Bombay because of little economic opportunity at home.  Once in Delhi, they perform those necessary but unrewarding hyphenated tasks like rag-picking, street-sweeping and rickshaw-pulling.  They live in slums or on the streets.  They ask for little from the state, and the state gives them little in return. They are at the margins not only of urban society, but also with respect to the law.  The police easily could have chased the young man down, arrested him and put him in jail, where he would have rotted until his case was called in front of court.  Probably no one would have even noticed his disappearance, save for some friends or relatives, who would be equally powerless to do anything for him.

What is interesting is how the scooter driver at first attempted to summon the law: “Don’t let him go! Let the police speak with him.”  But no one really took this demand seriously, including the scooter driver himself.  Upon arrival, the police themselves didn’t take their own presence seriously.  Light-heartedly they said, if no one got seriously hurt, “just let the poor bastard go home to his slum or hole in the ground…”

Why is such (il)legality allowed to exist in India?  Is it the result of underdevelopment?  Poor governance?  A failed or semi-failing state?  I would argue precisely the opposite, that without such a negotiated and “loose” space for (il)legality, in which quite possibly the majority of the country exists in an ambiguous position with respect to the law, the Indian state could not secure the legitimacy it requires.  Paradoxically, by allowing illegality to exist just under its breath, the state’s legal existence is reaffirmed.  Such is the “loose” and ambiguous “social contract” of Indian society, and it perhaps goes against everything enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Rousseau would have imagined for a constitutional democracy.

Democracy in India is characterized precisely by this negotiated space of (il)legality in everyday life.  Shiela Dixit, chief minister of Delhi, is currently on a crusade to “regularize” illegal slums across the city, recognizing their existence as “legitimate,” supplying them with infrastructure and services, in spite of recent Supreme Court rulings that have declared all such slums “illegal” (since they “encroach on public and private lands”).  Even someone as powerful and central in the government as Dixit uses the flexibility of the law to provide slum dwellers ad hoc legitimacy.  Why does she do this?  Because of the substantial voting power of the slums, no doubt. In an election year, her Congress party can tell itself and anyone who cares to listen that it worked earnestly for the urban poor by “regularizing” their “encroachments,” or slums, and promising to provide “regular” services like water and electricity.  But whether such promises are fulfilled is another matter altogether.

Or maybe not.

Indeed, part of democracy in India is also the designed failure to deliver on such promises.  Politicians like Shiela Dixit often have no intention to deliver on them in the first place.  But this failure is itself a part of politics in India: the willful neglect of slum communities even as they continue to exist in the liminal space of (il)legality.  And, as we know all too well, such willful neglect is not always benign.  Not only are empty promises continually made and cynically re-made, but the very next day bulldozers could show up and demolish the very shanty homes and slums that were supposed to become “regularized.”  And how might Shiela Dixit defend such an about-face in policy?  Simple: the slums are constitutionally “illegal.”  The same ambiguity that provides a necessary space of survival for the urban poor, a flexibility with respect to the law that also reproduces the state’s power, also places the poor at the very limits of state protection and existential legitimacy, so that their lives can be manipulated easily by the power elite.


In India, one thing that marks the ideology of postcolonial capitalism is the imputed moral legitimacy of the private sphere in the eyes of the dominant economic classes.  Not only is the private sector seen as more economically efficient and productive than the public sector, but the private sphere also enjoys a level of legitimacy because of it’s supposed “autonomy” from “politics,” ostensibly separated from the corruption and nepotism of the Indian public sphere.  But the privileging of the “efficient” private sector over the “corrupt” public sector is complicated by an additional element, that is, the projection of an image of India as a “recognized” part of the global economy.  Indeed, it is the private sphere that is credited not only with boosting economic growth to a “respectable” level (surpassing the humiliating “Hindu rate of growth” that characterized the pre-reform Indian economy), but also with securing “recognition” for India as a legitimate global economic player.  Yet this recognition is inherently unstable; it’s status is persistently haunted by the anxiety of gaining and retaining the respect and admiration of “the global” (which is usually thinly veiled as the West), and is never fully certain.  Within such an anxious epistemic and ontological terrain (see Fanon 1952 and 1963 for the existential pitfalls of identity and recognition in the colonial and postcolonial context), “proof” of recognition often materializes discursively in the reified moral legitimacy of a private sector that provides a new, albeit fragile, sense of Self for the neo-liberalized postcolonial nation.

If the private sphere becomes the anxious site in which the uncertain status of postcolonial identity is negotiated and “secured,” then what happens to this “security” when the moral legitimacy of the private sector is itself called into question?

The Rs. 78 billion corporate scam of Satyam Computer Services Ltd., said to be the biggest corporate scandal in the history of post-independence India, has momentarily put a dent in the moral stature of private capital.  But the discourse surrounding the Satyam scandal in India, particularly the outcry against dishonest accounting practices by Chairman Ramalinga Raju and his cohorts, quickly moves beyond questions of morality as such, and begins to reveal the anxieties of postcolonial identity and recognition in the neoliberal global economy.

A recent article in a weekly business magazine is fairly representative of the dominant discourse surrounding the affair in India.  Entitled “Morality, where art thou?”, the piece details the accounting frauds and aggrandizement of company books that clearly put Raju and others at the company’s head legally in the wrong.  The title of the article notwithstanding, however, it immediately becomes clear that the argument against Satyam is not so concerned with questions of morality, accountability, and public trust as ethical values andworthy business practices in and of themselves.  Clearly, one discerns there is more at stake than mere business ethics and “morality” as such.  Writer Savreen Ghadoke clues us in to such stakes when he asks the following questions: “Has the exposure of the Satyam corporate scam tainted Brand India Inc.?”  Might the scandal damage “the image of India Inc. on the world map”? 

The writer points out that following the disclosure of Satyam’s dishonest accounting practices, “losses to the tune of $2 billion were accounted by stocks of Indian companies listed on the NYSE.”  But beyond this financial loss itself, the actions of investors on the NYSE symbolized a loss that went beyond monetary measure: “It took almost two decades for the likes of Wipro, TCS, HCL Technologies & Infosys to carve a niche for themselves on the world IT map and just one corporate scandal may finish all that.”

But why, we might pause to ask, would “just one corporate scandal” negate “two decades” of strong and ostensibly honest economic performance?  After all, corporate scandals happen all the time, including in the mother of all capitalist countries, the USA, which in 2001 experienced a similar fraud case with Enron.  Indeed, as the author himself notes, “value destroying behaviors such as fraud and corruption respect no borders.”  So if corporate scandals seemingly go hand-in-hand with financial capitalism wherever it roams, why does the Satyam case pose such a singular threat.

I would argue that perhaps for the first time since economic liberalization in 1991, the moral legitimacy of the private sector in India has been seriously questioned.  And because this moral legitimacy also lies at the heart of a projected image and identity of India as a safe and “recognized” investment destination, it also becomes the source of a greater anxiety which is fundamentally about the contingency of recognition through neoliberal capitalism.  The discourse which surrounds the Satyam scandal is haunted by the prospect of losing face in front of an ostensibly “global” audience of investors, analysts and entrepreneurs, of erasing two decades of “catch up” work pursued earnestly by Indian corporations and pro-corporate policy makers.  That such a scandal immediately moves from being “just another case” of corporate greed to reflecting badly on the nation itself, tells us much about the fragility of postcolonial identity and recognition.  It also provides some clues as to what exactly is at stake in the projected image of India as a brand, that is, India Inc.  We can learn much about the politics of contemporary India if we peer into the ideological and discursive work that must go in to producing and reproducing such an image (and the ideological work of image projection is not limited to the purely “discursive” public sphere, it also materializes in public spaces, in urban design and planning, in the built environment, and in policies such as “slum re-settlement”—ie. slum demolition).  The ideological work of stabilizing the anxious relationship between projection (of the image of “brand India”) and desire (for recognition from the Global), produces specters of impossibility that materialize in everyday urban life in India.  Such apparitions materialize in the zones of indistinction between the public and the private spheres, the formal and the informal economies, the cultural and the economic domains, etc.



I am at the bi-annual “New Socialist Initiative” meeting in Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh.  I came all the way here with some comrades from Delhi University. Together we constituted the “Delhi Team.”  We took the AP Express on a second-class sleeper car from New Delhi Station through Haryana, UP, MP, Maharastra, and finally, thirty hours later, AP. 

Apart from discussing the prospects and problematics of a socialist revolution in India and producing a political platform to release to the public, the conference was attempting to navigate its way through the complexities of India’s linguistic diversity, and trying very hard not to hurt anyone’s feelings along the way.  There were multiple language groups present at the meeting, speaking Gujarati, Telegu, Hindi, Urdu, English and others.  After some deliberation on the first day, the conference committee (made up mostly of Hindi speakers) decided that the discourse of the meeting would be limited to Hindi, Telegu or English, or some combination thereof.  There would be subsequent translations in the other two languages for each speaker, each question asked from the house, and each answer given in response.

The NSI meeting has got me thinking about different language-based public spheres in India.  By traveling from Delhi to Hyderabad, we were also entering into a different kind of public sphere, one in which Telegu was the predominant language.  Does the language of public discourse shape how a particular public takes form?  This is an interesting question to pose in a country with no less than twenty-eight different states, most of them segmented on the basis of language.  Underlying the whole debate about conference languages was an unspoken desire not to offend any particular language group, particularly Telegu speakers in their own state.  There was a desire not to blindly reproduce the linguistic hegemony of Hindi and English (and they’re hybrid co-creation: “Hinglish”).  And yet, despite the best of intentions, the dominance of these two languages would resurface throughout the day’s meeting.

After lunch on the first day I had an “extra special” bidi, and during the afternoon session, one Telegu speaker was making a rather lengthy comment regarding the NSI’s draft manifesto, to be released to the public after discussion of it that afternoon.  My thoughts began to drift as soon as I realized that Telegu sounded nothing at all like Hindi, and the rapid fire rhythm of the language set my mind to thinking about Gurgaon’s “Hinglish” speaking public sphere, and the different forms and spaces in which it is manifest.  Two contrasting expressions of this public sphere can be found on the web (the virtual public sphere).  One is, which is a cyber buzz hub for the “new Gurgaon,” reporting on up-to-the-minute real estate developments, corporate business news, and other predominantly “middle class” issues such as infrastructural inadequacies, new mall and condominium openings, ads for skin-lightening creams, security, and the like. 

The second site is, which is a blog that depicts a radically different image of Gurgaon.  This image is one of labor struggles against exploitation by multinational companies and the exposure of collusion between capital and the state against workers’ rights.  Both of these sites are in English.

A few weeks ago, I had a first hand experience with Gurgaon’s more official, “Hindi”-speaking public sphere, at the Additional Deputy Commissioner’s (ADC) office in the Mini Secretariat Building in old Gurgaon.  I had made an appointment with Mr. Praveen Kumar a few days before on the phone.  Just before our curt conversation abruptly ended, and after I had told him that I was a PhD student researching urban development and planning in India, he asked me suddenly: “Do you know anything about water tables?”  Baffled by both the specificity and randomness of this question, I was further confounded by what he said next: “we need someone to help us increase the level of our water table.  Do you know anything about water tables?”

I told him I didn’t, and he quickly bade me farewell, “Okay, we will meet at 11 on Thursday,” and hung up.  He sounded disappointed in my response.

That night I did some research on water tables in Gurgaon, learning that the table (level of underground water) was rapidly depleting, at a rate of 10 meters per year.  In just ten years, I read, Gurgaon would run out of the underground water that had quenched its endless thirst for hundreds of years.  Provisions were already underway to transport water from other parts of northern India to feed this thirsty neoliberal city.  Little did its middle and upper middle class and perhaps even poorer residents realize all this.  Or maybe they had heard about it but did not really understand how it would affect them, or what they could even do about it.  The Additional Deputy Commissioner, on the other hand, seemed very concerned.

I reached the Mini Secretariat Building two days later, a very shabby old concrete structure with a circular driveway and some half-assed gardening in the front.  It was a busy morning and the space was filled with a bustling kind of bureaucratic energy.  There were officials in worn-out suits, and local citizens coming in to file complaints and paperwork with commissioners, town planning officers, magistrates, etc.  I was struck by the eclectic crowd that animated this space, ranging from shady-looking businessmen and rich farmers with thick, dark mustaches to more humble-looking villagers and women in colorful saris, with jingling bangles on their ankles.

Looking back, I really should not have anticipated that my meeting with the ADC would begin on time.  Not only was this India, but it was local India, bureaucratic India, a million miles away from the privatized gated communities and glitzy shopping malls located just on the other side of National Highway (NH) 8, which cuts the city into distinct hemispheres (roughly dividing “New Gurgaon” from “Old Gurgaon”).  But there was no way I could have foreseen just how strange this “meeting” would turn out.  Indeed, it was not really a meeting at all.  After waiting for half an hour outside his office, one of his peons motioned me in.  As I walked in, I saw three rows of chairs lined up before a large, freshly polished wooden desk.  It turned out that 11-12pm on any weekday just happened to be the time that the ADC’s office was open to the public, and anyone could come in to take up their personal or village beef with the ADC.  The first two rows were full of people in suits and neatly combed hair.  ADC Kumar was sitting on the opposite side of the desk, the rich brown colored sea of wood between them bestowing upon the latter a disproportionate heir of authority.  On the left side of the room there was a line of chairs that extended along the wall, where rugged-looking villagers were sitting quietly in kurtas and lungis, one or two with dust-stained turbans covering their heads.  Everyone seemed to be meeting the ADC at the same time.  As I stood watching at the back of the room, I could see that the ADC was carrying on at least three or four conversations simultaneously, registering specific complaints from the villagers seated on the left, while discussing more general urban issues with those seated in front of him.  Sometimes he would interrupt someone in mid-sentence to pick up his mobile and start a whole new conversation over the phone.  When he finished his phone conversation, he would effortlessly pick up right where he had left off with an existing conversation with in the room.  Several peons came in and out at regular intervals, bringing water for his visitors or tea for himself and his crew of “yes men” seated in the front row.  This latter group would inject “ha ji’s” and “ore kya’s” in between the ADC’s monologues, which were frequent and quite informative.

“Come sit down in a chair,” the ADC said to me when he finally noticed my awkward presence in the rear.  “Let me just finish up these people, I’ll be with you in two minutes.  Do you want some chai?  Or some orange juice?  Vikram!  Chai juice lao!”

Mr. Kumar himself was a fascinating character.  He was of a slight build, but not diminished in stature.  Instead, he had a commanding, fatherly sort of presence, and this was reflected in the way others addressed him, speaking to him with the utmost respect and reverence.  He had a neatly trimmed mustache, salt and pepper hair, mid-to-upper-40s; he looked like he could be the proud father of a pretty young school girl or a smart-looking son.  His personality was a blend of his constitutive selves: part self-confident Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer (you have to pass a very difficult Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) test in order to become an IAS officer), part patriarch, and part quasi-spiritual guru.  Indeed, his language mixed bureaucratic vocabulary and religious talk, “paramathma this, paramathma that…”.  He didn’t appear to find any contradiction in using such religious discourse in an ostensibly secular, public space.

The ADC didn’t so much “converse” with the others in the room; rather, he lectured them and called them “beta,” talking to them like a caring, but stern, parent.  But he wasn’t necessarily disrespectful to these people either.  Instead, he came across as over-nurturing, if somewhat patronizing, whether to middle class suits seated in front, or villagers from more humble backgrounds on the side.  He seemed to take his position as ADC as a sort of personal blessing from god, as if it was his enduring faith and not his hard work that had earned him his title.  His position as ADC essentially made him second in charge of the district of Gurgaon.  His official title was ADC cum District Rural Development Agency, which probably explained why there were so many villagers from the surrounding farm lands in his office. 

The ADC’s demeanor suggested that he was good at his job, or at least attempted to get things done.  This did not mean, of course, that he was an extraordinary administrator.  Indeed, how could he be?  He had just been appointed to his post a month before and would probably be shifted to another district before the end of next year.  There was a big wooden plaque that hung on his wall on which was engraved the names of the previous ADCs stationed in Gurgaon.  I could see that in the past year alone, two different ADCs had come and gone.  Mr. Praveen Kumar was the third ADC in 2008.   

One of the problems with Gurgaon as an urban administrative space is that its public servants and governmental institutions do not seem to have a stake in the city’s long-term well-being.  Haryana Urban Development Authority, which is responsible for building and maintaining infrastructure in Gurgaon, as well as allocating land for private development, is located all the way in Chandigarh, and is in many ways disconnected from the realities of Gurgaon.  On top of that, the public administrators themselves serve short appointments and never stay in any one district long enough to see through any changes or longer term goals they might envisage.  For these reasons, no matter how skilled or intelligent ADC Kumar might have been, the institutional structure of local and state governance in India seemed to inhibit him from having any kind of meaningful long term impact.

So I didn’t end up getting a personal interview as I had intended, but I did get some freshly squeezed orange juice (a must-have wherever you happen to be in India), and a first hand look at the everyday bureaucratic politics of local Gurgaon.  From my third row seat in his office, I quietly observed as the ADC jumped from fantasies of urban improvement with the “yes men” (he told of his desire to purchase several “huge vacuum cleaners” to “suck up the streets” and rid Gurgaon of its perpetual dust problems), to quickly going through the line of village people on the left side of the room.  One older gentleman was a Sarpanch from a nearby village, who had come to complain about a water pump that was promised but never installed.  Another was a plumber who had been waiting four months for payment from a tight-fisted customer.  “Go tell my aid in the outside office, and Paramathma willing, we’ll fix it right away,” the ADC replied in a hurry, and the men quietly exited from the rear.

“In my position, beta, you have to be a jack of all trades,” he said to me, momentarily remembering my presence.  But a master of none? I guessed silently.  But he wasn’t so modest: “you must have the ability to do whatever is asked of you.  From dealing with village problems to developing water tables and constructing roads.  Our job is never done.”

*          *          *

By the time my mind returned me to the NSI meeting, the same Telegu speaker was continuing his diatribe.  He was an older man with thick-rimmed glasses, neatly combed hair, and a dark, weathered complexion.  I later found out that the man was called Comrade Rao, and he was a former Naxalite fighter and currently a dedicated cadre of NSI.

The extended monologue in Telegu served as an interesting reassertion of the language in this subtly contested multi-lingual space.  By that point in the day Telegu had quietly taken a back seat to Hindi and English, with most speakers choosing one of these two languages, or seamlessly switching between them.  The subsequent Telegu translation would come almost as an after thought, and many Hindi/English speakers chose these times to clamorously get up and go to the bathroom, drink some water or take chai.

After Comrade Rao had been speaking for nearly half an hour, he was not so subtly asked by the Telegu translating moderator to “wrap up” his point.  (Meetings like this are perfect for the “wrap it up” sign from Chappelle’s Show—“Wrap it up, B! Wrap that shit up!)  This interruption seemed to upset Rao, and he immediately shrank into his seat and said in heavily accented English, “OK, fine, I finish.”

At that moment I happened to lock eyes with Tara, who was serving as the Hindi-English translator for that session.  We exchanged smiles, communicating nonverbally our relief that Comrade Rao had finally finished his statement.  I was taken aback by the brightness of her smile.  It surprised me that I hadn’t noticed how pretty she was until then.

Tara was from the northeastern Indian state of Assam, living in Delhi and working as a lecturer in English literature at one of the numerous colleges in Delhi University North Campus.  On the train ride to Hyderabad, still early in our journey, she got into an altercation with a young man from Haryana who allegedly had used the word “chinky” as she was walking past him in the car.  She angrily pointed a finger right into his face, demanding to know why he used that word.  The altercation quickly blew up into an all-out yelling and shoving match, with comrades Naveen and Praveen from our group getting into the face of a group of roughnecks’s that took up the young man’s cause.  The latter argued that he wasn’t actually talking about Tara, he was referring to his camera as “chinky,” since it was made in China.  Tara’s point was that it didn’t matter because the word itself was wrong, but this point got lost in the bravado and aggressive clamor of males on the edge of animal behavior.  The two opposing groups of young men continued to yell at each other far after their initial points had been made.  After great effort, we were able to stick enough bodies in between the warring clans and things settled down. 

I later asked Tara if she got called “chinky” a lot in India.  She said she did, even in Delhi, and told me some infuriating stories about the stereotypes and ignorant comments people from Assam and other northeastern states were subject to everyday.  Even in a place as eclectic as Delhi, this kind of ignorance and stupidity was widespread.  I tried to comfort her and told her about an experience I had when I was a young student in elementary school in rural Pennsylvania.  As the only non-white kid in my class, my classmates, knowing no better, used to ask me if I was Chinese (they had apparently never seen neither a Chinese person, nor an Indian, before in their lives).   So perhaps ignorance in America wasn’t so different from ignorance in India, I told Tara.  She agreed but did not seem particularly comforted by my words. In any case, I respected Tara’s toughness and the fact that she stood up for herself.  Moreover, I was grateful that the yelling match didn’t get physical, since a crowded train car twenty-nine hours away from its final destination didn’t seem like the best place to start a brawl.

My eyes were fixed on Tara long after our mutual exchange had passed, and Comrade Rao’s statement was now being translated by her into English.  It was a long statement and I will end this wandering post with a fragment from it: “Socialism can never be defeated, it is not something that is even ‘defeatable,’ as such.  One attempt at socialism might have failed in the 20th century, but it will always come back again.  As long as there is capitalism there is always the possibility for socialism.”


The White Tiger, regardless of the opinion one might have regarding its award-winning status, is first of all about movement.  And yet, this is too simplistic an assessment.  Rather, the novel itself becomes a vehicle for thought, reanimating  and reimagining the heterotopic spaces and disjointed times of the postcolonial city.  The novel won the prestigious Booker Prize for best work of fiction in 2008 (other notable South Asian writers to receive this reward include Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy).  As a result of this international recognition, perhaps, and for the dark, clearly sartorial portrait of modern Indian society it conjures before an ostensibly global audience, the book has sharply divided supporters and critics, the latter of whom have questioned the literary status of The White Tiger, which was Adiga’s debut as a novelist.

Most critics point to the problem of representation that is in some ways central to narrative structure of The White Tiger.  Adiga, writing in English, puts forth the perspective of a poor man, a subaltern from a small rural village in India.  Balram Halwai was born the son of a rickshaw puller.  He ultimately escapes his poverty, through equal parts cunning and sheer luck.  And yet the means of this escape, far from affirming a narrative of progress and social justice in urban India, reveals, rather, a much darker image.  We see close up the injustice and violence of an extremely hierarchical society undergoing radical socio-spatial transformation. 

When I was in north India undertaking my dissertation research in the fall and winter of 2008, the White Tiger was causing a bit of a stir in the English-language media.   One day, I was discussing the book with Sheela, a middle aged mother who lived in Park View City in Gurgaon. 

Sheela had a copy of the book on a coffee table in her living room, where we happened to be sitting.  The room was colored in heavy, earthy tones, deep greens and muted reds, plush and darkcarpets and roundish off-white furniture, the clothe on the pillows of the couch was as soft as the shiny marble floor tiles were hard.  Sheela's daughter was reading the book, she informed me.  Sheela did not approve.  Her concern was that a novel like Adiga’s, with all the international attention it was getting, would paint an overly negative picture of India in her daughter’s head.  It would lead people like her daughter and others in the world to “see only India’s poverty and inequality, and not the progress and development that has changed the country over the past ten-twenty years.”

This critique differed slightly from that espoused by Khushwant Singh, the great Delhi writer, but the spirit is largely the same.  In a review he wrote that was published in the Tribune, the writer praised Adiga’s novel as well written and “highly readable,” but “also infinitely depressing; it is a dark, one-sided picture of India I have ever read [sic]. I don’t mind reading harsh criticism of my countrymen, but I find half-truths unpalatable.”

For both Sheela and Singh, the central issue was the way Adiga represented India, and particularly Delhi.  As Singh rather sardonically noted:

Adiga now says he wants to dedicate his prize winning novel to the people of Delhi. However, it is not the Delhi of which Dilliwalas are proud of — a city of marble palaces, mosques and temples, of ancient forts and mausolea, — all this escapes the author’s eyes. What draws him are slums, stench of drains filled with human concrete, pigs rummaging in garbage dumps, pimps and prostitutes. We, who belong to this city, have nothing to thank him for. But bless him. Though full of half-truths, he writes well. His black humour and biting satire persuades the reader to forgive him.

Is there an ethical responsibility on the part of the author to depict particular life-worlds in “truthful” ways?  Does it matter when the work in question is a piece of fiction?

Such questions, while interesting to think about, are beyond my present concern.  They belong to larger philosophical and literary questions of representation, authenticity, and authorial intentionality.  Rather than intentionality, I want to focus on intelligibility, and namely, the following questions with regard to The White Tiger: what does this novel make intelligible that was unintelligible before?  And what is the politics of the lines that divide the intelligible from the unintelligible?  For whom do these un/intelligibilities exist? 

My argument is that the novel itself becomes intelligible through the movements of its protagonist, the driver Balram Halwai.  It is through his narrative that we are immersed into the contradictory life-worlds and spaces that Balram uniquely has access to as the chauffer of a wealthy couple newly settled in Delhi.  As far as intentionality is concerned, we might say that for Adiga, Balram himself is a vehicle with which to explore the contrasts and contradictions of contemporary urban space.  But what Balram’s movements make intelligible for us are far more interesting to me than Adiga’s unknowable intentions. 

Balram’s narrative is as stark and biting as it is sharp and witty.  The book, for all its supposed negativity and depressing context, is funny and fast-paced, and as Khustwant Singh himself notes, an immensely enjoyable read.  As a character, Balram’s often times simplistic conceptualizations of Indian society find resonance in the reflections they provoke in the reader, allowing for a further extrapolation that need not itself be limited to the vocabulary of Balram.  For me, this is the essence of art (and progressive politics), to make intelligible new worlds and forms of experiences such that our own realities can be rethought and understood differently.

For Balram, India is divided into two countries: “an India of Light, and an India of Darkness” (2008, 14).  As we will see, these two Indias are not so much geographically distinct spaces, as they are the products of imaginary belonging and social exclusion along the steep hierarchical lines of class and mobility.

The India of darkness includes Balram’s childhood village, which is replete with failed schools that lack teachers, failed hospitals that lack doctors, and corrupt politicians who use electoral politics to further their cynical ends.  Opposed to this darkness is the India of Light, of future aspirations and the hope for upward class mobility.  At the broadest level, Balram’s movement in the novel is from Darkness to Light.  And yet this movement is undermined by various modes of confinement.  Balram, who is physically mobilized as the driver of his rich employer’s car, is still excluded from the spaces that he takes them, such as shopping malls, luxury condominiums, government offices, and the like.  In this sense, confinement is not opposed to mobility. 

And so Darkness even permeates the Light that Balram chases after escaping from his village.  But this Darkness remains obscured for Balram’s employer, who belongs to Delhi’s elite, a small group that increasingly seems to live amongst, but not really with, its poorer fellow citizens.  As Balram drives his rich employers around the city, he finds that “With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open—a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road—and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed” (134).

And so Darkness even permeates the Light that Balram chases after escaping from his village.  But this Darkness remains obscured for Balram’s employer, who belongs to Delhi’s elite, a small group that increasingly seems to live amongst, but not really with, its poorer fellow citizens.  As Balram drives his rich employers around the city, he finds that “With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open—a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road—and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed” (134).

Balram, never weary of grand-theorizing, eventually conceptualizes the basic mode of confinement that simultaneously keeps the majority of the country oppressed in their place, while also ensuring that the violence which produces this oppression never comes back to seriously challenge the social and cultural hierarchy at the center of Indian society.   As Balram theorizes it, for the vast majority of India, the poor and confined, their misery is both inherited and of their own making.  They are trapped in what he cleverly calls the “Rooster’s Coop.”   Roosters, even when they see that they are about to get slaughtered next, “do not try to get out of the coop.  The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.” (175) 

And why does the majority of the country not revolt and overthrow the small minority that confines them?  “Because Indians are the world’s most honest people? No. It’s because 99.9 per cent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market…Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police.  That’s because we have the coop.” (175).  “The coop is guarded from the inside” (194), Balram tell us, as we begin to conceptualize a veritable postcolonial society of control in which different classes, though variously mobilized in neoliberal spaces and times, remain confined within their respective worlds: the rich in their sealed eggs, condos, and shopping malls, and poor in the Darkness of discipline, inhibition, and the tyranny of culture and tradition. “A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse” (176).

So how does Balram manage to escape his confinement and cross into the Light? “I was destined not to stay a slave” (41), Balram tells us early on.  But it is only later in the story that we discover the stakes involved in plotting one’s escape from the Darkness of contemporary India: “only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed—hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters—can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.  It would, in fact, take a White Tiger.  You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur, sir” (177).

Balram’s break comes when he savagely kills his master in cold blood, even though he knows that if he manages to escape arrest, his family will surely be found by the rich and powerful relatives of the deceased, who will see to it that they pay the price for Barlam’s crime.

But for Balram, the desire to kill his own master, who is presented as a relatively benevolent employer, never demeaning or violent (in contrast to other employers who are shown as much more ruthless with their servants), was not what made him unique: “a billion servants are secretly fantasizing about strangling their bosses” (125).  But the difference is that Balram decides to act upon a rage that slowly builds up inside of him, anger at the deprivation he was consigned to for no other reason than being born in the Darkness.  To those still stuck in the coop, Balram is unequivocal: “I have woken up, and the rest of you are still sleeping, and that is the only difference between us” (315).  And to the horrified elite classes of India, who after reading his narrative might begin to have second thoughts about how they treat their own servants, who cook their food, clean their floors, and drive them everywhere all day everyday, Balram is unapologetic: “I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant” (321).

After the murder, Balram absconds to Bangalore, where he starts up his own business with the money he stole from his master: a taxi service that shuttles young workers to and from call centers.  In the end, Balram imagines himself as an integrated member of Bangalore’s urban society, a part of the dynamic “new” India that is mobilized both across geographical space as well as up hierarchical social space.  Far from feeling guilt for his crime, Balram sets himself to describing his new environs: “There is construction everywhere. Piles of mud everywhere. Piles of stones. Piles of bricks. The entire city is masked in smoke, smog, powder, cement dust. It is under a veil. When the veil is lifted, what will Bangalore be like?” (317).

“Maybe it will be a disaster: slums, sewage, shopping malls, traffic jams, policemen. But you never know. It may turn out to be a decent city…A new Bangalore for a new India” (318).

Adiga’s novel, which is about the movements made possible in (and which, in turn, make possible) the “new”/neoliberal India, begs us to question the forms of exclusion that result from social and spatial mobility.  If Balram’s escape from Darkness to Light is performed through an act of violence, and that violence then serves as a means for inclusion into India’s unjust and steep social hierarchy, then what does this say about the mechanisms and lines that divide inclusion and exclusion?  How is mobility itself a form of exclusion?  These questions seem increasingly relevant as India’s cities seem ever ready to construct wider roadways, newer flyovers, by-passes and expressways for privatized automobiles.  As the Nano post from last week argued, private transport is seen as an entitlement in urban India, not a luxury or privilege.  If such modes of privatized transport are productive of new experiences of space and time, then Balram’s story serves to remind us that what is also produced is a radical alterity, an exclusion that is violent and deplorable.  This is what Adiga’s novel makes intelligible for us.


Revolutionary urbanists will not limit their concern to the circulation of things, or to the circulation of human beings trapped in a world of things. They will try to break these topological chains, paving the way with their experiments for a human journey through authentic life.
— Guy-Ernest Debord, “Situationist Theses of Traffic”

It is to Guy Debord’s credit that he envisaged, as early as the 1950’s, the detrimental impact privatized transportation would have on modern urban life in general.  He proposed nothing less than a “revolutionary urbanism” to imagine a life beyond the myopic, yet seductive vision of “two cars per family,” as the American capitalist dream machine conjured it.  But Debord was keen enough to understand both the economic importance and the symbolic significance of the private automobile.  That is, he understood it not merely as a means of transportation and generator of surplus labor (as “commuting time” to and from work), but also as “the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout the society.  The automobile is at the center of this general propaganda, both as supreme good of an alienated life and as essential product of the capitalist market.”

Debord must have sensed the demise of public forms of transportation implied by the proliferation of private automobiles.  And with that decline would come a corresponding decline in civic and political life, such that apathetic individualism would reign supreme in the industrializing countries, precisely at a time when the most radical and rapid socio-economic changes in capitalist cities were underway.  Moreover, the proliferation of privatized transport would also inaugurate a new, and relatively unprecedented, form of inequality in capitalist societies: a steep hierarchy in forms of mobility and access, where middle and upper class citizens would benefit from increased efficiency and speed in transportation, while lower classes would literally be left in their place.  

What form of political intervention might be implied by Debord’s idea of “revolutionary urbanism”?  I don’t pretend to know the answer.  But I will suggest some lines of thinking that might be useful.  For one thing, such an intervention would have to come at the level of urban experience itself, that is, the distribution of intelligibilities and sensibilities in space and time.  The proliferation of privatized transport, more than making possible increasingly flexible and spatially decentralized modes of production and exchange, also was productive of new subjectivities and experiences of urban capitalist space and time.  It is in this way that the image of “two cars per family” could not just be a “false” ideological illusion, but a redistribution of micro-political experience itself.

I present the debacle of Tata Motors in the Indian state of West Bengal just a few months ago as an example of the complexities involved in intervening in the experiential politics of neoliberal space and time.  In January 2008, the Tata Group, one of India’s largest commercial conglomerates, also widely respected for its philanthropic endeavors, dazzled the international automobile industry when it unleashed its design for the new Tata “Nano,” advertising it as the least expensive production car in the world (at roughly $2300).  According to Newsweek magazine, the advent of the Nano signaled “a new era in inexpensive personal transportation,” and hailed not only its affordability, but also its very compact size, ideal for city driving in an increasingly traffic-congested world. 

But delving a bit deeper into the public discourse surrounding the Nano, one could discern a latent understanding of private transport as a sort of natural entitlement, long denied India’s middle classes, but now within reach. Here is the Indian newspaper The Financial Times: “If ever there were a symbol of India’s ambitions to become a modern nation, it would surely be the Nano, the tiny car with an even tinier price-tag. A triumph of homegrown engineering, the Nano encapsulates the dreams of millions of Indians groping for a shot at urban prosperity.”  

But such dreams came to a shattering halt when Tata’s West Bengal car-factory was forced to close down on October 2, after months of protests led by Trinamool Congress Party president Mamata Banerjee.  Banerjee was representing approximately 15,000 farmers, peasants and agricultural workers in Singur who felt they had been unfairly displaced and inadequately compensated for their land, close to one thousand acres in total, which the West Bengal government had acquired and allocated to Tata. The car-factory was 90% completed and the Nano itself merely months away from being released on the market when an embattled and frustrated Ratan Tata, chairman of the group, abruptly decided to move the project from West Bengal to some other state, describing the environment as too hostile and violent for the production of the car to ensue.

After this announcement, there was near universal condemnation of Mamata Banerjee for her stringent opposition to the Nano factory in Singur.  With all that the Nano represented for the aspiring Indian economy, Banerjee was lividly denounced as a traitor the cause of India’s development.  Banerjee’s long standing and personal contempt for West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party was seen as the primary reason for her opposition to the Nano project, and it was widely held that this nihilistic personal vendetta had not only cost West Bengal the Tata project and the thousands of jobs it would have generated, but also irreparably damaged “brand West Bengal” as an investment-friendly state, something the Communist Party had vigorously been trying to push under the leadership of Chief Minister Buddhabed Bhattacharjee.  For single-handedly jeopardizing this project for personal gain, Banerjee was unanimously condemned in the nation’s leading newspapers.

Immediately after the West Bengal pullout, several states lined up to compete for the opportunity to house the relocated Nano factory.  Eventually, Ratan Tata chose the state of Gujarat, after its Chief Minister Narender Modi quickly made available the requisite land and promised no political hostility or unruly protests.  To add insult to injury for the state of West Bengal, Modi, ever the shrewd politician, wrote two letters that were publically circulated.  One was for Chief Minister Bhattacharjee and the other was for Mamata Banerjee.  Taken together, Modi’s words can be taken as representing a new consensus amongst Indian states regarding their proper roles with regard to India’s economic development.  To the CM, Modi described a fundamental difference between Gujarat and West Bengal:

“In Gujarat, we have a consistent industrial policy. Marxists like you had once opposed industrialization. You had resisted entry of computers and now you are talking about industrialization. Neither your party nor the administration is providing whole-hearted support. We have created a land bank and have an industrial map ready. We acquire land in advance through discussions with farmers. This is a continuous process. I admit that your state has much more cultivable land than we have and acquisition is difficult. Therefore, it is important to keep the opposition in the loop and continue discussions throughout the year. We do just that.”
And to Banerjee, he further expounded on this difference: “In Gujarat, opposition parties don't oppose for the sake of opposition. We don't play politics over industrialization. When it comes to development projects we are all together.”

The audacity of Modi in writing these letters was in part possible through the near consensus of public opinion (at least in the dominant press) regarding the Tata debacle in West Bengal.  Never was Banerjee given credit for representing farmers who had felt slighted, nor was there any impetus to begin to question the idea of development as something above and beyond “politics,” as something that might indeed be debatable, contestable, and subject to negotiations involving people with different views and perspectives on the costs and benefits of industrialization.  Instead, Banerjee was widely seen as doing a great disservice to the state of West Bengal, to the “public good,” and to the overall cause of economic development and industrialization.
This whole episode is demonstrative of the way in which development is understood within dominant discourses in neoliberal India.  But my argument is that there is added significance to the Nano venture because it was not only an industrial project and a generator of employment (a boon for any ruling political party), it was itself a living symbol of the mobility made possible through economic liberalization.  The Nano symbolized possibility for a middle class that increasingly sees itself as socially mobile in both a vertical sense (upward-class mobility) and in a horizontal sense (across geographic distances at greater speeds and efficiency).  Such possibilities, whether actual or imagined for middle class individuals, constitute a new politics of spatial and temporal experience in which political interventions, such as Mamata Banerjee’s above (and in this sense, it does not matter whether her intervention was for personal gain or out of a genuine desire to represent the displaced farmers) are increasingly met with impatience and annoyance, since they seem to speak a different experiential language of space and time, acting like a speed bump in India’s rapidly accelerating economic journey.


One morning I was heading up to North Delhi on the Metro to continue my archival research at Delhi University Central Library, when I decided to disembark prematurely at Chandni Chowk.  The daily trips to consult DU’s complete archive of EPW were becoming rather monotonous, flipping through dusty binders of issues from the 1960s and 70s, hoping to find something about Delhi, about urbanism, about slums, about city development.  Stepping off the train, I reasoned that I could probably learn more about the city by actually delving into it and moving around. 

Chandni Chowk is located in the heart of what is known as “Old Delhi.”   This is Mughal Delhi, the “Dilli” of expansive forts, red sandstone and white marble mosques, crowded bazaars with disorienting, confounding streets and alleyways winding and intersecting in every conceivable direction.  This part of the city was originally called Shahjahanabad after the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who designed and built it in the middle of the seventeenth century, some seven decades before the British East India company established its rule in faraway Calcutta.

Getting off at Chandi Chowk, the central thoroughfare through the old city, my initial intention was to wander through this famously dense and chaotic market in order to get lost in the endless maze of narrow ghallis that gives the place its confounding aura.  I basically wanted to follow random paths, a sort of derive, taking note of the old Islamic architecture in its crumbling, yet still standing state.  In this regard, I was successful.  I had my camera with me and shot aspects of the built environment with its contemporary inhabitants: kids running around playing, setting up impromptu cricket matches in “open spaces” (which were really only slightly wider alleys), fabric merchants with brightly lit and air-conditioned stores with white marble floors.  The merchants sat on plush pillows and piles of fabrics, showing customers their wares in a space that was in stark contrast to the dark and dusty ghalli on the outside, which was musty and dark even in the day time.  There were stores and houses of all varieties, and dilapidated archways would signal once-grand entrances to once-regal homes that were worn out with many generations of residents living in and out of the original designs.  These ingresses were now no more than partial vistas into the cramped dwellings of people who called this mysterious and rustic place home.

Looking above, one could see two to three storey structures stretching up with no more than a few yards separating one from another.  At certain points they nearly adjoined, so that extended balconies and air conditioning units met suspended over the stone alleyways below.  I saw monkeys hopping from balcony to balcony, negotiating window sills, clothes lines or anything else protruding from the walls thirty feet in the air.  Kids mischievously threw stones at them from the ground below.  One also couldn’t help but notice the thick entanglement of wires and cables that ran above the alleys, connecting nearly every dwelling and store to a main circuit breaker somewhere.  These wires and their connections seemed as precarious in their place as the ghostly buildings that were half collapsed and whose once regal facades had all but faded away, leaving a dark, mystifying labyrinth in its stead.  I wondered if there were people who understood the logics of these mazes, who could effortlessly navigate the very terrain in which I was becoming more and more embedded, and lost.

A rich array of animals inhabited this space with the people.  I saw a pack of desperate little brown puppies drinking water from a shallow, muddy puddle, along with cows, goats and chickens, each assuming a kind of indifference to the passer-by that characterizes urban dwellers of all species.  I saw Muslim men with long beards and skull caps and women in black or white hijabs, saffron robed swami’s in temples placing red tikkas on the foreheads of devoted Hindus, children with no sandals or shoes running carelessly over the rocky dirt and brick paths.  No one seemed to notice me, even when I took pictures, the business-as-usual indifference of everyday city life. 

One could find a wide variety of goods being sold in Chandni Chowk, and everyday thousands of locals and tourists alike flocked to and cluttered the mad bazaar.  Clothes and fabrics, household items, gold and silver jewelry, fake brandname watches, sunglasses, and electronics, pirated CDs with music and movies, domestic and international, all could be found in Chandni Chowk, to say nothing of the food in and around the Old City.  It was the day before Diwali, and crowds had gathered on the main road to do their shopping for the holiday. Stores were were selling mittai as well as fruits, some of which were to be offered to gods in mandirs, others to be served to relatives following the prayers. 

After walking for about an hour or so, I had no idea where I was, and only a faint sense of the direction from which I had come.  In any case, I thought, it would be simply impossible to re-trace my steps through the complex labyrinth of narrow lanes that I rather unconsciously navigated.  No problem, I thought, I would just find a rickshaw driver and tell him to take me back to the Metro Station.  The ride couldn’t cost more than twenty rupees, and it wouldn’t hurt to inject some liquidity into the local economy.  In fact, while I was feeding the local economy, I thought, I might as well feed myself.  Throughout my walking tour of Chandni Chowk, I could not help but smell the rich assortment of deep-fried treats that were sold on nearly every corner: samosas, kichoris, pakoras, and more.  These third-world foods will surely screw up my first-world stomach, I had thought earlier, resisting the temptation to chow down a freshly made samosa with meeti chutney on the side.  But such precaution now seemed unwarranted, especially after having walked two or three kilometers through the never-ending alleyways of Shahjehanbad.  Just as I exited one part of the labyrinth and entered a bright and busy thoroughfare that much more resembled your typical Indian city—crowded and clustered and lined with stores that all seemed to be selling the same things—I walked past a group of rickshaw wallahs at a little side-of-the-road eatery.  These guys were aggressively chomping down on puri  and chole, which looked and smelled absolutely delectable.  I walked up to the cook and asked him how much for lunch.  He told me twenty rupees, less than fifty cents.  I told him to hook it up and watched eagerly as he scooped up a cup-full of chole and landed five or six fresh puris on a stainless steel plate.   The puris were shiny and dripping with oil from the big, wide deep-fryer from whence they came, and the chole was steaming light brown, sprinkled with finely chopped mint leaves and purple diced onions.  My stomach grumbled in admiration for the decision my brain had made. 

“Twenty,” the cook said, as he handed me the plate.  I took out my wallet and asked him rather nonchalantly if he could take a Rs. 500 note, as I had nothing smaller on me.  But the man just froze and kind of stared at me for a moment with a dumbfound expression on his face.  Then he looked around the place to see if any of the seated customers had witnessed what had just taken place, this rather unprecedented turn of events, as I was soon about to find out.  Of course, at least two or three others had overheard and were in fact following the whole proceedings (wherever you are in India, there are always at least two or three people somewhere around watching what you are doing).  As soon as the cook got this confirmation from the others, they all started slapping each other on the backs and laughing hysterically, getting everyone else in the place involved.  “What do you want me to do with this?” the cook screamed, looking at the Rs. 500 bill in my hand.  “Can’t you break it?” I asked.  But this only made them laugh harder.  I then added insult to self-injury by looking around and asking if anyone in the joint had five Rs 100 notes to trade me.  This got the already raukus crowd even further into their hysteria.  I looked back at the cook, who now had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard, and gave him a face of quiet desperation, as if to say to him, “come on, you had your laugh at my expense, can’t you just give me the plate and let me eat the food?”  But the cook’s wide, iniquitous smile, which revealed several missing teeth, elicited little sympathy for me.  He wasn’t about to sacrifice Rs 20 to someone like me, and neither were any of the off-duty rickshaw pullers in the place.  I realized that there was little I could do in this situation, and simply told him I was sorry and walked away, as I continued to hear the laughing go on behind my back.

Imagine being in a place like India, and your problem isn’t having too little money, as it seems to be for the majority of the people , but rather having too much.  This is indeed a valuable lesson for anyone traveling here.  The best way to spot yourself out as a foreigner is to carry Rs. 500 notes and nothing smaller.  Its almost like you’re traveling with a different currency.  Especially if you are in a place like Chandni Chowk.   

Needless to say, my monetary situation also ruled out the possibility of taking a rickshaw to the Metro station, as most rickshaw pullers probably couldn’t pull in Rs 500 in an entire day, maybe not even a week.  Five hundred rupees, by the way, is about ten US dollars.

Hungry, humiliated, and furious at myself for not thinking ahead, it was up to me and my feet to find my way home.  And finally I caught a break.  As I walked away from the main road I saw an earth tone building in the distance with a curiously large round dome as its roof, down a ways on a minor side-road.  Without much forethought, I decided to follow the road and check out this building.  It seemed an interesting blend of modern and Mughal architecture.  Once there I found out that this was in fact a quite dingy-looking local district library, not nearly as interesting up close as it looked from afar.  But right next to the library there was a bright sign pointing towards Town Hall, which I remembered crossing just after exiting the Metro Station some hours before.  I headed in that direction, and sure enough, before long I found the Station right where I had left it.  This little piece of serendipity was lost on me, however, as my rumbling stomach quickly turned sour in its mood and was now making unreasonable demands for satisfaction.

I zipped out of Chandni Chowk and headed south on the Metro for Connaught Place.  The contrast between these two markets could not have been greater.  Though both in Delhi, and separated only by a ten minute Metro ride, they belong to seemingly distinct modernities, different historical trajectories which nonetheless intertwine in interesting and complex ways.  Going from North to South, roughly speaking, one can trace a slightly curved line beginning from Old Delhi, which a few hundred years ago was the capital of Muslim India, down to New Delhi, which was manufactured as the capital of British India three-quarters of a century ago, and further down to South Extension and Gurgaon below, which might be considered the quasi-capital of the new “global” India (though cities like Mumbai and Bangalore might have stronger claims to this title).  Let us call this “neo Delhi.”  As architectural scholars have pointed out, these three capital cities-in-one speak different spatial languages of modernity.  Old Delhi, with its narrow ghali’s, its bazaars and chowks, its masjids, minars and qilas, speaks the spatial-architectural language of urdu-arabic modernity, inaugurated by the Mughals but endlessly transformed as Shahjehanbad has absored multitudes of new urban dwellers from all over India, adapting its form so that it continues to thrive and re-invent itself as a center of commerce, culture and religion.

Thanks to the Delhi Metro, which through an underground tunnel takes you directly from the heart of Old Delhi to that of New Delhi, the contrast between these two modern urban spaces is felt as soon as one exits the Metro Station in the center of Connaught Circus.  Whereas one’s entry into Chandni Chowk is immediately evocative of the quintessential third-world bazaar, crowded, dusty, suffocating in its spatial design (if design is right word here), the middle of Connaught Circus is an open park, and the nearest store or car-infested street is a safe distance away.  Coming up the stairs from the station, one is greeted with a circular open plaza with wide radial avenues protruding outwards to other circles laid out in geometric patterns throughout New Delhi.  If one were to find such patterns in Shahjehanbad, they would belong to a different geometry, and to an alternative logic of space.  The Anglophonic spatial language of New Delhi signifies through “circuses” and “radial roads,” “blocks,” “parks” and “places,” though many of the colonial names have been “Indianized” in the postcolonial period.  Walking about the inner circumference of Connaught Place (called CP for short), one is in the midst of crumbling, but still fully functional colonial architecture (a common theme all over India), once handsome white buildings now stained black and grey with postcolonial history and neglect, with palatial columns entrancing a series of curved blocks that form the inside ring of CP.  Within these blocks are stores and eateries of an entirely different variety than in Chandni Chowk.  One goes to CP to spend money, whereas one goes to Chandni Chowk to save money, to haggle and bargain and make a deal.  One’s appearance in CP itself becomes a certain sign for consumption, as shoppers dress to impress while tourists stick out of the crowd with their goofy outfits.  With my still unsatisfied stomach, I finally resigned myself to consuming at the going New Delhi rate.  One might take note here of the stark difference in culinary economies.  Whereas I was looking at a Rs 20 plate of puri chole at Chandni Chowk, now I was paying Rs 120 for a Chicken Tikka Wrap and Rs 50 for a cold coffee at Cha Bar in CP.  And I didn’t even have to break my Rs. 500 note.  They took credit card.


“Chalta hai” is a colloquial expression used by many to describe a lackadaisical attitude towards everyday life and the obstacles, challenges, inconveniences or inefficiencies one faces in India. Indeed, it is important to stress the part about “in India.” “Chalta hai” is an internalized critique, a sort of self-deprecating acknowledgement and defense of both what makes India unique, and what continues to “hold it back.” “Chalta hai” might loosely be translated as “so be it,” or “so it goes…”, and could be used to explain why, for instance, Indians seem to put up with blatant corruption in government, why pigs, cows and wild dogs are allowed to roam freely in the streets, even when they carry potentially harmful diseases, why traffic rules are rarely followed, even as crowded and congested roads continue to plague mobility in urban areas (and villages too, for that matter). Ask any Indian why trash is allowed to pile up on street corners even in wealthy neighborhoods and he’d probably respond with something like this: “You know how we Indians are, chalta hai until it becomes too big of a problem to ignore.” Indeed, Indians seem to have an inordinate capacity to ignore these problems until it is perhaps too late.

“Chalte chalte” seems to perfectly embody a postcolonial response to a colonial encounter. Its historical legacy can be traced to British colonialists like James Mills, who described in his 1817 opus The History of British India the “phlegmatic indolence [that] pervades the nation.” Oh, how the British must have thought themselves so civilized, rational, and efficient when they looked into the brown cities that lay outside their colonized “white” zones, and seen kids running around naked, pools of sewage and other waste lying in plain public sight. The British probably detested more than anything else the “chalta hai” attitude, and awarded themselves the responsibility of liquidating it from Indian society along with irrational rituals, polytheism, widow burning, and more, until they too gave up on the civilizing mission and adopted their own version of a chalta hai approach.

Nearly two hundred years later, “chalta hai” is alive and well, having survived both colonial and postcolonial attempts to exorcise it from the social landscape of Indian society. But whereas Mill’s denunciation was in service of justifying colonial rule, the “chalta hai” attitude articulated by ordinary Indians today is an intimate disavowal of a deplorable trait that one nonetheless cannot seem to do without. For then the Indian would simply cease to be Indian, right?

And this is what gives the expression its problematic, even haunting intonation, especially when it is decried by the business and elite classes that together comprise what is often known as “India Inc,” that transnational class of entrepreneurs and investors that concern themselves with things like “Brand India,” or the image of India in the global economy. This is an India that is both imagined and materialized. It is imagined as a more polished, sleeker, market savvy India, poised to compete in the global economy and also uncompromising in its demands for nothing less than “world class” standards of architecture, product manufacture and design, and services. Not surprisingly, India Inc has little patience with the “chalta hai” attitude that seems to confront it at every corner, at every new construction sight, at every road intersection, just outside the golden gates of the “Brand India.”

But the case of Gurgaon, Haryana (as I’m sure many other cities as well), demonstrates that the relationship between “chalta hai” and India Inc cannot merely be one of opposition. For while Gurgaon is host to no less than 200 Fortune 500 companies and home to an increasingly transnational class of entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers, the “chalta hai” attitude is alive and well here, both inside and outside the gates of “India Inc.”

You might see it when a CEO speeds past you in his chauffer driven Mercedes S500, carelessly throwing the wrapper of his chocolate bar out his open window, only to raise the tinted glass as soon as a beggar comes out to ask for change. On the ground that wrapper stays until who knows when. Oh well, you know what they say, “chalta hai.”

This apparent contradiction has come to something of a head in Gurgaon. Last month there was a week-long special in the Hindustan Times on the crumbling infrastructure of Gurgaon. Nicknamed “the Millenium City” and invested with all the hope, desire and pride of India Inc, Gurgaon, it turns out, is little better than the rest of the sprawling morass of urban India, with inadequate sewage treatment (so that feces piles up right outside the gates of luxury communities), electrical shortages (6 to 7 hours without power a day for many), shortages of water (though there still seems to be enough for green golf courses and residential parks, all privately built and accessed, of course) and growing crime (what with the increasingly visible gap between the haves and the have-nothings).

The truth is, Gurgaon is on the brink of urban disaster, and it has everything to do with both “chalta hai” and India Inc. As an architect based in Gurgaon recently told me, “buildings came up too fast here, either the government was not aware or it simply could not keep up with the pace of construction and development, so world-class buildings were made, with urban infrastructure left out of the picture.” India Inc has been driven in large part by hungry land grabbers (primarily local state authorities), who make a quick buck by buying land on the cheap from farmers or villages, and sell them at a much higher rate to real estate developers, who proceed to construct private townships that cater for the transnational business elite of the “new” India. This class gets pissed off when it finds out that outside the spatial boundaries that market capitalism creates in Indian cities, the “old” India persists with all its chaos, inefficiencies, and apparent redundancies.

So what does India Inc do to exorcise the “chalta hai” attitude that haunts its very soul? It builds fortresses, walls, flyovers, highways, byways, anything to escape the unpleasant realities of this country. But this escape is more existential than physical, more imagined than real. For the piles of garbage, the mounds of open sewage, the multitude of excluded classes and social groups eventually pile high above the gates and elevated roadways, emerge from the cracks in the constructed walls and high-rise condominiums. In order to (not) deal with the growing ecological nightmares, the increasing social inequality, and the reduction of resources, India Inc chooses existential escape, hiding the reality in plain sight, only to save the ultimate confrontation for another day. Indeed, there is nothing more “chalta hai” than that. 


A basic difference between driving in India and driving in the US: in the latter, one drives cautiously, if not suspiciously, as if all the other drivers on the road are imbeciles, unable to make responsible driving decisions for themselves, and are perceived as immediate threats to the self. This is euphemistically called “defensive driving,” but we should really call a spade by what it is: driving amidst a bunch of dumb asses. Often times this leads to internalized anger directed towards others on the road who act irratically and unpredictably (i.e. road rage), but on the whole it seems to produce obedient and passive drivers. People stay within their lanes and would be shocked, if not outraged, to see another driver cross lines that are not supposed to be crossed, or go the wrong direction on a one-way street, or disobey a traffic sign or light.

In India, on the other hand, people cannot afford to drive defensively, nor do they restrict themselves to lines. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. One’s strategy on the road must be offensive, as if one’s very survival were at stake, and likewise, the driver must assume that everyone else is operating by a similar protocol. On the Indian road, it is every car for itself, and in order to go anywhere, in order to plow through the traffic jams where there are not only cars and trucks, but mopeds and bikes, wagons and carts, rickshaws and three-wheelers, not to mention pedestrians and animals, and in order to literally carve out pathways in this thick mass of moving vehicles and bodies, one must assume that the other drivers on the road are not only responsible for themselves, but are equally skilled at what they are doing, ready to move and adjust that crucial inch at that crucial second. Though this second way of driving leads to chaotic scenes, thousands of near collisions every minute (but not nearly as many actual collisions as one would expect), and maddening orchestras of car and truck horns blasting endlessly, road rage does not appear to be such a problem. Perhaps one cannot afford to get angry if one is so busy strategizing how not to get hit by the multitude of diverse vehicles on the road. This also has an effect on dealing with the unexpected. When driving on a one-way road, to see another car coming in your direction would not arouse surprise or antipathy, it would merely necessitate moving out of the way so that the bloody car doesn’t hit you, and then proceeding merrily on your way. In India, lines on the road are taken as suggestions, not rules, and are rarely heeded.

We could, of course, draw out the social implications of this, and think about the broader cultural differences between Indians and Americans from this basic observation, but I’ll leave that to the anthropologists. I merely relate this because it brings me to an idea about urbanism that applies to both India and the U.S., in fact, it is a mode of thinking that I think we all need to take seriously.

Krishan Kumar, like many people I meet in India, frequently asks me questions about America, wondering if and how things are different there, usually as a means for understanding why things are so bad in India. In this instance, we were talking about why the roads are so crazy in India, and why drivers don't stick to their respective lanes. It is not uncommon in India to see the car in front of you simply driving right on the dividing line, rather than choosing a particular lane and staying in-between the lines. The reason why people don’t stay in their lanes, Krishan tells me in Hindi, as he himself maintains a position between two lanes with the middle of the car running right over the white line, is because of police and corruption. The police do not enforce the rules, and even when they do, it is easy to bribe them. “This is why India is behind the U.S.,” he says, “this is the problem with our country.”

And in many ways he is right. Although the more politically attuned of us will point out that corruption works in different ways, and that what lobbyists and special interest groups do in Washington D.C. is more a difference in degree than a difference in kind, the amount of naked police corruption is a troubling reality in India. For the foreigner, as well as for the native, this leads to frustration and a feeling that the police and the state have little or no legitimacy.

But I would also pause for a moment and allow a different line of thinking here. What if the lack of police enforcement is, in a certain sense, a boon for Indian political life? What if it creates the conditions of possibility for a more liberated (but not liberal) mode of urbanism?

In a recent issue of the Indian journal Civil Society, the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, wrote a piece on the future of the Asian city, arguing that what Asian cities (particularly in China and India) need to do is not mindlessly mimic American urban models, but instead learn from the mistakes of American, European, and Latin American cities, and use these lessons to design eco-friendly, humane cities that are people-centered, not car-centered. Indeed, urban development in India since the 1950’s has taken the worst lessons from the American models (suburban sprawls, high rise construction, flyovers and highway systems that violently partition urban space, often creating separate and unequal class-based zoning, privatization of transportation and infrastructure, etc.). Asian cities, Penalosa points out, have a unique potential to design humane cities of joy, a concept geared towards the future construction of pedestrian and public spaces inside cities, including plentiful green parks, wide pavements and bike lanes to provide alternatives to motorized-transportation. He argues that " in the DNA of Asian cities and Asian life there is a pedestrian life that still lingers. Until recently and often even toady, Asian cities had a pedestrian-only street network hundreds of kilometers long where human life and community relations thrived” (Sept.-Oct. 2008, 10). In the wealthy countries, and particularly in the States, something like vehicular diversity (the simultaneity of different types of vehicles, different speeds and modes of transportation within the same urban transportation network) would be more a matter of future-oriented design, if not utopic thinking. In India, and much of the developing world, it is already a present-day reality. Rather than perceiving this to be a sign of backwardness, Penalosa suggests, this should be embraced as something to design future cities around. Cities that embrace an inherited tradition of vehicular diversity by design can become deeply and substantively democratic, and not just procedurally so. Democracy, for Penalosa, implies the production of happiness and joy across the diverse classes and groups in political and social life, and “among our happiness needs,” he points out, “are walking, being with people and not feeling inferior.” The kind of democratic urbanism that Penalosa advocates is one that strives for two basic kinds of equality: “quality of life equality and the implementation of that basic democratic principle which says that public good prevails over private interest." (9)

Among the practical suggestions that Penalosa puts forth is that “road space should be allocated first to public transport and only if there is enough space left, to private cars.” Indeed, Gurgaon is a sprawling suburb of Delhi that desperately could have heeded this advice. Gurgaon was developed as a “satellite city” of Delhi in 1990. Led almost exclusively by private real estate developers, notably Delhi Land and Finance (DLF), Gurgaon transformed from a dusty village and rural space into the bustling and sprawling “millennium city” that it is today. What these private developers did was buy up land from farmers on the cheap, through the Haryana Urban Development Authority, quickly construct high-end apartment towers, office buildings and shopping malls, and just as quickly find tenants to pay exorbitant rents. What they forgot about in the process was the simple fact that without basic urban infrastructure, all of these disconnected zones of wealth, privilege, and accumulation are rendered increasingly moot.

Indeed, just last week, the Hindustan Times put together a week-long series on the infrastructural problems haunting Gurgaon, suggesting that the title “millenium city” is more hype than reality. The series also provided a public space to vent for disgruntled residents and businesses that pay astronomical prices in Gurgaon, but get next to no civic amenities. If Gurgaon still manages to function as a global capitalist node of production, accumulation, and consumption, housing a transnational class of consumers and capitalists alike, it is at enormous cost to the resources of this otherwise barren and desolate landscape. DLF spaces suck up the already scarce supplies of energy, and are mostly backed up by generators, so that when electricity gets cut off, they are still able to run. In addition, since the Haryana state government has itself provided little urban infrastructure for its cherished global city, these real estate developers construct their own private waste treatment and water lines, disconnected from the city around them. This leads to their sucking up valuable resources disproportionate to the other, less wealthy and less powerful inhabitants of the city. It is already estimated that Gurgaon is ten years away from depleting its water resources completely. To this day it has no adequate sewage treatment facility, nor any garbage disposal system, so that sewage waste and trash pile up in corners and abandoned fields across the city. Roads are crumbling and the public sector is lax in fixing the mess now that the private sector has proven unwilling and unable to provide a larger infrastructure for the city. Gurgaon is a classic example of what goes wrong when private interests are given almost exclusive power to rule over what are irreducibly public affairs. More than anything else, Gurgaon’s urban development story puts to death the neoliberal myth that intensive building and infrastructure in select private zones inevitably leads to the complementary development of surrounding areas.

But that is not all, there is next to no public transportation in Gurgaon. To get anywhere beyond your immediate neighborhood, you need a car. Indeed, Gurgaon was designed with car-owners in mind, and one could presume, no one else. Car-owners in India, we must remember, are in the small minority. “They live in private spaces and they sort of jump between them in capsules called cars,” Penalosa sardonically points out, “They drive everywhere. They drive out of their parking at home to their parking space at work, then to the parking at a shopping mall, perhaps to the parking at a supermarket and then to the country club parking lot. Months can go by without them walking a few blocks of their city streets” (9). Designed for privatized consumer-citizens, it is not surprising that cities like Gurgaon pay little attention to public transportation needs. In addition to a dearth of public transport, there are no sidewalks, though the majority of workers in Gurgaon must walk to work (because they cannot afford cars). As Penalosa powerfully argues, “this also reflects lack of democracy in unequal societies where higher income car-owning citizens are more important that poorer ones who walk or ride bicycles” (11).

India, there are many more pedestrians and bicyclists than cars, and this will be the case for many years to come. Unfortunately, there are neither bike lanes nor pedestrian side walks in cities like Gurgaon. Still, people manage to survive, and transport themselves using diverse methods, whether it is cramming 10 people into a rickety little three-wheel auto-rickshaw, riding a bike or a moped or even a cow-drawn cart. Such vehicular diversity should be seen as a strength, rather than as a sign of backwardness. What urban planners in India and across the world need to design are cities that can not only accommodate diverse modes of life, providing livable space for all classes of urban dwellers, but also diverse modes of transportation that are already present and yet unappreciated. Such designs are not only humane and democratic, but are in fact necessary in order to generate political, economic and ecological sustainability.



Let me begin with an interesting quotation that I found a couple days ago, and then move on to something completely different.

A few days ago, at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), where I was awaiting a meeting with Ravi Sundaram, I was browsing through their impressive library, which subscribes to some very critical academic journals. Among them is Public Culture, which was started by Homi Bhabha and Carol Breckenridge. It is from this journal that the quotation comes, from an article entitled “Critique of Popular Culture,” by Partha Chatterjee (Spring ’08). Partha quotes Antonio Gramsci in order to develop an analytic frame for critiquing objects of mass consumption and popular culture in contemporary India: 

the philosophy of praxis as a critique of ‘common sense,’ basing itself initially, however, on common sense…it is not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life, but of renovating and making ‘critical’ an already existing activity

I liked the quote because for me it leads to a politics of everyday life that can only be critiqued from within a particular culture of politics itself, through immersion into the everyday. This is indeed what I am trying to do here in Gurgaon and Delhi.

Ironically, it was by leaving Delhi, which just yesterday was the site of several simultaneous bomb blasts in luxury-end shopping areas and market places spread out across the city, claiming over twenty lives and injuring hundreds, that I could begin to understand critically the culture of politics that surrounds urban terrorism in contemporary India.

Rubal and I left the city early Saturday morning to head to our grandparents’ farm house three hours north of Delhi, where now only my grandmother remains, along with several of our mosis (maternal aunts). This farm house (or simply, the farm, as we call it) was where my mother grew up. It is located in the holy city of Kurukshetra, the town in which, according to our legends, the Bhagavat Gita took place, and Lord Krishna recited his inspirational battle-sermon to Arjuna. This is in the deeply rural state of Haryana.

I have many happy childhood memories at the farm: playing in the cow pins with Shanna mosi, who even let me choose one little calf to name and call my own; leaping from the roofs of the cow pins onto huge mounds of hay with my brother; visiting all the Hindu temples in the area, most of which are devoted to Lord Krishna (star of the Gita); riding in tractors in the rice fields, and countless other adventures that got us into trouble but remain etched in the eternity of memory. It is to here that Rubal and I journeyed for the weekend, to see mosis and cousins that I had not seen in five years.

We were only there for one night, and that was the night of the bomb blasts in Delhi. Rubal received a call on his cell phone from a friend who informed him of the incident. We were all sitting in a room together, cousins and mosis and my grandmother, catching up on lost time, and chatting endlessly on topics that ranged from politics to Bollywood, which are never really disconnected in India. After we heard about the news of the blast, there was a sort of tense silence that lasted no more than a few seconds. My mother called from the states to see if I had been in Delhi during the blasts (how fast the news travels!). We called a few relatives that lived in the city to inquire about their well being.

And here’s the crazy part: we discussed the matter for no more than a few minutes after that and then moved on effortlessly to other topics. The bomb blasts, which happened in the closest major city to us, elicited no major rants against Muslims (other than the typical “what is it that these crazy terrorists want?”), no diatribes against the lack of effectiveness on the part of the state in securing against terrorism (though these would inevitably come in the newspaper articles to follow), no despair at the fact that India experienced the third most number of terrorist attacks in the past year (third only to Iraq and Afghanistan), nor any explicit mourning for the loss of innocent life. Instead, they quickly moved on to topics such as a recent murder mystery in the town of Noida, where a 15 year old daughter was murdered in the middle of the night, along with a servant, while the parents slept through the whole thing (not unlike the case of Jon Bonet Ramsey in the U.S.). Before long, it was as if everyone forgot about the bomb blasts altogether.

On our way back to Delhi the next day, I expressed to Rubal my shock at the utter lack of concern on my family’s part. “They didn’t even give us a warning about returning to Delhi, or try to convince us to stay in Kurukshetra for a few more days. They didn’t even say as little as ‘good luck,’ ‘stay safe.’” Indeed, my relatives’ only suggestion was the following: “stay away from crowded bazaars,” and it wasn’t even directed towards me or Rubal in particular, but was just a general sort of statement that seemed to carry little weight. Such a statement is a pretty useless and futile piece of advice in a place like India. Telling someone to avoid crowded bazaars in India is kind of like telling someone to avoid the long lines at Disney World.

Here was Rubal’s response to my shock: “Well, when you live in a country that has 13 or 14 major bomb blasts a year, they stop having such a significance.”

And its true. I mean, the U.S. experienced one pretty horrific incident and it changed its whole foreign policy, or at least its government used that incident as an excuse to do so. It is not clear that there is any official pronouncement in reaction to 9/13 in Delhi, other than the usual condemnations of extremism and inhumane violence against civilians.

But I would push Rubal’s point a little further and say that, in a country where the most ubiquitous thing is people and large crowds of people, and where there is the constant anxiety of being in an overpopulated society, especially amongst the middle and upper classes (S. Krishna has written pretty astutely on this anxiety amongst this milieu), such events like the random killing of innocent civilians is not treated with the same horror. It is not necessarily that people desire widespread death on the population. But this antipathy is also not unrelated to the idea that even if 50 or 100 or 200 people die in an explosion, even in one particular city, that this cannot but represent the smallest of proportions vis-à-vis the overall population. This cynicism is made even stranger in light of the fact that, because the attacks themselves were carried out in rich areas, where high-end consumers do their shopping, the victims themselves probably belonged to the middle and upper classes.

And this adds an interesting twist to the whole scenario. As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility over the attacks (and I have not had the chance to sit down with a decent paper or watch the news since the blasts), but whoever it was, whether Islamist or Maoist, radical environmentalist or Tamil Tiger, Sikh or Hindu fundamentalist, it is clear that the target was the city itself. And not just any part of the city, but a particular (privileged) milieu. Almost as if to say, the rich are seceding and separating themselves from the rest of this overpopulated and (largely) poor city, and this is the language with which to address such economic apartheid.

Of course, such a claim is highly tenuous at this point. More needs to be found out. But looking at it from within a particular culture of politics, I cannot help but draw connections to The Battle of Algiers, and the birth of anti-colonial terrorism in Algeria, where colonial rule was contested first of all through a violent and radical politics of aesthetics that directly confronted the technologies of apartheid itself (European vs. native attire and style, civilized vs. uncivilized space and architecture).

I am positioned ambiguously within this political and cultural matrix. I must continue to go into Delhi in order to do my research. I will use the Delhi Metro and walk around the streets everyday and probably go shopping from time to time. I am wealthy here in a very poor country. And everywhere you go, the bazaars are crowded and full of people of different religions and cultures and classes.

But sitting with my relatives in rural India, in the farm house that stored countless treasured memories for me, not discussing the very thing that I could not help but think about now, there was a bit of comfort in realizing that the chaos that terrorism expresses in India is perceived differently here than in the U.S., for complicated reasons, reasons that continue to be unclear to me. 


Bombay, a relatively new city in an immensely ancient land, is not interested in yesterdays.
— Salman Rushdie

Neither, I might add, is Gurgaon.

Yesterday I landed in Delhi and finally arrived in Gurgaon. After racing through customs and quickly gathering my luggage, I found my cousin Rubal waiting for me at the arrival gate. It was the first time a whole entourage of extended family was not there waiting at the gate where you make your spectacular entrance into India. At Indira Gandhi International Airport, one cannot help but feel like a celebrity as one takes that dramatic walk out the arrival gate, with dozens of drivers perched at the sides, holding signs with last names written on them, looking anxiously at you, or family members waiting with baited breath for long-awaited relatives to disembark. Walking down that opening, it feels like everyone is watching your every move with anticipation. For my part, I was glad that it was only Rubal waiting to pick me up. It guaranteed a very nonchalant arrival on the subcontinent, and it also meant that my unpracticed Hindi wouldn’t be strained by having to explain ten times over to each relative how long my journey was, how tired I am, how happy I am to return to India after five years (too long!) how hungry thirsty excited sleep-deprived…

As we waited for Rubal’s driver to come around the front entrance of the airport to take us to Rubal’s flat in Gurgaon, the beast of India was already unleashed on me. The countless young men that aggressively attempt to take care of your luggage, even as you decline their services over and again. The utter shock of being surrounded by scores of brown people, much darker than you. Even greater shock at seeing white people in India too, even a few Asians and Africans. So India finally has globalized, I thought. And then there are the loud car horns that unendingly blast at each other, not so much out of spite, but just for mutual acknowledgement of each others’ existence. One must quickly get used to the sheer noise of India. It does not stop until late into the night, and begins all too early the next morning. Even as I write this at 1 a.m., I hear old Hindi film songs blasting loudly out of a nearby car speaker, as drivers clean their employers’ cars in the cool of the summer night.

After waiting about 10 minutes in the front entrance of the airport, talking story and catching up a bit with Rubal, the driver came, and we both took a seat in the back of his air conditioned car.

I’ll admit it. I must have it easier than most foreigners who arrive in India. Even for those who travel for business and eventually stay in luxury hotels, the first hour of arrival must be a mess: locating luggage in the hot and hazy craze of Indira Gandhi Airport (if they’re landing in Delhi), withstanding long lines to get your visa stamped, resisting the hordes of people that are asking for your money, finding a taxi, not freaking out as your driver dodges bicycles, cows, rickshaws, trucks, buses and other cars on the way to your place of stay. For me it was much easier, almost routine, and once in Rubal’s car, I could sit back and look out the window as Delhi’s night flashed by my eyes.

Exiting the airport, we entered into South Delhi, and Rubal asserted proudly how much things had changed in India over the past five years, though just as he said this, he had to bite his tongue: we were driving past a dilapidated row of shacks and shanties that had probably only changed for the worse over the past two or three decades—I can hear John McCain’s monotone in my still America-centered head: “That’s not the kind of change we can believe in.” But still, once we exited South Delhi and entered into Gurgaon, which is directly adjacent, through an extended toll plaza with surprisingly slick, modern architecture, it became clear that we were coming into the India I had been reading about for the last several years. This excited me. Indeed, it was surreal passing all the new office buildings that I had only beheld and apprehended through google images and newspaper articles before arriving. These glass and aluminum structures, many built by the real estate and construction conglomerate DLF Limited (whose motto is “Building India”), stood out from their surroundings, oblivious of their immediate context, as if to say, “No, this is no mere simulacrum, this is real, and there’s much much more to come!” Looking out the window on the way to Rubal’s flat, I was surprised to see that the built environment was very dense, not merely isolated buildings but thick networks of very modern, and if I can say, neoliberal, architecture (architecture that is exceptional to the surroundings—shanties, torn tents, and dilapidated shacks surrounded them and us in all directions). These glittering towers produced something of a city skyline to behold as we sped down National Highway 8 across Gurgaon’s sprawling urban/suburban terrain. But it was ten o-clock at night by this point, so the precise details of these buildings were a bit unclear to me. I’ll have more to say about them in the coming days and weeks.

One thing that struck me in our half-hour ride from the airport was how spread out Gurgaon has become. My project entails documenting Gurgaon’s growth, not only economically (in terms of production, consumption, accumulation) but also in terms of its physical space. Twenty five years ago Gurgaon was a small industrial village, located on a dusty plane just to the south of Delhi, surrounded by farmland. Now it is a glittering metropolis that seems to go on and on and on. NH8 is the main arterial highway that takes you past rows of newly built corporate buildings, shopping malls, and high rise apartments/condos, all to your left as you drive away from Delhi. But these are in the background. They are foregrounded by more familiar third-world sights. Shacks and low-rise brick structures with corrugated roofs. Parked rickshaws, buggies, stalls, and the expected assortment of urban Indian wild-life: dogs, cows, pigs, donkeys, monkeys could also be seen closer to the road. Between the enclave spaces in the back, there are flat, undeveloped areas, with dirt and trees and shrubs. It is almost as if they are cleared out for a purpose. And indeed, in several of these desolate spaces, new structures are currently being built. Gurgaon is a city that is under construction, being built from the ground up, and everywhere you look there are concrete structures with iron rods protruding in all directions, enormous cranes everywhere, and workers’ shanties on the side of the road that remind you that the cost of construction here is cheap, and the supply of labor plentiful. These are all signs of future spaces to be built for the expanding “professional” class of this city, that either works in Gurgaon itself or in Delhi (like my cousin). Most of the billboards are oriented towards the future, assurances that the discomfort of the present is but a transition, and the now-time of Gurgaon is one characterized by future-anticipation.

Rubal’s flat is spacious and equipped with amenities I was not used to finding in India. It is on the first floor of a new gated community, called “Parkview City Apartments,” opened up three or four months back. After unpacking, Rubal’s cook made us an excellent vegetarian meal, with fresh, hot rotis to go along with buttery Paneer, Dahl and yogurt. It is hard to say “no” to someone serving you fresh rotis and delicious Indian fare, even if he is only a fifteen year old kid from Nepal.

After dinner, Rubal gave me a tour of the premises. In the neighborhood itself, inside the gates, there were several high rise towers. Between these buildings, a trimmed lawn with a basketball court in the middle, a garden, and a pool (so far unfilled with water). “We have 24/7 electricity and water, 365 days a year,” Rubal boasted. This is indeed a most coveted luxury in India. Later on that night, when we were watching a Hindi movie on his new plasma Television (a flat-screen wall-hanger), the lights went out, the TV shut off, and everything turned to black. “Just wait two or three minutes,” Rubal assured me, “they’ll come back on.” Then he corrected himself: “no, even less than that: a few seconds.” And, in fact, just seconds later, the lights were back on, and we resumed the Bollywood masala flick. But the incident served as a reminder. In this country, electricity is the greatest of privileges. This, of course, is part of the larger infrastructural problems that haunt neoliberal India: inadequate electricity and water, unpaved roads, no sewage and waste treatment, animals and beggars everywhere…what will the West think of us?! The current talks of a nuclear agreement with the U.S. for the selling of uranium for “peaceful” (alternative energy) purposes is meant to deal with the energy problem directly. But it is said that even if this agreement goes through (it is currently up for vote in the US Congress) India would still be five to ten years away from benefiting from added megawattage. And by then the demand for power would only increase exponentially, what with the booming and consuming “new Indian middle classes,” as well as those in the lower rungs who increasingly find ways to access the basic utilities that simple, rational economics desires so desperately to deny them (through the logic of privatization and the market).

But in Rubal’s flat, such realities seem a world away. “When the light goes out, the underground generator turns on automatically,” he tells me. “And it generates enough power to allow everyone in the neighborhood to run three air-conditioners in each apartment.”

Perhaps this blog should be re-named “Life inside a Gated-Community.”