Building India’s “Shock City of the Twentieth Century” from the Top Down


Samantha Christiansen in Berfrois reviews Howard Spodek's Ahmedabad: Shock City of Twentieth-Century India:

The field of South Asian urban history has a rich history of examining India’s major urban centers. Numerous astute studies of Delhi, Bombay (Mumbai), and Calcutta (Kolkata), for example, have contributed to our understanding of not only the rapid urbanization (and later suburbanization, as explored in the remarkable collection of essays that appeared in a recent special edition of Urban History [February 2012]) of the subcontinent, but the human and economic development that has shaped the region as well.[1] Yet while the field is rich, there are noticeable silences around relatively large swaths of the region. Cities outside of the Indian national border, such as Karachi or Dhaka, rest quietly in the periphery of the historiography; others within the border, such as Ahmedabad, while mentioned in virtually all historical discussions of the subcontinent (being the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram after all), have received little focused attention. Howard Spodek’s Ahmedabad thus provides an important contribution to the field as both an examination of a place conspicuously underrepresented in the urban history of the region and as an excellent piece of urban history that not only greatly informs our understanding of South Asian development, but also has application to a number of cities globally.

Spodek presents a compelling sketch of the last hundred or so years in a city that has been called the “Manchester of India.” In Spodek’s presentation of the city, we see a microcosm of some of India’s major political, economic, and social trajectories: the rise of Gandhi and the independence movement, the drive for modernity and industrialization in postcolonial India, the collapse of the labor unions and the restructuring of the economy within new global markets, and struggles with communal violence and corruption. Spodek successfully balances his portrayal of a city shaped by a concentrated body of power elites within a larger global context, placing Ahmedabad at the center, but recognizing the external forces playing out in the process. In this way, as a case study in urban history, Ahmedabad is instructive both in content and method.

More here.