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Meet the brokers who keep Mumbai running

A new book celebrates the middlemen who keep the wheels turning in the city

The book is a compendium of profiles written by anthropologists, artists and urban designers. Photo: iStockphoto
The book is a compendium of profiles written by anthropologists, artists and urban designers. Photo: iStockphoto

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Bombay Brokers, edited by Lisa Björkman (published in India by Yoda Press), uses an imaginative and unique way to look at a city that finds constant representation in pop culture. It profiles 36 “brokers”—middlemen/facilitators who keep the city running. These include Rasheed, who provides cooking gas connections when they are not available through legal avenues; Janu, a recruiter of labourers from the villages of Bihar and Jharkhand; and Afzal, a taxi driver who disseminates knowledge of the city. Each profile adds a different dimension to how this overpopulated and complex city actually survives—most often, through the efforts of individual citizens.

The profiles are written by anthropologists, artists, city planners and urban designers, people who have worked in Mumbai for many years. The aim is to provide an insight into the kind of work these facilitators do and the circumstances that led them to it. So we are told in detail about how Bunty Singh became a builder in Sanjaynagar and how Imran got into the contractor business, helped by the family’s clout, albeit within a limited area.

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The idea for the book, says the introduction, came “during a particularly fantastic dinner in Bombay with (anthropologist ) Maura Finklestein, sometime in January 2017. As our dinner conversation turned to stories of the remarkable creativity and skilfulness of people we encountered in our research, I began to think about the generative possibilities of bringing such stories together in an unusual kind of book”. The book provides a perspective that everyone who lives in Mumbai is very aware of, but one that often doesn’t make it to odes to the city. The protagonists are people you can’t avoid but also, perhaps, people you have not really thought of beyond the immediate service they provide. The book also attempts to explore the morality of these services: technically “illegal” but essential for the survival of millions. As Dalpat, one of the people profiled in the book, says in the context of getting water certificates: Some things are just acceptable on “humanitarian grounds”.

One of the first “brokers” Björkman met was Rasheed, a teashop owner who arranges cooking gas connections, helped by his contacts and requirement for cooking gas at the teashop. This proved to be the starting point for the project. “This book is about people like Rasheed—people whose material and practical expertise animate the everyday workings in and of one of the world’s more dynamic cities, but whose labours are simultaneously (and paradoxically) subject to much moralising and hand-wringing. We take this paradox—the ethically fraught yet indispensable character of certain kinds of knowledge and labor—as a methodological and analytical jumping-off point for exploring broader questions about global-level transformations: economic, technological, political, socio-material, ideational,” notes the introduction.

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While the premise is fabulous, it’s a difficult book to read. The prose is often winding and academic, especially when it comes to the authors’ comments and notes. The stories are interesting but after the first three-four, predictable. It may be an eye-opener for those not familiar with Mumbai; for Mumbaikars, it’s a reality relived a thousand times.

Mumbai-based Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education and relationships.

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