As a global pandemic rages through the world suspending everyday life, it is worth looking back in time to analyse how perceptions of disease, hygiene, self-improvement, and city planning manifested historically across cultures. A Hygienic City Nation explores everyday urban life in colonial Calcutta in the shadow of epidemics like the cholera and plague. The book narrates, for the first time, the important but relatively unknown story of colonial Calcutta’s neighborhoods or paras where colonial endeavours to control epidemics played out and were met with resistance.
A para, translated literally, is a neighborhood. But paras are more than geographic space. They are spatial communities built on kinship-like ties. Neighbors live like extended families and address each other in familial terms. Locating urbanism in the everyday space of the para, the book goes beyond analysing planned spaces of the city and fills a gap in scholarship with a detailed and multifaceted analysis of ground-level urbanization.
The first para took shape as early as the seventeenth century. Isa Khan, a Muslim Rajput, ruled Bengal at the time. Living under Muslim rulers, the upper castes feared the loss of their property and religion. They established samajes or sovereign communities where they lived together to practice their religion and also defend their land against any possible attack by the Muslim ruler. Under the British rule, paras organized along kinship-like ties continued to resist colonial town planning as they had previously resisted potential interference by Muslim rulers. The book engages with scholarship on neighborhoods in colonial cities that explain these spaces as displays of a widely different spatial knowledge to argue that this difference was not simply critical to resistance against colonial interventions, but was also constitutive of a new urban modernity.
A Hygienic City Nation adds to the historiography of colonial cities as the first academic monograph to argue that colonial urbanism was as much a bodily intervention as it was spatial. The book explains urbanism—commonly understood as the theory and practice of the built urban environment—as a series of spatial shifts effected through interventions in conduct. Bengali urbanists resisted British interventions in their paras. At the same time, they conceived and carried out practices of hygiene that adopted the notion of unclean neighborhoods and bodies from the colonial state. The new language of hygiene that they shaped, however, was not secular like the colonial discourses on health and sanitation. Instead, it was heavily imbricated with Hindu caste practices. The urbanists deployed this new language of hygiene to initiate a pedagogic training program in their paras to school neighbors in bodily conduct fit for the city, and a Hindu nation. Their training conflated urbanism with nationalism to shape a city nation, or a city that embodied a Hindu nation. The para emerged as the spatial unit of the Hindu city-nation.
These developments coincided with an unprecedented migration to the city that created vast informal settlements of non-Hindu and lower caste migrants called bustees, leading the urbanists to describe the para as a space distinct from the bustees. A focus on hygiene allowed them to argue that migrant workers lacked civic-mindedness and were unprepared to grow as citizens.
The book is potentially for wide interdisciplinary interest for academics as well as a more general popular readership in the history of cities and global history. The book is a good text for both undergraduate and graduate students of modern South Asia, urban history, empire studies, postcolonial studies, and the history of art and architecture. The book will find a readership among scholars whose work engages with ideas of development and planning: architects, policy makers, ground-level urban activists, and readers with general interest in the history of cities.