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Waiting Town: Life in Transit and Mumbai’s Other World-Class Histories (Lisa Björkman)

AAS Asia Shorts book series. ISBN: 9780924304934. 176 Pages.

Drawing on a decade of ethnographic research in the Indian city of Mumbai, Waiting Town is an unconventional little book—experimental in form—about how we come to know the worlds about which we write. The narrative follows the author’s fieldnotes diaries as they wend their way through a series of ethnographic puzzles that emerge in the wake of a high-profile mega-infrastructure project that became an internationally celebrated prototype and model. Waiting Town complicates this celebratory narrative by revealing the conflicting temporalities and procedural pretentions of “world class” developmentalism. On one level, Waiting Town is a book about Mumbai—about housing schemes and scams, about “duplicate” documents (and “duplicate duplicates”), and about the material wreckage wrought by the city’s “world-class” ambitions. And at the same time, it has a larger story to tell about truth and falsehood, time and memory—and about the promises and pitfalls of knowledge production, interpretation and representation more generally.

“Reading like a mystery tale, this engagingly written book explains why, in a poor part of Mumbai, there are many people without houses alongside apartments without occupants. Lisa Björkman’s story exposes the machinations of city planning in a field of contention that includes powerful NGOs, a range of informal associations, activists, so-called social workers and politicians, and it illuminates the chaotic and complicated ways in which people negotiate the city. It shows, too, the cruel absurdity of ideas about the possibilities of ‘community’ action that are so entrenched in the development discourse, and it touchingly describes the daily struggles of the urban poor. In the way it is written, the book is also an ambitious and original experiment, encouraging reflection on ethnography and on the practices of interpretation and meaning-making that animate the craft of research. It is a pithy and powerful little book.” — JOHN HARRISS, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

Waiting Town presents a powerful punch against simplistic narratives of eviction and resettlement. It is written with attention to the power and agency of people confronting eviction: people who are witnessing a project set up for this purpose just besides where they squat. As Björkman shows, it is their world of pipes and water puddles that holds a mirror to Bombay, and to the necessarily ‘messy’ politics that define urban contestations today. Reminiscent of Lisa Peattie’s 1968 path-breaking View from the Barrio, Waiting Town serves as a model of writing, framing, and representation—an entry into questions of what Abdoumaliq Simone calls “majority life.” Björkman suggests to us how those urgent questions might be posed in ways that matter.” — SOLOMON J. BENJAMIN, Associate Professor, Humanities and Social Science Department, Indian Institute of Technology Madras

Lisa Björkman is Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs at University of Louisville and Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany.