XQs XV — A Conversation with Debjani Bhattacharyya

Posted by patwari on December 27, 2018 · 37 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Meghna Chaudhuri for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV]

Debjani Bhattacharya is Assistant Professor at Drexel University. Before joining Drexel, she researched and taught at Jadavpur University (India), Heidelberg University (Germany) and at Emory University (USA) where she completed her PhD in 2014. Her research and teaching explores the ways in which urban, environmental and economic histories intertwine in what is increasingly known as spatial history or historical geography. Debjani is an elected member to the **Professional Division of American Historical Association**. Her second project focuses on shipwrecks in the Bay of Bengal in order to investigate how climactic and environmental changes from the eighteenth century shaped ideas about risk and instruments of insurance of imperial trade.**

Q. Your book, **Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta,** is about the complex connections between the material environment, legal and scientific techne, market speculation and human affect sited in the making of Calcutta. How were you drawn into this project and how did it come to take its present shape?

I grew up, like many post-partition families who had migrated from Bangladesh to the outskirts of Calcutta, in an area classified as **jala-jami** (watery property), where every form of illness was blamed on the fact that the neighborhood was submerged in a fluid ecology. By the time that I began work on the project, many of Kolkata's waterbodies had been reclaimed for real-estate purposes, and the city's amphibious quality -- both in being ubiquitous and simultaneously suppressed -- had faded away from our visual landscape. I was interested in writing a historical study about urban property. The question that drove my project initially was a rather simple one: if South Asia produced some of the finest works on the history of agrarian property and land market, then why did its urban counterpart not emerge as an object of sustained historiographical questioning? The genealogies and afterlives of agrarian and urban property cannot be the same. Moreover, I was struck by the divide within the field of South Asia — where the agrarian property and land market was subjected to intensive historical scrutiny while urban property speculation was primarily treated from an anthropological point of view (of course there are exceptions to this). That was the initial question with which I landed up in the archive in 2009. As I scuttled between the nineteenth-century collection in Bhabani Dutta Lane and the twentieth-century collection at Writer's Building in Kolkata, trying to write the history of colonial Calcutta's property market, I was struck by the number of cases about **jala-jami**, disputes over canals, **nalas** (drains), sedimentations, alluvions. I realized that I needed to make space for water in understanding the political economy of land in Calcutta. Once I admitted the presence of water in the countless dispute cases, I saw water and its erasures everywhere — not least in the water-logged monsoonal streets as I waded back from Bhabani Dutta lane every day. Therefore, I begin my book by talking about forgetting. This forgetting, as I try to show, was brought about by the cultivation of a particular way of looking, and both legal culture and technological innovation had a role to play in it.

Debjani Bhattacharyya, **Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta**

You see, Calcutta's history has been written as a history of marsh to metropolis. Both colonial and—surprisingly—postcolonial writers have obsessed about the marshes: if colonial municipal administrator-cum-historians (somewhat like my family) blamed many of Calcutta's problems on the **jala-jami**, postcolonial historians were too quick to find fault with the colonial reading as one marked by orientalism and a civilizational impetus. Thus, while the swamps and a medico-moral geography framed much of the discussion, these studies lacked an engagement with how the swamps shaped the economic and legal geography of the city. Why is this important? Because projects to drain the swamp cost money and the Lottery Committee, Justices of Peace, and later municipal bodies rarely had that sort of budget at its disposal. So, epidemiological urbanism has to be squarely situated within a political economy of the urban land market. I had to understand, for example, how much did it cost to drain the city? Where did the money come from, how were such expenditures justified? If much of the city was a swamp, then what were the legal and technological innovations required to make it into property? And, what were the effects? Thus, I try to show how the legal landscape of turning silty water into solid land for the expansion of the urban land market entailed a kind of cultural and visual retraining where we see swamp as a moment in the making of real-estate. This continues to define urbanization all across South Asian cities, especially coastal cities, from Chennai to Mumbai.

Shipyard on the Hooghly, Kolkata (author's photo)

Q. Your book argues that the tussle between shifting urban landscapes and colonial technologies of 'fixing' exceed the limits of analyses that locate resistance in 'native' experiential knowledge forms in relation to supposedly monolithic colonial power, or that which point towards a 'mechanistic triumph of nature over man.' This speaks to a central concern within overlapping disciplines: the question of the "unknowable other" sited in the socio-cultural and environmental spaces positioned in opposition to the structures of colonial power. Can you tell us a bit more about the central intellectual concerns that informed this broad framing of the book?

This is an interesting question. The concern with “native” or “vernacular” epistemology about nature, livelihood, environment etc. has moved out of the humanities and social sciences and entered developmental discourses now. Within the developmental discourse, the idea goes like this — there is a hermetically sealed indigenous worldview that is oppositional and beyond the structures of the market (colonial, capitalist, neo-liberal you name it), and it is waiting there uncontaminated for us and we need to access it. My archival material challenged me to move beyond this romance of indigenous worldview versus colonial episteme. This is not to say that these are not or cannot be two distinct worlds, but I do think that deep historical work has to take place along the lines of a contamination between what we have often opposed and cut asunder as native ways of knowing versus colonial knowledge systems. For instance, I have struggled to understand how it is that I, as a historian, access the vernacular, or what I called folk conceptualizations of spaces from the vantage point of where I am located within the disciplinary structure of knowledge production. The question then becomes how are we to read? While historians have theorized writing, reading continues to remain slightly under theorized. Thus, sometimes it was important for me to put certain narratives together and, instead of seeing opposition and similarities, I concentrated on the traffic of ideas between them, what trafficked, and what didn't: the lines of contamination if you will.

Let me give you a few examples of the stickiness of these zones where the commonly held assumptions about indigenous forms of knowing and colonial/scientific knowledge blur. For instance, I was struck by the fact that the Kurma legend of geological formation of the Bengal delta and recent oceanographic research, point to oceanic origins of the region, while much of the existing nineteenth and twentieth research treats the space as a tidal estuarine space. There is still a debate if the death of the estuary created the lowlands, or whether is it oceanic churning. An easy and **extremely dangerous** reading of the Kurma legend through a valorization of vernacularity or alternative understandings of science would put us squarely back into the lap of the Hindu right-wingers who would vindicate a legend as science. Keeping this in mind, when I turn to the hapless colonial engineers in the archive I was surprised by the sensitivity to space they would sometimes articulate in their reports: **margins between land and water are insupposable**, **land-grant does not represent the reality of the landscape,** and hydraulic engineers asking for a substitution of the term river (nadi) with **nala** (seasonal drains). Or for that matter, how do we make sense of the fact that when settling property dispute cases, colonial bureaucracy compensated only one out of the many land acquisition cases and that one happened to be a non-human plaintiff? The only way to read this traffic between legend and science or indigenous and colonial is to understand them as struggles with the readings and misreadings of this fluid landscape. What we see is not a mere suppression of one way of knowing over another, but rather its persistence; not the triumph of nature over man/technology, but rather legal ingenuity in the face of a mobile landscape. It was only through such an approach, i.e. a serious commitment to taking the fluidity at the heart of the project of building the city — that I was able to move beyond these uncomfortable discursive binaries. Indeed, I wanted to show that a contested and difficult engagement with these aqueous landscapes was at the heart of, what Alice Ingold understood as, an “emerging territorial consciousness.” The work by landscape architects Anuradha Mathur, Dilip da Cunha and Anthony Acciavetti was productive in helping me develop both a lens and an attunement to the temporality in reading and writing about this moving landscape.

Q. Your work centers property as a political economic category and legal concept. What is really innovative is that you use the material instantiations of property-making in Calcutta's marshy lands to decenter the assumptions of that very concept by showing how making property really entailed making **land **out of the swampy, muddy, watery and constantly shifting material environment. You talk about "property as a spatial device" and "property as a set of technologies" in outlining a new understanding of urban space. Could you tell us about the specific registers through which you were able to illuminate property itself as a multivalent category of meaning making?

Property performs multiple kinds of work in this book. Swamps are not just water-logged pestilential spaces, but sometimes they are sedimentary deposits that move, disappear and reappear creating havoc for documenting property and planning infrastructure. The seasonality of the landscape challenged the propertizing impetus of the **pattah **(land register), land record or maps — it is no wonder that the British did not survey lands during monsoon — as monsoon emerged as an **extra-ordinary** moment of land submergence, drowning the “real” borders of the land. The only problem was that when the waters receded, the landscape was often transformed. You also cannot drain a seasonal (monsoonal) landscape. This seasonality revealed the limits of the **pattah** but ultimately did not change mapping and land documenting practices. Thus, I began the book by documenting a case of a failed harbor project from roughly 1770, because the failure reveals a lot about the work of property, nature and technology: three elements that are hard to disaggregate in this delta. In studying this particular case and its afterlife carefully (and sometimes I think I am not quite done with the case), I was struck by the fact that the property was a process of land-making in the face on an amphibious and mobile delta. Property operated as a technology of drying by cultivating an administrative frame to separate land from water through a documentary regime, and thereby offered fixity in a mobile landscape. Through the various cases and infrastructural projects I document in the book, I hoped to show that property emerged as a stabilizing tool against the vagaries of the temperamental riverine landscape. Indeed, cases of dispute about these amphibious spaces that were neither fixed land, nor flowing water, became generative of new potentialities in the legal architecture of property and new sites to claim-making that challenged the hard lines of land-water separation. This terrain of contestation over the naming and claiming of the space as dry land versus flowing water was at the heart of organizing the legal and economic geography of the city.

Shipyard on the Hooghly, Kolkata (author's photo)

Q. How did you come to seriously consider the 'folk conceptualization of space'? Did you find combining sources of such different valence from the archival records of the state on the same concept - of riverine space - a challenge?

This is a tricky one and, honestly, I struggled with it. I began by writing about the remembered history of riverine spaces and **ghats** (river banks) in songs and paintings. I wanted to understand the valence of this affective landscape, not as a reified category, but as one that is embedded in market-exchange. These songs, narratives and scroll paintings, which I called the folk conceptualization of space were rich in hydraulic metaphors and imagery. What emerged as I delved into the material was muddy lands that held together water, soil, human, animal and dense spaces of habitations. These amphibious river banks were embedded in mercantile and sacred worlds simultaneously. Songs of river-crossing are redolent with the passing of earthly life sometimes indexing the primacy of water over human design upon earth. In these works, land and water rarely emerge as distinct arenas of jurisdiction. That posed a clear challenge to the cartographic-mindedness of the way we visualize spaces through simplified lines of separation. Working with the binary of conceiving spaces in Bengali folk songs vis-à-vis “blinkered vision” of municipal cadasters is of course easy. My question and bewilderment began with one case initially — in what one may call the space of contamination. Around the early 19th century the river flowing along Calcutta's western banks began shifting, and, through various legal machinations, the Company declared those to be state lands and went about acquiring them. In the process of acquiring lands thrown up by the river, the colonial government paid compensation to the Hindu deity which brought a case against the Justices of Peace in 1876. This was one among many cases — and the only one to receive compensation. My question was: why did the only plaintiff to receive compensation happen to be a non-human entity, when they were able to ignore the other legitimate claims for compensation?

There are many ways to understand these claims and let me begin with how anthropologists have theorized this. They have read the mobilization around sacred symbols, in the form of shrines, statues, stones and pictures, as a strategic opposition and sometimes subaltern resistance to state-led infrastructural projects involving land dispossession. I have no quarrels with that line of reading and agree with it more or less. However, I do find it mechanistic, precisely because we fail to answer what we shear away when we read the religious and affective investments into such moments of friction as mere resistance.

Q. Can you speak more to what I read as the dialectic between the deterritorializing function of folk visualization vis a vis the reterritorializing function of cartographic visualization?

There is always a great desire to rationalize the messiness of the archive, order it through our secular historiographical and hermeneutical practices. Yet, merely reading it as strategic resistance erases a whole set of practices of dwelling in these amphibious spaces. More importantly, it eludes the various non-proprietary gestures of claim-making that inhere in spaces and elude mapping. Land is not a disenchanted element: it is symbolic, it is sacred, it is a fetish, it is a fiction, it is affect-saturated, and the riverine landscape of Bengal is both deeply territorializing and immaterial. For me the challenge was how to hold these various ways of living the landscape together: the rich archive of riverine songs about loss and longing alongside land acquisition archives. In a way, stumbling upon this land acquisition case was fortuitous for me, as it helped me ground a so-called non-representational spatial practice right into the mundane world of colonial municipal bureaucracy. It allowed me to explore not just the violence of infrastructural transformations of the city and entanglements of law and technology, but also helped me go beyond the rationalizing limits of the historian's craft. It helped me mark the strangely opaque and multivalent social life of property along the literal and figurative margins of the city.

Q. One of the perspectives that your work engages is a renewed interest in the material within the history of science and intellectual history more broadly. South Asian history has seen a recent interest in the history of science, with a fair few works engaging with the idea of vernacular science, intellectual intermediaries and literary productions. How do you conceptualize materiality in relation to the history of science?

Books take on a life of their own, in ways that the author never anticipated. In my case I am pleasantly surprised that historians of science sometimes feel like I am engaging them, though being in Philadelphia means that I am never far from the various history of science institutes — so there is some intellectual osmosis there. I do not think that I am seriously engaging with the history of science scholarship. What I was definitely concerned about was how the materiality of the tidal delta might inflect the intellectual histories of property in South Asia. That said, I do want to use your question to meditate on the question of materiality in history of science as I saw it while working on the book. Sometimes the question of actor-network-theory and vibrant matter have come up when I presented parts of this book, however for me the question of materiality worked in a different way than how Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett theorize it. It was not a site of agential reworking of human and non-human relations. Rather, the material landscape became the site for me to open up various forms of inhabitations: affective, mercantile, legal, bureaucratic and representational. In that I found the works of Gautam Bhadra (almanac), John Tresch (cosmologics) and Projit Mukharji (braiding) stimulating to think about the material as a site of meshing and splitting of the quotidian and the cosmological. Thus, trying to write a landscape (or waterscape) history of property meant that I had to experiment with new analytic tools and optics to think about the tidal temporalities and the cosmological spatialities that might uncover the forgotten watery origins of the city.

Q. Kolkata continues to be a site for conspicuous urban redevelopment plans and you draw attention to the surge in the waterfront property market. What are the connections you see between speculation in land in early 20th century Calcutta and the collective "amnesia" that informed it and contemporary formations?

There is a circularity and there is a discontinuity. So, for instance, during the early 20th-century the urban housing crisis stemmed from Calcutta's inability to extend as the rivers and the wetlands formed natural limits to expansion. C. H. Bompas, who was heading the Calcutta Improvement Trust in 1911, along with many wealthy Indian landlords like the Raja of Bardhhaman contemplated the financial costs, possibilities and limits of draining and expanding the city. Indeed, it was proposed that a good landlord was someone who was also a land-developer willing to drain and develop lands along Calcutta's fringes. At a time when property ownership was the hallmark of Swarajist presence in municipal bodies you witness an early articulation about developers as a kind of ideal citizen, landlord and municipal member melded into one another. Real-estate, as a science develops out of this crucible of municipal politics, builders' syndicates and landlordism, not just in Calcutta, Rangoon or Bombay, but globally and one may consult Alexia Yates' excellent work on Paris here. If we understand this early twentieth century moment, the lineaments of our contemporary residential capitalism become clear. A new kind of speculation has reared its head in Kolkata, and this time it is not one of refusing to sell like the “profiteering Marwaris” of the Interwar period creating blockages in the market or “squeezing” out the renters. Rather, this is one of remittance capital, absentee ownership, and primitive accumulation along the erstwhile swampy outskirts of the city. The land developers — and they truly deserve the term — are literally developing and creating land out of swamps — to build these spectacular high-rise apartments. And most of these apartments are empty and will continue to remain so as long as the market is hot. These buildings seem to come up in complete denial of the very fluidity of the landscape. These buildings are possible precisely because these spaces were not land to begin with in the first place. A certain visual amnesia about not being able to see swamps, or water-bodies as anything but land waiting to be developed is at the heart of the story. There are no spaces for swamps, marshes, waterbodies in how and what we imagine the urban to be. My book has tried to understand how that became common sense.

As we talk now, a disputed flyover is being planned by the state government that will substantially shrink the wetlands of Kolkata. These wetlands are Ramsar protected sites. It is not that the planners, the members of the government of West Bengal, or for that matter the mayor of Kolkata are unaware of the importance of the wetlands. In spite of that, they go ahead with the project — a project that will gradually hasten the process of sinking the city. There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the floods of Chennai 2015 — a flooding aggravated by building over the creeks and water channels that coursed through the city. Water will always find its way, no matter how much we suppress it. I will end with what I learnt from Mathur and da Cunha's work: the relation of land and water is one of soaking, gradient, rhythms and time.

East Kolkata Wetlands (author's photo

Q. What was the process for converting the dissertation to the book? Can you tell us more about the imperatives, constraints, and potentially surprising aspects of the process?

My dissertation really focused on the nineteenth and twentieth century and was an attempt to write about the restructuring of Calcutta's property market and the process through which the Company, and later Crown, emerged as a public agent of land in the city, and the parallel story of land speculation. It was also decidedly in conversation with South Asian urban historiography. By the time I revised the manuscript two chapters were completely dropped, two new chapters were added, (the current chapter 1 and chapter 4) and the framing had to be changed in order to accommodate the story of environmental transformation into the history of legal and economic restructuring of landscapes. In the summer after submission, I received the History Project Grant from Harvard University, which I used to conduct further research, when among other materials, I also stumbled upon the Benjamin Lacam files, plus multiple river and estuary survey files which made me realize that I had to broaden the story of stabilizing Calcutta's riverbank to talk about building the city in a tidal landscape. Moreover, I was also developing and teaching a couple of environmental history courses for my institute, and teaching those courses also helped me think through my material and arguments. The product of that was chapter 4, where I try to connect the story of ecological speculation of the earlier section with the economic one that I tell in the later section. That was indeed one of the last chapters I wrote — I thought about it for almost eight months going back and forth, and finally drafted it from scratch in three weeks.

Q. What are some recently published monographs that the book is in conversation with?

As I mentioned earlier, Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur's work on Bombay **Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary** (Rupa, 2009) was very critical in helping me understand the importance of the stories of disputes about water, drains, canals in the archive. I am also thankful to da Cunha for sharing the manuscript of his forthcoming book **Invention of Rivers: Alexander's Eye and Ganga's Descent** (Penn Press, 2018) which, along with Anthony Acciavetti's **Ganges Water Machine: Designing India's New Ancient River** (Harvard, 2015) were critical for me to develop my ideas around almanac as a technique of reading space in the interstices of the historical archive and go beyond cartographic mentality. And, while I am on almanacs I must mention Gautam Bhadra's work, especially **Nyara Battalay hai Kwaibar?** (Chhatim, 2011).

Another significant monograph that shaped my thinking on the documentary regime was Bhavani Raman's **Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India** (Chicago, 2012), and our continued conversation on the question of property in South Asia the **Journal of Social and Economic History of the Orient** vol. 61, no. 5-6, 2018. Ritu Birla's **Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance** (Duke 2009) helped put the story of rent speculation in perspective. Finally, in my attempts to analyze and work through the entanglements between colonial engineering and technology with sacral and affective investments in space I benefitted from two history of science books that are very far afield from anything I do: John Tresch's **Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon** (Chicago 2012) and Projit Bihari Mukharji's **Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies and Braided Sciences** (Chicago, 2017).

I should not end this without mentioning proverbs and sayings that, while not monographs, contain rich sedimentation of Calcutta's urban history. So, the various Bangla proverbs often were the nose sniffing out the archival documents and coaxing them into narratives.

Q. Is your new project connected to your first book? How did **Empire and Ecology **lead you to your new intellectual concerns?

As I was working on **Empire and Ecology** I was struck by how many of the legal debates around property dispute were premised on the search for a correct geographical naming — was it a water body, or mudflat; or what sort of current deposited land, or washed away property; who owns the water in the land etc. Geographical fixing, as well as the development of administrative categories of various kinds of land-water relations was developed to manage this ungovernable space. So that got me thinking about the role of law courts in the making of geographical knowledge. It is then I also chanced upon a huge body of archival material pertaining to piloting vessels through the rivers and the conundrum of not knowing how to name and classify riverine behavior. So, in some ways, in both these books I am trying to understand the legal structures that undergird environmental transformation and how those structures in turn shaped scientific knowledge in colonial and postcolonial South Asia. Whether studying colonial urbanization in the swamps of Bengal, or the entangled birth of colonial atmospheric and actuarial science, I am interested in the materiality of the landscape, be it the marshes, tidal movements, monsoon winds and riverine behavior. I believe the physical landscape had a profound impact in shaping the history of colonial imaginations of nature, workings of economy and practices of law.

My current book project **Monsoon Landscapes: Law and Climate Science in the Bay of Bengal** will be a history of colonial climate science and the development of an actuarial imaginary about Indian Ocean environments. Developing the correct geographical nomenclature and science of tides, winds and rivers was central to settling insurance cases from the eighteenth century on. Therefore, I am currently reading various cases fought by the East India Company, merchants, ship-owners and the British Admiralty to understand how marine insurance markets shaped and influenced the development of colonial weather science, geology and tidal theory. Hopefully, this book will resituate the standard accounts of the origins of western geology and meteorology to the littorals of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. Currently, I am working through a substantial archive of private papers of merchants in eastern India, Bangladesh and Burma, as well as documentation of shipwrecks and insurance claims settled across Calcutta, Rangoon, Glasgow and London, I show how complex categories were developed to administer “human error” and “natural calamity” in the Marine courts from the mid-eighteenth-century. These court records became a significant archive for colonial scientists to develop atmospheric and geological knowledge in the service of actuarial science and insurance laws.


Meghna Chaudhuri>/strong> is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at New York University. Her dissertation explores what she calls the 'economization of life' by reconstructing the relationship between life insurance, agrarian financialization and the developmentalist state in late colonial India. Her research reflects her interest in the value form, national economics, and the history of science. Prior to pursuing a PhD at NYU, Meghna completed an MA and an MPhil in Modern South Asian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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This Article was mentioned on chapatimystery.com