Meet the brokers that make Mumbai work

Mumbai Brokers, edited by Lisa Björkman (published in India by Yoda Press), uses an imaginative and unique way of looking at a city that finds consistent representation in pop culture. It profiles 36 “brokers” – intermediaries/facilitators who keep the city running. These include Rasheed, which provides cooking gas connections when not available through legal channels; Janu, a labor recruiter from villages in Bihar and Jharkhand; and Afzal, a taxi driver who spreads knowledge about the city. Each profile adds a different dimension to how this overcrowded and complex city actually survives, most often through the efforts of individual citizens.

The profiles are written by anthropologists, artists, urban planners and urban designers, people who have worked in Mumbai for many years. The aim is to give an overview of the type of work carried out by these facilitators and the circumstances that led them to it. We are therefore told in detail how Bunty Singh became a builder in Sanjaynagar and how Imran got into the business of contractors, aided by family influence, albeit in a limited area.

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The idea for the book, the introduction says, came “during a particularly fantastic dinner in Bombay with (anthropologist) Maura Finklestein, in January 2017. As our dinner conversation turned to stories about the remarkable creativity and skill of the people we encountered in our research, I began to think about the generative possibilities of bringing such stories together in an unusual type of book.” The book offers a perspective that anyone who lives in Mumbai are very conscious, but often don’t turn into odes to the city. The protagonists are people you can’t avoid but also, maybe, people you haven’t really thought about beyond the immediate service they render. The book also attempts to explore the morality of these services: technically “illegal” but essential to the survival of millions of people. Like Dalpat, one of the people portrayed in the l drunk, puts it in the context of obtaining water certificates: Some things are simply acceptable for “humanitarian reasons”.

One of the first “brokers” Björkman met was Rasheed, a teahouse owner who arranges cooking gas connections, aided by his contacts and cooking gas needs at the teahouse. This turned out to be the starting point for the project. “This book is about people like Rasheed – people whose material and practical expertise drives the day-to-day functioning in and of one of the world’s most dynamic cities, but whose work is simultaneously (and paradoxically) subject to many moralization and twisting.We take this paradox – the ethically heavy but indispensable character of certain types of knowledge and work – as a methodological and analytical starting point to explore broader questions about transformations at the global level: economic, technological, political , socio-material, ideational,” notes the introduction.

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Although the premise is fabulous, it is a difficult book to read. The prose is often meandering and academic, especially when it comes to the authors’ comments and notes. The stories are interesting but after the first three-four, predictable. This may be a revelation for those unfamiliar with Mumbai; for the Mumbaikars, it is a reality relived a thousand times over.

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