Book review forum: Waiting Town

reviewed by Sangeeta Banerji, VK Phatak, Llerena Guiu Searle and Laura Lieto with an author response by Lisa Björkman

19 Jan 2024, 9:26 a.m.

Waiting Town book cover

Lisa Björkman, Waiting Town: Life in Transit and Mumbai’s Other World-Class Histories, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2020; 160 pp.: ISBN: 9780924304934, US$18.00/£14.99 (pbk)



Within Urban Studies, ethnographic research has served the valuable purpose of producing varied perspectives in the city. Through long-term engagement with communities that inhabit urban spaces, urban ethnographers have given us ways of understanding the urban lived experience. In speaking to the value of urban ethnography, Roy (2009: 821) has additionally asserted that ‘it is not enough simply to study the cities of the global south as interesting anomalous, different and esoteric cases’. Instead, she has argued that to shift the Euro-American notion of cities of the Global South as being the ‘heart of darkness’, there is an urgent need to start producing new theories of the urban applicable not only to cities of the South but to all cities. Other urban scholars along the same lines have proposed that the urban is not a universal form but rather a historical process, resulting in historical differences and not empirical variations (Robinson, 2015; Sheppard et al., 2013; Simone, 2016), which Lisa Björkman illuminates in her latest ethnographic monograph called Waiting Town.

In this compelling and intricate monograph, Björkman tells the story of Pratiksha Nagar, or Waiting Town, a settlement on the margins of the megalopolis of Mumbai. Björkman, through a masterful narrative, has depicted an ephemeral space with itinerant beings as a concrete part of global urban development discourse by weaving together over a decade of engagement with this particular settlement. Through a detailed ethnographic account, she encourages readers to complicate the conceits of dominant developmentalist narratives, especially those related to infrastructure development and the idea of the ‘World Class City’. With its innovative writing and presentation of research, this little book has achieved the prodigious task of explicating the multiplicity of actors and processes required to produce space in Mumbai. Consciously avoiding theoretical generalisations and abstractions, the book invites readers, much like the residents of Pratiksha Nagar, to experience the city-making process as one of waiting and unknowability.

This book profoundly benefits urban ethnographers working in the Global South, primarily due to the forthright discussions of Björkman’s positionality during her discombobulating fieldwork. While Björkman is an ethnographer par excellence, it is helpful for readers, presumably students of urban ethnography, to see that even she, falters. The form of the book, with its detailed field notes, shows us moments in which she is unsure about interpretations from various actors in her sense-making endeavours. Time and again in her decade-long research engagement, she is confronted with contradicting stories in various locations as to why and how Pratiksha Nagar came to be. Nevertheless, instead of leveraging one form of knowledge over the other, be it that of the Joona, the Navin, the managing NGO, the development authority or the brokers, she presents these competing narratives in creating the megacity in the Global South.

Waiting Town begins with the story of a water pipe that Björkman encountered during her doctoral research in 2008. As a part of her initial investigation of contradictions in hydraulic infrastructure provision in Mumbai, she selected 18 sites for her ethnographic fieldwork, of which Pratiksha Nagar was one. In her first monograph, this site of informal hutments, notable for having clean piped water in contrast to the adjoining water-scarce and empty resettlement, appeared to Björkman as a ‘quirky story from a far-flung corner of an often-quirky city’. Slowly and steadily, with engaging prose, she decodes the origins and endurance of this ‘quirky’ settlement as an outcome of the contradictions within a mega-infrastructure initiative, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), and of the celebrated participatory coalitions with civil society groups such as the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) within it. Propelled by ‘World Class City-Making’ discourses, this infrastructure project initiated by the Mumbai Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), costing a whopping US$710 million, displaced nearly 300,000 primarily poor residents of Mumbai. Instead of relying solely on insights from interviews with experts and bureaucrats, Björkman follows the sources of a perplexing fight she recorded within this settlement between ‘Joona and Navin (old and new)’ residents, which led her to unexpected places in the urban development and civil society realm of Mumbai. The immaculate non-linear description of ‘survey time’, or tracing the temporal tracks of how an enumeration survey commissioned by the authorities determined the legitimacy of the claims by residents, illustrates a historical conjuncture that shaped the displacement and resettlement policy within the MUTP and speaks back to dominant developmentalist critiques of state failure in the Global South.

Other reviews in this forum address the contradictions enshrined in the enumeration survey and its due process. Others discuss the duplicates of duplicate documents that were instrumental in creating confusion in Pratiksha Nagar. The most exciting actor for a researcher of brokerage relations in the urban realm is Waghmare, the social activist fixing the transit camp in place. This actor, she argues, was instrumental in securing shelter for the displaced people in the aftermath of the unannounced demolition drive of March 2000. Various contradicting performances allowed him to secure the illusory authority that the state had endowed upon the managing NGO and, in turn, to start furnishing documentary proof for resettlement benefits, albeit at a pecuniary advantage. As he was one of their own, the desperate people displaced by the MUTP, at the time, did not see the need to question the authority of this brokering figure, who presumably had the best interests of the displaced residents at heart. However, the consequences of his actions and the subsequently furnished duplicate documents have perpetuated the uncertainty in finding shelter for the people of Waiting Town.

The story of Chachi, a ‘navin’ (new) resident who moved to Pratiksha Nagar to realise a high-risk speculative venture, told by Björkman, is yet another fascinating account. Chachi and her family sought shelter in Pratiksha Nagar via new brokers’ channels after having housing uncertainty for many years. Fully aware of the contradictions in the documentary ‘proofs’ furnished by these brokers, Chachi’s family took a risk and moved to this transient settlement of Pratiksha Nagar. The motivation for the move was the charisma espoused by these brokers and the perception of brokers like Waghmare as ‘a fighter’, potentially ensuring that they would remain fixed in place. Björkman presents Chachi’s story as a ‘devastating blow’ to the globally empowered discourses on ‘community participation’, a technocratic attempt fueled by the desire to overcome democratic decision-making channels in much of the post-colonial world. Problematising the idea of community, she argues that ‘project-affected people’ are not a unified group and have variable interests and motivations to inhabit the urban space of the southern megacity.

Though deeply appreciative of the narrative style and ethnographic depth of the book, I wondered if there was another crucial observation we could make about these myriad brokers shaping the perspectives and practices of the community of the project-affected people. In various ways, Waghmare and the other brokers operating across scales of the resettlement bureaucracy that animated life in Pratiksha Nagar were similar to the key figures within civil society organisations. They shifted the state’s mandate from providing shelter only to the project-affected people to a larger community of urban poor seeking shelter in Mumbai. They may not have had the official authority of the state, yet their brokerage acts with SPARC, the bureaucracy and the residents were instrumental in fixing this settlement. These actors may not even appear in the vision of the scholars working on the insatiable ‘spatial fix’ (Harvey, 2001) required by the cycles of capital in the urban milieu, but in Waiting Town we realise that capital cannot move, much less fix itself in space, without the crucial contributions of these actors. While some residents have moved on to buildings and others to different informal neighbourhoods, many remain rooted in this space where they are not supposed to be. However, I wondered, do these actors merely operate in the shadows of the state? Given their relative invisibility to the formal domains of decision-making and governance, how can ethical and moral responsibility be incorporated into their functioning? Or, more bluntly, how can they be held accountable?

One of this book’s many strengths is its ability to speak to many audiences and disciplines. This brief review forum, consisting of a collage of reflections from scholars and practitioners from varying disciplines, is a testament to this achievement. Contributors include geographers and anthropologists, in addition to urban planners from the Global North and South. As an urban geographer and researcher of brokerage practices in Mumbai, I have found Björkman’s analysis of the contradictions enshrined within global discourses, such as those of community engagement and world-class city-making, particularly relevant. On the other hand, in her review, Llerena Searle, an anthropologist and educator, brings forth her undergraduate students’ appreciation of the complexity of ethnographic fieldwork. Another reviewer, VK Phatak, is the ex-chief town planner of the regional development agency (Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority), which is the executing authority of much of the urban policy discussed in the book. Though he raises some tough and critical questions about the book, he too is ultimately appreciative of the significance of presenting varied viewpoints regarding urban policy. Finally, this forum includes a review from Napolitan practising planners Laura Lieto and Sofia Marconi, who argue that the events transpiring in Waiting Town and Mumbai are indicative of global patterns of urban displacement speaking to the value of urban research from the Global South that translates to generalisable ideas for all cities. The forum concludes with a piece by Björkman, responding to questions and comments from the reviewers. In her distinctive style, Björkman steers us away from the normative and spectacular and towards the explicative and the mundane, as equally valuable in understanding urban space, place and time.



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Commentary I

VK Phatak, Retired Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, CEPT University, India

Waiting Town is a riveting story of life in the transit camps and slums of Mumbai. It is a story of families waiting to be resettled in permanent buildings and their struggle for water during that long wait. Interestingly, the story is based on conversations with a large number of characters in the drama as it unfolds over many years. The conversations mainly focus on the struggle for water, particularly for the women of the families. In addition, there are conversations with academics from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and field officers from SPARC; self-proclaimed community leaders and government officials are also included. As a result, the book turns out to be a rich collage of images of the same reality seen from different perspectives. Obviously, therefore, no attempt has been made to find ‘the Truth’, if it exists at all. While the perspective of the families living in transit camps has been credibly portrayed, the same cannot be said of government officials. For example, the officer interviewed from MMRDA, the agency responsible for the rehabilitation and resettlement of project-affected persons, comes across as ignorant, but no attempt seems to have been made to seek an interview with a more knowledgeable person.

Given this, it would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the rehabilitation policy from the book, though it might suggest certain ways to improve the policy. Unfortunately, there is a risk that those who believe that the government is always callous and insensitive will see in this book evidence for their beliefs. The risk is clearly borne out by the foreword, which states that ‘Waiting Town offers stark testimony of grim consequences of ill-considered and arbitrary policy’ (pp. xix–xx).

However, the risk of such conclusions being accepted – particularly in international academic circles – is real and intense enough that it requires recapitulation of the evolution of the policy. This might make it possible to identify some ways to improve the policy and its implementation. This is what I do in what follows, despite my apprehension that some might argue that this is not the role of social science in general, or of anthropology in particular.

Until 2013, Indian legislation for compulsory acquisition of land for public purposes provided for compensation to landowners, but not to tenants or those otherwise dependent on the land. The rights of squatters or slum dwellers were never recognised. In 1985, the Supreme Court of India recognised the right of pavement- and slum-dwellers to alternative accommodation if the land they occupied was required for public purposes. However, this was not translated into formal policy. When a dialogue began with the World Bank regarding a loan for improving transport infrastructure around 1993, the Bank emphasised the requirement of having a formal policy of Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) of Project Affected Persons (PAPs). The Bank had already adopted a policy with regards to ‘Involuntary Resettlement’. The government of Maharashtra therefore constituted a committee comprising civil servants, academics, financiers, lawyers and NGOs to propose an R&R policy for the proposed Mumbai Urban Transport Project. The key objectives of the policy, based on the Bank’s own policy, were: (a) all persons affected by the project and as surveyed in the Baseline Socio-Economic Survey (BSES) would be eligible for the benefits of the policy irrespective of their legal rights; (b) monetary compensation when payable would be at the replacement cost; and (c) resettlement would endeavour to enhance quality of life and in no case would quality of life be deteriorated. The policy did not envisage any transit camps, as the experience of these in the past had not been very satisfactory. The physical assets in such camps deteriorated quickly and the occupants were not transferred to permanent locations in a timely manner.

Of the 20,000 families affected by the project, the majority were along railway tracks. Some of them were so close to railway tracks (see Figure 2.1, p. 27) that the railway safety organisation imposed speed restrictions to avoid accidents; they also threatened to discontinue rail services unless the settlements were removed. At that stage, some passenger organisations approached the Bombay High Court seeking eviction of these settlements. The Court was inclined to order summary eviction. Anticipating that railways too would follow the Court’s orders, MMRDA and SPARC intervened and offered to provide alternative accommodation under the R&R policy. However, the Court did not allow enough time to construct permanent buildings. At this stage, the idea of transit accommodation was put forward, to which the World Bank and the Court agreed. This was certainly not a case of ill-considered and arbitrary policy.

What happened after people affected by MUTP were resettled in permanent buildings is a different story; most of Waiting Town is about that process. Unfortunately, a common reader might gather the impression that the MUTP R&R policy and MMRDA that implemented it are responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the transit camps. After the resettlement of PAPs, the transit camps remained with SPARC, though MMRDA withdrew from maintaining them or monitoring their use. Some observations can be offered in response to the experiences described in the book regarding the implementation of the well-intentioned policy to resettle project-affected families:

(a) Constructing buildings for resettlement is not adequate. They require municipal services like water supply, waste collection and disposal. Coordination with service delivery agencies from the earliest planning stage is necessary.

(b) Effective communication of the R&R policy, the rights of PAPs and avenues for the redress of grievances is a major challenge, particularly in multi-lingual communities of limited literacy. Adequate time and human resources need to be devoted to such communication.

(c) The international donor community and the higher echelons of government apparently believe that an NGO is a better vehicle for policy implementation. However, reliance on a single NGO for communication, survey administration, transit accommodation and training communities in the maintenance of multi-storied buildings is a tall order, fraught with potential conflicts of interest and opportunities for rent-seeking. Effective supervision is imperative.

Infrastructure projects will continue to affect both formal and informal settlements. Assessing their social impacts and mitigating their adverse impacts will remain a challenge. Waiting Town graphically describes the nuances of such a challenge, which planners will hopefully consider in the future.



Commentary II

I have taught Lisa Björkman’s Waiting Town for the past two years in the undergraduate course Reading Ethnography at the University of Rochester. In this course, we read full ethnographies on the theme of urban space and power, attending to issues of form, process and writing in order to understand how anthropologists create ethnographic knowledge. By juxtaposing stylistically different works, I encourage students to consider writing itself as methodology. Waiting Town sparked deep critical discussions among students in Reading Ethnography, suggesting that while it has much to offer scholars of urban life, bureaucracy, development and South Asia, it can be used productively in courses with a methodological focus.

We read Waiting Town after Ghannam’s (2002) Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo, which examines the forced relocation of residents of the Bulaq neighbourhood in Cairo by the Sadat administration and their subsequent appropriation of modernist government housing at the outskirts of the city. Although there are thematic overlaps, my students immediately saw the differences between the two books. Waiting Town defies genre conventions by omitting an Introduction and therefore including no literature review, chapter summaries, historical overview or methodological discussion. Whereas Ghannam begins her book with assurances that she can serve as her readers’ authoritative guide to Cairo, Björkman begins with her own confusion about ‘a peculiar neighborhood [with] a puzzling water feature: free piped water’ (p. 1). Rather than explaining this feature and providing readers with an analytical argument, Björkman promises that the book ‘will challenge and destabilize the epistemological presumptions’ of ‘global developmentalist thinking’ (p. 4).

The ensuing chapters, consisting predominantly of field notes, offer an immediacy that students found bewildering and engaging. Björkman’s writing is vivid and concrete, full of direct quotes from interlocutors and her own questions and doubts. If every ethnographer must navigate the ‘tension between the chaos and diversity of experience and the transcription of that experience in text, between life and analysis’ (Gay y Blasco and Wardle, 2007: 9), then Björkman has erred on the side of ‘life’ as she relates the conflicting accounts of numerous actors displaced by the Mumbai Urban Transportation Project and other ill-conceived development plans. Many of my students described Waiting Town as engaging, riveting, ‘a dynamic experience’; one said it was like reading ‘a mystery novel’.

Björkman includes analytical connective tissue sparingly. While some students found that Björkman’s lack of engagement with other scholars allowed them entrée into the topic without wading through abstract scholarly prose, another argued that the lack of context ‘limits her audience’ to area specialists. Indeed, some students found Waiting Town‘incredibly dense and difficult to understand’. But this confusion – like Björkman’s own – was productive. Björkman warns readers that they may find the book ‘exasperating’ and explains why she resists neatly packaged narration. As she promises, the book ‘invites and impels the reader into an experience of not knowing … and into an experience of waiting’ that gives readers an inkling of the uncertainty and precarity of her interlocutors’ lives. Students appreciated this tactic, as one writes:

[Björkman’s] choices reflect the inhabitants of Pratiksha Nagar, who weave complex and contradicting stories of their lack of housing and water, as relayed to them from dishonest politicians and government entities. They live in a constant state of untangling webs of information and waiting for answers which never come. Instead of simplifying these struggles of presuming conclusions which aren’t there, Björkman uses her writing to parallel this sense of stagnant disorder, offering an honest account of her interlocuters’ experiences.

Even students who didn’t enjoy reading Waiting Town saw that the structure of the book was its message. Its nonlinear, processual structure mirrors and critiques the absurdities of state knowledge and bureaucratic procedures that produce project-affected persons before projects are approved and ‘fake’ documents where there were no originals. Resisting anthropological theorisation, the book subtly suggests parallels between anthropological and state-sponsored knowledge. This is a powerful lesson for students who often separate process from content, and one that reinforces my pedagogical goals for the class.

My students loved the window into fieldwork that the book provides. Unlike when reading other ethnographies that hide the process of fieldwork behind highly polished analytical conclusions and theoretical jargon, students appreciated seeing exactly how Björkman questioned her interlocutors and provisionally interpreted her observations. One student wrote approvingly that ‘Björkman leaves readers feeling like they experienced it all with her’; another that readers feel ‘privy to the inner workings of [Björkman’s] brain’ which provides the account with a ‘humble authority’.

Because they could ‘see’ the process of fieldwork, students were able to critique it, so this book helped to develop my students’ critical thinking skills. We had a lively discussion about Björkman’s occasional inclusion of value judgements about her interlocutors, as in her reaction to Mangal doing her laundry by the water pipe when others had to lug water to do it at home (p. 20). Should anthropologists judge their interlocutors? Or publish those judgements? One student argued that Björkman should have unpacked such statements in reference to her own relative privilege. On this score, Waiting Town is refreshing for showing readers how interlocutors interpreted Björkman through direct accounts of her interactions – challenging students’ perceived view that identities are stable, not situational. Yet students agreed that Björkman’s suggestion that her interlocutors were suspicious of her (as in her tense interaction with Chachi, p. 101) – like her value judgements – requires more sustained treatment.

Because Björkman dispenses with the pretence of being a distanced observer, students could appreciate just how subjective – and difficult – fieldwork is. Students marvelled that Björkman investigated Pratiksha Nagar for over 10 years; that, for example, a chance encounter in 2014 led her to the Sathe Nagar paniwala she had heard about in 2009 (p. 71); that she tracked down and interviewed bureaucrats and housing activists; and that she achieved a casual intimacy with Pratiksha Nagar residents, who she portrays as strong, agentive actors. The book clearly demonstrates that anthropological knowledge production proceeds in fits and starts, with later experiences informing or contradicting earlier ones. This implies that the scholarly urge to produce closure would foreclose our understanding of how places like Pratiksha Nagar are made or what it is like to make a life there.

For my anxious, over-stressed students whose educational experiences have taught them to focus on product, not process, the book produced the epiphany that ‘ethnography isn’t a linear path … Björkman herself was confused, and Waiting Town showed me that being confused is okay’. What a powerful lesson.



Gay y Blasco P, Wardle H (2007) How to Read Ethnography. London: Routledge. Crossref | Google Scholar

Ghannam F (2002) Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Crossref | Google Scholar



Commentary III

Laura Lieto, Federico II University of Naples, Italy; Sofia Moriconi, Federico II University of Naples, Italy


In the incommensurate distance between studies of upscale plans for world-class cities and those concerned with the fine-grained life experiences of the urban poor at risk of eviction, Waiting Town fills the gap with a vivid and meticulous account of how the effects of large-scale infrastructural projects become enmeshed with survival strategies and micro-power games to get access to housing, water and other fundamentals. The granularity of urban change – so dear to ethnographers’ hearts – can be ineffable and collateral to decision-makers involved in big urban schemes. As the author of these diaries suggests, pausing a while can be a good exercise not just to meditate on such an obvious distance but also to figure out strategies to reduce this distance and to make better plans and projects.

Waiting Town can be read not just as a book about Mumbai but also as an entry point to a more general understanding of how large-scale urban projects affect the urban poor. The book’s subject matter is relevant to other urban contexts around the world, for example the dynamics and negotiations involving the right to housing in European cities, where there is a struggle to recognise and deal with slum-like settlements scattered all over inner areas as well as fringes.

In the existing literature, the word ‘slum’ is generally associated with the Global South, implying the idea that they do not exist elsewhere. Rather, places where ‘excess populations’ live – for example, all those unable to obtain or enjoy full citizenship and rights and looking for shelter and essential services – are described and studied in their condition of liminality and suspension. In Western countries, the excess population is managed through camps or similar control dispositives. In particular, Italy has been defined as ‘the country of Camps’ (Piasere, 2004; Sigona, 2002). The nature of such dispositives always ends up being linked to ethnicity. Reception centres for migrants, camps for Roma people, informal settlements and so on are tolerated but not officially recognised. This ‘waiting-places issue’ is never treated as a structural problem but is somewhat always justified through some belief that these places are not proper settlements. Calling them ‘slums’ would really mean admitting that we have a problem.

Lisa Björkman clearly describes in a few pages the teeming complexity of a government made up of a fairly indefinite number of actors constantly involved in conflictual processes for an acknowledgement (see the case of SPARC, which turned out to be ineffectual after years). Several governmental actions are not necessarily planned and coherently executed. Instead, they reflect particular conditions and contingencies being negotiated within a specific time-space.

This touches upon a very sensitive issue for planners: the impossibility of having actual control over the process. The author seems to summarise it in her conclusions (p. 133): ‘Words have complex relations with the worlds they profess to represent, relations that cannot be presumed in advance but rather must be explored and studied as social practices in their own right’.

For example, the universally inclusive criteria of ‘eligibility’ of the World Bank inevitably collapses in this negotiated space. The local flow of time, micro-networks of power and interests of other stakeholders get tangled with crucial objects (cards, associations, people, histories, houses, stamps and words), constantly producing the variable threshold that sets up what is eligible and what is not.

Moreover, in conflict areas, a relationship of trust or closeness to things and people is essential to get more influence in the negotiation process. This invaluable form of knowledge – which often takes years to be built – is inevitably capitalised in more or less recognised forms of authority. In other words, it is not surprising that a strong relationship with a mediator affects eligibility more than an official identification document.

As a matter of fact, in the complexity of large-scale processes, fundamental roles are performed by affectivities, coincidences, misunderstandings, errors, environmental complexities, sticky negotiations and procedural slowdowns that refuse to be governed and planned. This book underlines how reality is co-produced at a not insignificant scale of detail, and, in this sense, Mumbai’s bustle is similar to that of Naples (and perhaps, more widely, to that of South European cities). However, the author fails to acknowledge that even those who live in a different and undoubtedly privileged position of power act, inhabit and produce the ‘waiting town’.

Waiting Town meticulously shows us the ‘granularity’ and micro scale of everyday life for the poor. It emphasises the distance that large-scale projects place between decision-makers and those who inevitably ‘suffer’ extensive choices. It is fascinating because it captures details, the unfolding of events and the unexpected. However, it omits focusing on the daily life of other groups which also activate, intercept, influence and are deeply involved in these processes. It is certainly not a matter of claiming a privileged point of view. Rather, it would be interesting not to lose sight of the ‘viscous’ and ‘banal’– as Hannah Arendt would say – granularity of those who are presumed to have significant creative and regulatory power.

It would allow overcoming a dialectic that relegates poverty to oppression. Eventually, it would save planners and decision-makers from completing the analysis with other elements and capitalising on the fine-grained interpretations to let them do something with urban policies.



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Author response

Lisa Björkman, University of Louisville, USA


It is an honour to have an opportunity to engage with these wonderfully thoughtful and generous reviews of Waiting Town in writing. In this brief note, I offer reflections on some common themes that run through the four pieces, and also discuss a few points of disagreement among the authors’ readings – disagreements that seem (somewhat unsurprisingly) to reflect the different disciplinary backgrounds of the reviewers: three city planners (Phatak, Lieto and Moriconi) and two urban ethnographers (Searle and Banerji). (As an aside, I would like to note that as an ethnographer of city planning, there is no greater gift than to be read and engaged by planners; I am deeply grateful to Phatak, Lieto and Moriconi, all of whom I consider as both teachers and friends.) If Waiting Town was a mode of reflection with competing modes of knowledge production – the encounter between intuitionally empowered conceptual abstractions of planning and the material minutiae, narrative nonlinearity and temporal tortuousness of ethnographic knowledge – then this note offers reflections on how these disciplinary and epistemological dispositions reflect modes of reading as well.

A first point of productive friction amongst the reviewers’ readings emerges in reference to what Waiting Town is taken to be a story about: VK Phatak (a retired Mumbai city planner who himself makes an appearance in the book (p. 33)) characterises the book as ‘a rich collage of images of the same reality seen from different perspectives’, while expressing his disappointment that ‘no attempt has been made to find “the Truth”, if it exists at all’–‘Truth’, Phatak explains, which resides with ‘government officials’. And yet as Sangeeta Banerji points out, what Phatak poses as an omission is in fact the book’s point of departure: ‘Instead of relying solely on insights from interviews with experts and bureaucrats, Björkman follows the sources of a perplexing fight she recorded within this settlement between “Joona and Navin (old and new)” residents, which led her to unexpected places in the urban development and civil society realm of Mumbai’. The research for the book was animated not by an aspiration to pin down a ‘true account’– and even less to vilify government officials as Phatak fears – but rather to present ethnographic evidence of the myriad practices and high-stakes work of ‘truth-making’ itself, a fraught and lively landscape of claims-making that unfolded in the wake of a project that Waiting Town goes to great lengths to point out was extraordinarily well intentioned; the history that Phatak rehearses is precisely what I recount in the book’s second chapter, where Phatak’s own reflections on why things went awry (‘that’s not how it happened’) are also recounted.

In light of this ‘either/or’ scenario that Phatak suggests – where the partial perspectives of those living in the transit camps are juxtaposed with ‘true’ accounts that might have been ‘found’ if only I had sought out ‘more knowledgeable’ state actors – this juxtaposing seems to miss one of the book’s central points: what unfolded in the wake of the project’s implementation was an effect of the disjunctive relationship between (on the one hand) the institutionally empowered epistemological presumptions of the resettlement project and (on the other) the myriad and mutually irreconcilable ways that legitimate claims to land and resources are made. As I write in Chapter 2:

notwithstanding [the] broadly inclusive World Bank criteria for eligibility, the historical, material, and institutional fabric of the city exceeded the tidy presumptions according to which eligibility was to be adjudicated, and according to which the sequence of ‘resettlement activities’ was meant to flow. (p. 35)

In this context, as I write in Chapter 7, the part of the project:

requiring that resettlement be managed not by democratically elected representatives but rather by ‘affected communities themselves’ amounted to an attempt to bypass the well-institutionalized and deeply political processes, practices, and procedures by means of which claims to urban land are made. (p. 100)

This, presumably – and not the project as a whole – is the ‘ill-considered and arbitrary policy’ to which Sreenivasan refers in the book’s forward.

While Lieto and Moriconi also lament the second-fiddle role of empowered decision-makers (planners and state actors) in the book’s accounts, the Neapolitan planning duo (Lieto is the deputy chief of planning for the city of Naples, where Moriconi works) instead takes up Waiting Town’s tale as a provocation and challenge, an invitation to ‘capitalis[e] on the fine-grained interpretations to let them do something with urban policies’.

My ethnographer’s heart sings.

A second, related point of conflicting reading among the reviews concerns how to characterise the people whose accounts animate the narrative – the joona and navin (old and new) families living in thatched huts on the site of the former transit camp. Moriconi and Lieto reflect that the book tells a ‘granular’ tale of the ‘everyday life for the poor’. Yet on Banerji’s reading, this is not quite right. While all of the residents of Waiting Town may well be described as ‘poor’ (some horrifyingly so), Banerji (rightly) notes that this is not a tale of a given ‘population group’– however defined; rather (and on the contrary), the book demonstrates the high stakes and highly fraught work of making claims in those very same governmentalising terms (‘population’), by way of the globally empowered developmentalist discourse of ‘community participation’. The point, as Banerji points out, is that ‘project-affected people’ do not comprise ‘a unified group’ (or population) at all; rather, this governmentalising term is a contested identity category conjured into being by means of fraught material encounters with institutions and discourses of ‘world-class city’ planning.

A third in-tension interpretation is between the two anthropologists and has to do with what to make of the multiple and conflicting accounts in the book, which are presented without adjudication. While Banerji characterises these incommensurabilities as moments of ethnographic ‘falter’, Searle surmises (or rather, her sharp-eyed students surmise) that ‘the structure of the book was its message’. Searle writes: ‘Its nonlinear, processual structure mirrors and critiques the absurdities of state knowledge and bureaucratic procedures that produce project-affected persons before projects are approved and “fake” documents where there were no originals’. Indeed, it is precisely through reflexive attention to such moments of ‘falter’ that new insights might come into view.

In the same vein, while reflecting on the unconventional form of the book, Searle describes the lively discussion in her classroom about the occasional appearance of ‘value judgements’ in book, and about whether good anthropology ought or ought not to ‘judge’ their interlocutors. I am grateful to Searle’s students for inviting me to elaborate on the point I was trying to make in the passage to which Searle refers (the one that had caught her students’ attention). While much of the book is comprised of extracts from my fieldnote diaries (rather than ethnographic writing about those diaries – as is conventional), the crafting and compiling of the book involved making innumerable choices about what to include and what to omit, not least because of the sheer profusion of fieldnotes accumulated over the decade I spent researching the book. I choose to include this particular snippet, in which I catch myself making a perhaps-unfair judgement about one of my research subjects that I hadn’t even realised I’d been making, because it struck me as a particularly poignant example of how ethnographic research always involves moral evaluations and value judgements; ethnographic knowledge is contingent upon the researcher’s ability to critically reflect on how our own positionality and value orientations shape the knowledge we produce. This particular episode stuck with me firstly because it demonstrates a coming-to-awareness of my own moral evaluations, and then grappling with the moral evaluative conflict that it engendered. The point of including the snippet in the text was to demonstrate that while such moral valuations are always and necessarily with us, sometimes it isn’t until they are challenged by a competing moral evaluation (in this case, a sense of the unfairness of the gender-inequitable division of domestic labour in the interlocutor’s household) that they come into view. I would respond to Searle’s students that the question isn’t whether anthropologists ‘should or shouldn’t have moral evaluations’ (as if value-free researcher positionality were possible); instead, I would suggest an ever-vigilant, critical reflexivity to what those evaluations engender.

A final point concerns the question of comparison: Moriconi and Lieto point out that ‘the word ‘slum’ is generally associated with the Global South, implying the idea that they do not exist elsewhere’, and therefore ask how these accounts might speak to other contexts. This is a brilliant insight and provocation, which I am grateful to Moriconi and Lieto for raising. On the question of how Waiting Town’s insights might speak to ‘rights-to-housing’ politics in Europe – I can only say that I can’t wait to hear more about what their own work in Naples has to say in this regard. But a more obvious comparative insight is that (as Moriconi and Lieto put it) ‘a strong relationship with a mediator affects eligibility more than an official identification document’. Indeed!

Take, for instance, the recollection in Banerji’s piece of the person I call Chachi, who:

Fully aware of the contradictions in the documentary ‘proofs’ furnished by these brokers, […] took a risk and moved to this transient settlement of Pratiksha Nagar. The motivation for the move was the charisma espoused by these brokers and the perception of brokers like Waghmare as ‘a fighter’, potentially ensuring that they would remain fixed in place.

As Banerji notes, Waghmare’s mediating work is of a piece with the broader landscape of brokers and fixers into which Waghmare seeks to intervene on behalf of those finding themselves on the losing side of ‘the state’s mandate’. She thus asks of these invisible urban experts, whose mediations are at once central and yet marginal to urban processes (including the circulation and ‘fixing’ of capital): ‘Given their relative invisibility to the formal domains of decision-making and governance, how can ethical and moral responsibility be incorporated into their functioning? Or, more bluntly, how can they be held accountable?’. Where Banerji poses a normative/procedural question, I would suggest instead an ethnographic one: what might be learned by focusing research attention on forms of labour and expertise that – as per official rules and procedures –‘ought not’ to be there in the first place? Here I would turn the tables and direct the curious reader to Banerji’s (brilliant) contribution to a collaborative project that has sought to address that question (Björkman, 2021) – a story of the dazzling creativity and chutzpah of a self-described Bombay ‘social worker’ named Shazia, whose expertise consists in the procuring of documents – slum survey slips, for instance, which might provide their holders a measure of protection from the bulldozer, as well as proof of eligibility for compensatory alternative accommodation in the event of a demolition. Banerji’s ethnographic profile of Shazia reveals how the production of Mumbai’s built fabric is bound up with the production of the political authority of the very people who are later responsible for bringing destruction upon that same fabric; it is within this contradictory context that Shazia’s expertise in articulating the urban excluded into regimes of legibility and access attains its value.



Björkman L (ed.) (2021) Bombay Brokers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Google Scholar



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