Fluid Lives

Malaria, dengue and health in contemporary South Asia

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Liquid archive: memory, materiality, emphemerality

Last summer I went to an exhibition called the Museum of Water by the artist Amy Sharrocks, held briefly in Toynbee Hall, in Spitalfields. The premise was simple, visitors to the museum were invited to bring a sample of water that was meaningful to them, inscribing the story behind it on a small card. The short, some funny, some poignant, accounts inscribed on the small cards displayed with them were; a powerful kind of auto-cataloguing. Amy Sharrocks had asked contributors:

How do you enjoy water?
Do you swim in pools?
Do you splash in puddles?
Do you drink from a tap?

Choose what water is most precious to you. Find a bottle to put it in. Tell us why you chose this water. We will keep it for you.
Help us build a collection of water for future generations to enjoy.
What water will you keep?

It is a brilliantly simple, elegant but powerful idea to ask people to create and contribute their own donations got people to think about the meaning and biography of water in all is meaningful, social, kinship-mediating, life-changing, political, joyous, tragic, multiple, slippery, fluid and leaky form. That warm sunny evening stayed with me as I cycled home (alongside a canal), but the rest of the year since then. So when I read that it was going to be held again (with a great set of accompanying events), this time in the grander and more watery setting of Somerset House on the banks of the River Thames, I felt compelled to visit it again.

Corporation Pop

At Toynbee Hall, the ‘Corporation Pop’ had made me smile with its thrifty humour, but also because it was a smart demonstration of the curious properties of water. A simple glass of tap water, so described by someone’s grandparents, it the only exhibit not in a bottle, being ever replaceable, interchangeable and yet meaningfully the same, ‘next time’ out of the tap. Now I found a bottle of ‘Clapton Damp’, and the attendant frustrations and health concerns that come with living in a damp flat. (Since my last flat caused mold to grow on both my wooden kitchen utensils and leather shoes, I could only commiserate). Several other people had contributed snowballs (now melted), the holy water of a range of religions (Zam Zam collected on Hajj or Ummrah, water from several sites along the Ganges, from Catholic shrines), some pre-packaged, others collected by pilgrims themselves. Some was pond water, some was gym water (in a Fire and Rescue Services bottle). Several bottles were from swimming baths, one apparently donated by a woman who had campaigned successfully to save Brockwell Lido (somewhere I’m sorry not to live closer to anymore). Several were very moving, more than one bottle of tears, but particularly the water collected by a woman the day her partner died some years ago, which had gradually evaporated with time, along, she hoped, with her grief.

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In fact, the gradual evaporation of the donations was another interesting dimension of the Museum. The ephemerality of water (another donation had consisted of ‘mist’ collected, several of ice), visibly present, but all the time slowly disappearing by entropy out of its containers. A little like the fine detail of memory there, but fragile, liking all kinds of powerfully meaningful and emotional aspects of life together, just as water at once escapes containers imperceptibly, as much as it carves valleys in the form of streams. A powerful kind of magic trick.

I was happy to meet Amy again, who was kind enough to point out my donation of Delhi water on its shelf, and add that my short account of where I guessed it had come from on its journey into my water bottle had got her thinking about water distribution. I had no idea until she told me that London has a circular water main delivering water around the city, somewhere between the ring main of a house distributing electricity and the M25. She was also collecting interviews with donors (both the collection and soon the sound archive will be on the Museum of Water’s website), and I was excited to hear that she will soon be taking it not only to several UK festival, but overseas to Copenhagen and if I remember rightly to New York. I have to confess that I still think the Museum of Water would be an amazing thing to take to Delhi, perhaps in collaboration with a collective like Khoj  at the back of Malvyia Nagar, in the streets of Khirki Ex, and one of the malls at Saket. So many similar, powerful questions and emotions linked to water and everyday life, place, social relations, notions of dirt, difference, mixing, of religion, neighbours, scarcity, and status abound in South Asia, arguably more so than in the UK, and no less powerful in the face of climate change.

For myself, I find the Museum of Water project compelling for two reasons. Firstly that it seems to reach people with a remarkable strength of emotion and meaning, in a way that social and historical research often struggles to – in a way that is complex, nuanced and powerfully intelligible in an almost primordial way. There is much to learn from this project in that sense. Secondly, because the everyday life of water remains an animating theme in project, even as I’m principally interested in dengue, as it is the linking medium between mosquitoes and humans. Water is hard to study for its ubiquity, it gets away from one in its material properties that allow it to both flow out of ones control and lift into the air as vapour, but it is indispensible and consequently links us all together, to each other and the wider world in a way that is also inescapable.

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Clouds of uncertainty

It was the recent post ‘Spray‘ by Vanessa Agard-Jones on Somatosphere‘s new ‘Commonplaces‘ section that got me thinking about life with insect repellents again, in particular how they appear and are negotiated in people’s everyday lives to ward off illness bearing – and frankly just annoying insects, particularly mosquitoes. Describing her fieldwork in Martinique, Agard-Jones traces the negotiation of toxicity, the porosity of the body and a postcolonial island suffused by crop-dusted insecticides sustaining a globalised planation economoy based on bananas.


Adéline chided me for going all the way to town to buy a “natural” mosquito spray that — while hardly effective — I continued to slather on my body everytime we jogged the wooded paths of the Forêt Vatable in Martinique. She had gotten usedto my declining to borrow her Pyramid brand “Repel 100,” a 100% deet formulation that she swore by, and that worked.[1]   Gesturing to my scar-covered legs, indelibly marked by insect bites badly healed, she lined her calf up next to mine. Her skin was smooth, clear—bite-less. “It’s not that [spray] that you need to worry about, Vanessa,” she said, pointing from my (“SANS DEET”)  bottle of “natural” spray to the sky. “It’s the one that comes from up there.”

Agard-Jones concludes that:

In the end, though, it is both this spray and that one, both the dispersion of chemical molecules close to the skin and the dusting of them far away from it, that forges our bodies’ material entanglements with chemical commodity chains. As solids become liquids, then liquids become mists in the bottles and barrels of sprayers, inert chemicals change form—they are readied for incorporation. …In the end, it is both this spray and that one, this mosquito repellent and that crop duster, that remind us that at every scale in our social and biological worlds, contingent forms of non-life and life are being entwined, as synthetic chemicals embed, accrete, and leave their residue in our bodies.

In Delhi, living with mosquitoes presents a different but not disimilar set of negotiations when it comes to chemicals. Mosquitoes have no respect for household boundaries and the semantically significant ‘insides’ and ‘outside’ spaces of houses. Indeed, little more respect than they do for the bodily boundaries of humans, when in pursuit of a blood meal. Rather, they are free to come and go through open doors, poorly screen covered windows and unscreened extractor fans, particularly where warm, tasty and attractively CO2 emitting humans may be found. Indeed many mosquitoes, in the case of the dengue fever vector Ades aegypti, are often household residents themselves.

Friends joke and worry about the mosquito related chemicals they ingest in the course of everyday life. Is it the plug-in repellent vaporizer (‘All Out!’ or ‘Good Knight’) that’s giving me a headache? And what happens when the power goes out? As the ceiling fan slows to a halt and the thick damp heat of the monsoon power cut settles stickily, in the dark the sound of a single mosquito can be heard (or is it only one?). One friend prefers permethrin coils, burned on a saucer at the foot of the bed, as they are more ‘natural’, but leaving something smouldering while you sleep also seems risky. Truth be told, she really prefers climatic control: to freeze mosquitoes out with the air conditioning. Since the unit is set into their bedroom window, she and her family retreat behind glased window and closed door for the summer and monsoon evenings, staying cool and less bitten. Meantime, I find that lettering on my computer keyboard is wearing off at an alarming rate as the DEET residues on my fingertips disolve them away.

Municipal ‘fogging’ truck

Sitting squeezed in the back of an elderly taxi, one member NGO team I’m trailing round with has a persistently itchy bite on the top of her foot, and keeps reaching awkwardly down to scratch it.

‘What contraception do mosquitoes use?’ another team member jokes ”Odomos‘ of course!’  citing the popular brand of insect repellent advertised in tones of cloying domesticity between popular family drama ‘saas-bahuu’ soaps on evening TV.

Yet, as mosquito numbers rise with the onset of the monsoon, so do cases of mosquito-borne diseases in the city. Now anxieties fuel angry claims that the municipality has ‘not done enough’ to control the ‘mosquito menace’ appear in the newspapers. On one level, people are seeking to choose to manage mosquitoes in the spaces of the home with individual strategies of chemicals, electric zappers, screens and only very rarely nets. But now they struggle to define the boundaries of the house as the municipality applies fogged insecticide to the public spaces of the neighbourhood for the good of the population. Yet, given the permeability of homes and often semi-domestic spaces of neighbourhood streets, residents complain both that the municipality fogs the area too fast, so that the clouds of  insecticide don’t enter people’s houses, and also of the ingress of the fog itself, an unbidden, un-negotiated risk to household health. Where the boundaries lies between home and the street, public rights and personal choice, population and individual, human and mosquito (and virus or plasmodium too), uncertainty hangs in the air, much like the clouds of insecticide.

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A morning with mosquitoes – reflections on shadowing a woman working in science

Last year I responded to a call by the Women In Science Research Network (WISRNet) for early career researchers to get involved with a work shadowing scheme that would pair historians with women working in science. WISRNet, as the name suggests, is a cross-disciplinary network of historians, archivists and scientists interested in teh participation of women in scientific research, from the 19thC to the present. What particularly intrigued me was the combination of cross-disciplinary dialogue in combination with the recognition of the production of knowledge as socially situated, in this case specifically, gendered. While gender has not been in the forefront of my work on water, mosquitoes and disease in Delhi (and perhaps it should be more so), gender, the life course, the academic workplace and knowledge production has been something I have found myself thinking about quite a lot recently, particularly the way gender seems to fall out of the picture in male dominated settings. As a social scientist amongst humanities bods, all of us thinking about topics in science/medicine, cross-disciplinary dialogue has unsurprisingly been a regular preoccupation.

I was lucky enough to be partnered with Dr Nina Stanczyk, a Postdoctoral Fellow at LSHTM, whose incredibly open, friendly, and hugely engaging enthusiasm for her subject of public health entomology made for a fascinating morning shadowing her work. We were asked to write up our reflections for the WISRNet blog, which I have reposted here. My fellow workshop participants and I also presented our reflections at the WISRNet Conference which saw a fascinating and diverse range of work and research project presented, well worth exploring on the website.

Craft, Controls, Connections and Career

The confined, warmly damp, busy world of the insectaries at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was where Dr Nina Stanczyk, Research Fellow in Medical Entomology and my partner scientist in the WISRNet Shadowing Scheme and I started our tour of her workplace. Collecting a number of Anopheline mosquitoes from their netted cage in the insectary, we took them up to a brightly lit lab for the experiment Nina was due to carry out that day. Nina’s research investigates how mosquitoes respond to different chemical odours, particularly those that attract and repel them. That morning she was looking at the electrophysical response mosquitoes have to different chemicals as they are blown over their antennae. Several weeks later, after the Christmas and New Year break, we met up again to talk in more detail about how she came to work in her research area and to what extent she felt the issue of being a ‘woman in science’ had been significant for her. In fact, Nina was keen to emphasise that in her career so far being a woman had not been a particular issue. She pointed out that the majority of people she worked with were women and recalled a particularly inspirational doctoral supervisor who had shown it was possible to both lead and continue to do science research as a woman.

Anopheline insectaries

Where mosquitoes are made: the Anopheline insectaries. Plastic tubs of water, covered with mesh contain hatching larvae, while cages on the right and at the back contain adult mosquitoes from various regional sources. The regionality of sample mosquitoes fascinated me, reminding of the importance of place and specificity, amidst the generalising impulse of scientific work.


The experiment that morning used the process of electroantennography. A decapitated mosquito’s head was mounted between two very fine electrodes, one to its brain, the other to its antennae. A sample of a chemical was then blown over the mosquito’s antennae. Effectively, this briefly and minutely completed the circuit, as the mosquito’s antennae reacts to the sample, causing its brain to produce a minute measurable electrical signal. Samples ranged from lactic acid (which it’s known mosquitoes respond to), to ‘researcher’s foot odour’ dissolved out of socks.

Nina was also showing a junior colleague how carry out electroanntenography. As Richard Sennett (2009: 11) has observed in his book on craftsmanship, while an understanding of knowledge and theory underpins the processes of a technique, all skills begin with mastering the bodily practices of the technique. Deftness and a controlled, fine dexterity was required to mount the tiny insect’s head on a custom-made electrode made of finely drawn glass capillary tube filled with saline solution. Meanwhile, careful control was needed to introduce the chemical sample into the apparatus without touching it, all while standing on one leg to operate the foot pedal that released the sample.

Later, Nina talked about how she had come to learn skills and research practices that have been essential to her work. A first graduate job as a laboratory research assistant raising mosquitoes lead to PhD research with her then supervisor and current boss. This created opportunities to specialise in new research techniques such as the opportunity to learn ‘single hair’ electroantennography in a Swedish lab. She describes how the intense concentration on detail and fine dexterity required meant that the work had to be done early in the day, adding only half jokingly, before any coffee was drunk. With a first degree in genetics and doctoral research as an entomologist, she has built up a set of skills that have allowed her to ask research questions at the intersection of disciplines. Yet, as she also points out, the requirement for science graduates to have lab experience, before they can work in a lab to get experience, can exclude people from scientific work or lead them embark on PhDs before they know whether day-to-day of lab work is really for them. She observes that while she has been lucky enough to benefit from colleagues and atmospheres in labs that have emphasised learning how to ask questions, cultivate specialist skills, sharing experience, knowledge and techniques, this is not the case in all labs.


As we spend the morning in the lab, the question of what counts as a reading, what to record and what to discard emerge from the practice of the experiment in progress. What order should the samples be tested in: randomly, or those which will decay soonest so that the experiment will get done and produce results? Part of the aim of the WISRNet Shadowing Scheme was to bring scientists and historians closer together to better understand how each works, so it is fascinating to hear the interpretation of results and meaning of controls discussed, as scientific method is negotiated in practice. Questions of interpretation are central to the work of historians and social scientists too, but the way they operate, are validated and discussed is very different. In both cases, though, it often is the craft knowledge that is smoothed out of formal accounts as they are written up into journal articles. Discussing the details that are included or not, I am reminded of the tongue in cheek ‘Overly Honest Methods’ Twitter hashtag that posts jokey statements of research protocol.


Relationships in the lab as the basis for learning and developing the craft of research are clearly important. Nina describes her experiences of working in labs in other countries, noting how the connections made there also valuable for finding out about jobs, especially in small fields of research. That other people know your speciality and the skills you can bring to a job is useful, if someone is trying to fill a post, but as she also observed, so are informal references. She described emails flying between labs as much to ensure that the prospective candidate is the kind of person that a team can get on with, working in a lab, day after day, as to confirm their academic or intellectual credentials.


Talking to Nina, all these elements seem to be needed for a career, but can also present dilemmas. What happens when relationships don’t work or don’t offer the opportunities to develop one’s research skills and experience? How does one decide to push one’s career forward? Nina commented that chatting with fellow postdocs, there was a ‘cloud of mystery’ about how to manage the next stage of one’s career; should one apply for another postdoc, but how many postdoc positions are ‘too many’ and signal a lack of career progression? Plus, at what cost? Moving continents to pursue research can also have consequences for personal relationships. Nina observed that it’s not clear that research work outside of academia at this career stage would offer any more job security or less stress, with industry perhaps even more competitive with the pressure to produce successful new products.

Comparing the gendered experience of academic research in the US, where her previous postdoc placement was based, with the UK, Nina recalled a PhD student confiding to her that she didn’t feel she could have a relationship while she did her PhD. ‘I was thinking that’s not good! I mean I know you get stressed and the rest, but it shouldn’t stop you – it didn’t me.’ Nonetheless, in the US, as in the UK, she comments:

‘It was always the [women] who had kids seemed to have a work/life balance. They were the ones who said, no, enough, now I’m going [home]. But they were the ones who were usually advanced enough in their career to say so. I suppose the problem comes in earlier in your career and you don’t have the seniority to say.’

Reflecting on the experiences of female friends working in science who have children, she notes that for some priorities have changed, so that stable jobs (not short term contracts) and the need to provide for their child, prompting in one case a return to school science teaching, become more important.


Nina is clear that she does not see that gender has been an issue in her career as a woman working in science so far. Yet, in the decisions that her female friends have made after having children, it is also evident that people’s perspectives on the demands made by work in relation to the rest of one’s life can change, even if those demands are less extreme than those of the US tenure track system. Everyday lab-based relationships of conviviality are underpinned by exacting craft skills which suggest a presence in the lab is highly valued, something that may become more difficult with small children. How do lab-based relationships and the standing of ones current research in a small, competitive field combine with the dilemmas of negotiating postdoctoral career progression amidst structural pressures of job insecurity and short term contracts?

In this context it is hard to know whether a predominantly female workplace is one that is more supportive to the careers of women in science, or simply reflects the high proportion of women entering the field anyway. It is not clear that the numbers of women in science will continue to increase: will a longer route to permanent posts produce disproportionately gendered losses at particular points in the career path? Or as Nina suggested, might the disinclination of scientists of either sex to retire from active research, reduce the opportunities for younger colleagues to progress up the hierarchy of an institution, so that senior posts perhaps reflect the gender balance of earlier decades, changing only gradually?

All of these points offer sound, largely structural reasons for why there are still fewer women working in science more generally. Yet, given the degree of commitment to the practice of research itself implied in this account, it is tempting to speculate whether the hesitation in discussing gendered differences in science more generally reflects a concern felt by women about appearing less than totally dedicated to the work itself.

Reflections on ‘shadowing’ a woman working in science.

This project sought to bring historians of science and practicing scientists together to forge mutually beneficial exchanges of information and experience. As someone who trained as a social anthropologist, rather than a historian, I found this a stimulating experience that illuminated aspects of the values and practices of both fields: history and science. Deploying unfamiliarity and difference to produce new insights into one’s own and other people’s ways of doing things, a strong interest in teasing out unwritten rules and social relations are all constitutive practices to anthropological knowledge making. So, entering the unfamiliar world of the lab and hazily remembered principles of scientific method to observe (rather than participate) in the practice, teaching and learning of scientific craft was fascinating and also curiously familiar.

Yet, trained with an empiricist’s interest in the present and making generalisations that can be validated (albeit in very different ways), the WISRNet project raised questions for both Nina and I about the nature and purpose of what it sought to collect and do with its material. In this respect, as a recent migrant to the world of the history of medicine and science, I have also been trying to gain a feel for the craft of historians and the kinds of questions that are be particularly important to them. One common concern anthropologists and historians share is the importance of context; what might a broader focus open up of interest to scientists, beyond a pragmatic, functional view of relationships? Is it enough to simply collect material? What questions do the different disciplines overlook? Given my training it is perhaps unsurprising that what most catches my eye is the way relationships are negotiated in the lab. But how do the more interpretive practices of historians and social scientists sit with the highly structured frameworks of scientific method? In fact, what emerged from being pushed into the unfamiliar environment of the lab, was a contrast between methods of inquiry, but also commonalities in the form of questions about interpretation, how to understand a particular result, and the disjunctions between theory and practice.


Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. London: Penguin.

Twitter: #OverlyHonestMethods: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23overlyhonestmethods&src=tyah Accessed 20th March 2013.

Dr Nina Stanczyk discusses her work on repellents and DEET sensitivity in mosquitoes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRayBUKvo_c Accessed 20th March 2013.

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Delhi old and new

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to explore Delhi from a very different angle to the one which I am used to. Despite my current home department, I’m a social anthropologist by training and practice, and if asked, I’m inclined to explain my preferred mode of working, as (jokingly) ‘liking my humans alive and chatty’.  I hope this serves to differentiate me from physical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, and archaeologists (‘ah, you’re an anthropologist, you must study apes/bones/dead people (-nope!)/pot shards’), although in India, I’m more likely to describe myself as a sociologist, as my work more closely fits with what sociologists in India do.

Consequently to dip my toe into the archives was an interesting, sometimes exhilarating, if also rather frustrating experience. So, in that respect, not so far from ethnographic research! Most frustratingly in the archives, which I was attempting to scope in all too little time, more than 50% of the files which I attempted to look at were simply not available. Not so much I think that they had been officially repressed, but given the set up (which I may explain some other time), they seem simply to have been lost. I suspect they have been lost within the archive themselves, filed out of place, or most likely never made it into the crumbling/half-under-renovation building itself.

Mostly I ploughed through the indexes of the Chief Commissioner’s office files which ran from 1913 to 1957, containing a varyingly comprehensive list of material produced and filed by a number of different departments. Since this was all new to me, I started, initially with the earliest index (1913), before realising that given my post-Independence interests and very limited amount of time, it made most sense for me to start at the other end. Consequently, I worked my way back from 1957 to 1952. While all were bound in crumbling low quality cardboard covers, the indexes quality and contents of the indexes themselves varied strikingly. The volumes of 1913 were all typeset, consequently it was very easy to skim an eye down each page making them fast to skim read. They were also mind bogglingly comprehensive, hinting at any number of little stories contained in their files, yet it was harder to see large trends within the three years I covered (1913, 1914, 1915). Switching to the 1950s and working backwards through the volumes to give myself an overview of their contents, and as well as to track down those files that interested me, these were very different. These indexes were sometimes thinner (1957 especially) and all hand written in a varieties of spidery scrawl, making efficient reading much slower and the process of wading through 350-400 odd pages per volume, a great deal more tedious.

Chief Commissioner of Delhi Municipal Corporation files indexes - the neat versions!

Chief Commissioner of Delhi Municipal Corporation files indexes – the neat versions!

Perhaps most off-putting aspect, given my hopes of actually pulling files from the archives through this process, was that most were listed with the apocalyptic word beside them ‘Destroyed’. Is there anything in this archive?!’ I wondered rather despondently as a received all five of the request slips I had submitted two hours earlier back, marked N/F (file not found). The archivist/librarian assured me that apparently some of these ‘destroyed’ files did exist, as ‘destroyed’ did not necessarily mean destroyed (having visions of bundles of papers removed by the truckload, resurfacing as paper bags in markets and bazaars). Destroyed simply meant chucked out in the vague direction of the Archive. That said, the majority of files I called with the note ‘Destroyed’ beside their listing, were indeed apparently impossible for the archivist/librarian to resurrect from the archives’ many rows of dusty shelves.

Practicalities aside, the indexes revealed interesting things about concerns, continuities and contrasts between my brief dip into 1913-15, 40 years later in 1950s post-Independence Delhi and the present day. So many of the issues seemed contemporary in 2013, as they were in 1913, a hundred years later. The 1913 archives referred to concerns about the state of the environment, particularly the Ridge areas of Delhi and its role as a green area in the city. While I didn’t pull particular file to look at, it would have been interesting to know who or what is seen as the source of the deforestation. Today the blame is usually pinned on a combination of ‘encroachment’ (with the inference of illegality appended to migration), ill-advised (and hence with a whiff of corruption) urban development in the form of shopping malls, or unauthorised quarrying. I was looking for references to water and health, plans were afoot to ‘afforest’ (a term I thought was an entirely contemporary neologism of Delhi newspapers) the South Ridge. Elsewhere I was struck by the apparent widespread availability of electricity, indicated by accounts of electrification in the city and requests for fans and electrical lighting. In 1915, Civil Lines Hospital receives an X-ray machine. Contrast this with the house I grew up in the South East of England which was not electrified until the late 1950s.

From an urban planning perspective, I was intrigued that Shahdara and Najafgargh village were much discussed as areas for development and the increase of housing and urban facilities in 1913. Present day perspectives on Delhi tend to see urban villages as a thoroughly post Independence phenomenon, a product of ‘unauthorised development’ of the 70s and 80s – but this perspective is apparently not new either. Indeed, both the present day Wikipedia pages for Shahdara and Najafgargh hint at the continuingly contested nature of what urban development means and where these two sites ‘rank’ in popular perceptions of place in the city.

In 1957, ten years after Independence and the huge population displacements as Delhi Muslims fled to Pakistan and displaced Hindus arrived to Delhi, the sheer level of population upheaval is still being worked through in the city. The Delhi Master Plan is only published in draft form in 1958, and the indexes of files for the Chief Commissioner’s office are full of page after page, after page, of references to plot allotments to post-Partition refugees, squabbles over misappropriated land, and all manner of petitions and goings on of the R&R department (precise name, no one seemed able to tell me, Refugees and Rehabilitation?). One file I did manage to successfully pull from the archive contained the letters of a traders association in NW Delhi battling to get the drain behind them cleaned, and the ‘unsanitary’ nature of the area improved, competing against their clearly better off, more legally settled neighbours. In this respect, the indexes of the colonial era had something of the uncannily clean and tidy about them, rather like reading today’s Times of India, where complexity and struggle of everyday urban life can seem to be have been glossed over and the sharp edges of urban life sanded down. By contrast, the post-colonial file listings contained references to allegations and occasional dismissals for corruption and graft, endless back and forths over infrastructure, far fewer requests for proper summer uniforms for staff, and far more for simple basic services. This felt much more like the Delhi encountered doing fieldwork, where everyday life can be a struggle and access to services requires the careful corralling of contacts, acquaintances and letterheads. In this post-Independence era, the untidiness and brevity of the indexes and records seemed to reflect not just the present day political possibilities of the archives (that can no longer be dismissed as just colonial history), but also where simply less details are kept within the files. Even so, the wheeling and dealing and chai pani [literally ‘tea water’, meaning ‘tea money’ aka a small bribe to facilitate the passage of ‘work’] is still sometimes hinted at in the interactions that went on within and in between those records, that are no longer visible to the historians eye. Not least, who drank tea with whom and the slight felt when the Chief Commissioner refused to drink tea with the less significant traders association.

Some of the things in the early colonial era indexes record things that are just so mundane as to wonder why they appear (a dustbin for Faiz Bazaar Police Station). Or they are just bizarre; how on earth is dynamite useful in the pursuit of tree planting?! Surprises still remain too. Who knew there were so many cocaine busts in colonial Delhi? Perhaps having heard James Mill‘s talk on drugs, intoxication and empires last term I shouldn’t have been surprised, but as a child of the 80s, cocaine is synonymous with the images of excess of London financial sector’s Big Bang; power shoulders on jackets, ‘Loadsamoney’, champagne and white powder. So finding something as manufactured and purified as cocaine as the subject of a colonial era drugs bust was a surprise. Other index entries note the conversion of the ‘Hindu Biscuit Company’ to the ‘Delhi Biscuit Company’; why is this recorded? Or what on earth happened to Mrs O’Brien’s horse at the Woodlands Hotel to require compensation for its destruction? Tragedy seeps out of other entries: the removal of Mrs Hinds to the pauper lunatic asylum in Agra. While on a lighter note, the Chaplin of Delhi seemed to have engineered himself near permanent leave from his job (payments and allowances, apparently intact), while my inner Simpsons fan couldn’t help but snigger at the grant of a passport to a Mr MF Shmuck… Bart, I feel, would approve.

Notes from the Annual Index to the Proceedings of the Chief Commissioner of Delhi


  • April 1913 – Extension of the police to the Notified Area of Najafgargh
  • May 1913 – Vaccination. Extension of vaccination to the Najafgargh Notified area (May, September). Home dept. Part B. Progs 207-10, 1-2. File #125
  • An ‘Afforestation Scheme’ is going on in the South Ridge in Aug 1913. Noted in Revenue and Agriculture files.
  • Assistant Civil Surgeon, Delhi. Installation of a telephone in the house of – March 1913. Com & Ind.
  • Bills – To suppress the importation of foreign women for prostitution. May 1913. Home dept.
  • Bonus – Application of Mr Edulji for a — . March 1913.
  • Books. Archaeological. Supply of – to Mr Baker. Architect. April. Education dept.
  • Other books supplied at the same time include: Presentation copies of ‘The Tragedy of the Emperor Shah Jehan, and the ‘Delhi Capital Directory’.
  • Buildings. Proposed erection of – On municipal land on Rajpore Road for hotel purposes. 1913.
  • Chenab Trees. Planting of – in the Viceregal Lodge Gardens.
  • Requests for installation of electric lights and phones in camps – surprisingly frequent
  • Chief Engineer, Delhi. Purchase of 12 Remington Typewriters for – . Com & Ind. Dept.
  • Cocaine. Balance of confiscated – with the Delhi Excise Department at the end of the year 1912-13. Other records pertaining to the limits of possession of, reports and rules regarding the illicit traffic of, and quantity received and issued in Delhi Province.
  • Dust bin. Local purchase for the Faiz Bazar Police Station
  • Dynamite. Proposed use of – . In connection with tree planting in Delhi
  • Meanwhile the Chaplin of Delhi seems to be on permanent leave, with grants made to appoint a deputy and house him in a tent…
  • Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Proposed erection of a drinking foundation and cattle trough at Delhi by the –.
  • Schmuck. Mr RF. Delhi. Grant of a passport to –.
  • No less than 13 entries about typewriters…
  • Umbrellas. Decision that process servers in Delhi Should not be supplied with – at Government expense.
  • Webb. Police Sergeant. Deputation of –. To Shimla. Question of grant of hill allowance to –. Return of –. From Shimla.
  • X-ray installation in the Civil Hospital, Delhi.


  • Court. Wearing of Indian Shoes in –.
  • Dacoities. Information relating to –. Committed in Punjab and the United Provinces.
  • Delhi Conspiracy Case. Further grant for secret service purposes in connection with the –.
  • Emigration. Discouragement of Indian emigration to Cuba –.
  • Hinds, Mrs. Removal of –. a pauper lunatic, to the Agra Lunatic Asylum.
  • Hindu Biscuit Company Ltd. Delhi. Change of name to the Delhi Biscuit Company. Ltd.
  • Hindu Biscuit Company Ltd. Delhi. Offer of biscuits by –. To the St. John’s Ambulance Corps.
  • Native Estates. Exclusion of the educational statistics of –, from the educational report.
  • Reports and returns on Cancer cases.  Submission of –. Jun 1914. Home.
  • Workhouse. Proposals regarding the establishment of a –, in Delhi.


  • Excise. Definition of ‘country liquor’ and ‘foreign liquor’ for the purposes of the –.
  • O’Brien, Mrs. OF Woodlands Hotel, Delhi. Compensation to –, for the destruction of a horse. November 1915
  • Opium. Loss of a block of –, from a consignment. May 1915
  • The Hon’ble Mr Justice, Allahabad High Court. Complaint of –, regarding encroachment on his land in Delhi.

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Dams and the Anthropocene

This fascinating video clip (via the excellent ‘anthropo.scene‘) showing the development and proliferation of dams globally, from the 1800s. What is most interesting about the video is that there are two, even three in India in 1800, only topped by 4(?) in Japan and only one shown elsewhere in the world, in Spain.

Dams have been hugely controversial in India, as the site of perhaps the best known anti-dams campaigns globally, principally the Narmarda Bachao Andolan. Yet the persistence of colonial and pre-colonial infrastructure in shaping different groups access to water on a day to day basis is still significant. While dams are often seen as a contemporary issue, and the basis for significant ‘subaltern’ social movements (albeit the most effective are well linked with well connected, elite middle class figures), it is clear that much older infrastructures persist, often literally dug into, and under the ground to have an impact on contemporary life.

the anthropo.scene

Despite the proliferation of tens of thousands of mega-dams in the 20th century they are still being planned – a mega-dam is one that is over 15 meters high. A recently proposed one in Malaysia has been met with strong resistance. If you are curious about just how many big dams exist and when they came online, watch this short clip made by Bernhard Lehner:

The continued push for large dams is now coming from the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, which you can download here. The protocol is being advanced by the International Hydropower Association. The protocol claims to advance a “neutral platform” for sustainable hydropower through multi-stakeholder consensus. This would be a real achievement, but I am highly doubtful that there is any neutral platform to be had – a point I’ve made and remade since writing the introduction to our book on water ethics.

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Water: Small but tough (and really quite surprising) – BBC R4 ‘In Our Time’

Had you ever thought what a magical molecule water really is? It’s amazingly simple really, just two hydrogens and an an oxygen, yet really quite subtle in its actions as its slight charges (dipoles, if I remember enough A level physics) which means it hangs on to its friends and gives it a surprisingly high boiling point.

All this and more on a fascinating edition of ‘In Our Time‘ on last Thursday’s Radio 4.


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