The Asynchronous Everyday

The Asynchronous Everyday

In the early twentieth century, the Memon community in colonial Bombay opposed a new street scheme that had many potential benefits, possibly even for them. It was mystifying to the colonial authorities that the Memons, a community of Sunni-Muslim traders and businessmen, would be “against improvement.” The Memon community’s opposition was based on the recognition that they would have to pay a price for that “improvement,” as the proposed street was designed to cut right through their communal quarter. Yet, this is only a shorthand explanation for their opposition. Reading a letter I found in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai (previously, Bombay) from S.M. Edwardes, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to the Secretary to Government, dated 1 July 1911, pleading on behalf of the Memons, I began to understand what was really at stake: preserving a different communal time-sense, to borrow a concept from E. P. Thompson, that would be utterly destroyed by the street scheme.[1] Every once in a while, an archival document imprints itself on one’s memory and conscience. Edwardes’s letter was one such document. I was informed and moved in equal measure by his portrayal of Memon communal time-sense and by his evident affection for the community.[2]

Figure 1. “Map of the Island of Bombay showing Schemes of Proposed Development,” c. 1921. The lines of double thickness show the Eastern Avenue. By 1921, the construction of this street was finished, running from a few yards from Crawford Market in the south to Mahim in the north. Source: George Curtis, “The Development of Bombay,” Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts 69, no. 3582 (July 15, 1921): 565.

To return to the details of the case in question. If the boundaries of a local quarter did not exist in official maps—as was often the case in India and other British colonies—they were vulnerable to change by the colonial government, as they lacked official recognition. This was illustrated in the plan that the Memons opposed: the “City of Bombay Improvement Trust Scheme No. XXXVII: Sandhurst Road to Crawford Market Road Street Scheme,” from around 1911 (figure 1). This scheme for a new street was part of what was popularly referred to as the “Eastern Avenue.” The avenue was to link the evolving northern suburbs of Bombay Island to the Fort, the nucleus of the city. The Trust persuasively made the case to its board and the public that the Eastern Avenue was necessary for efficient transportation, especially migration of the middle classes to the northern parts of the Island, which would help alleviate the population density in the city. Planning for the dense southernmost section of the scheme proved tricky. Initially, the Trust recommended broadening an existing road but it now put forward the plan to carve a new road, piercing neighborhoods, particularly Memonwada, the quarter of the Memon community.[3] In response, in 1911, a delegation of Memons visited James Orr, president of the Trust, and asked him to reconsider the scheme.

For the Memons, who had migrated from the western Indian region of Gujarat, Memonwada was the hereditary home of their community in Bombay. In Bombay, there were many distinct Muslim communities, and certainly until 1915, few Muslims thought in terms of “an Indian Muslim ‘nation’ or a collective Pan Islam.”[4] Characterized by the “prodigious diversity” of the premodern era—in “housing, modes of dress, eating and drinking”—the city was home to the Memons as one of many distinct communities who followed Islam.[5] Apart from a small group of craftsmen, Memons were traders, merchants, dealers, or shopkeepers in any branch of business except for intoxicants.[6] Memonwada was conveniently located near the docks in Bombay.[7]

The three important elements of the Memon community were the jamatkhana (the common room), the mosque, and the family-house (figure 2).[8] Edwardes’s letter revealed how living amid these institutions and working here and at the docks close by, made it possible for Memons to attend to daily activities of work and family life as well as those of communal life. Memon women who were parda-nishin, that is veiled, were central to and also required to attend many social ceremonies of the community. Edwardes points out that “it is no exaggeration to say that if the Memons lived in any other quarter than their own…the women of the middle and lower-middle classes…would probably hardly ever stir out of their houses.”[9] In the early twentieth century, the rhythms of daily life of Memons where family, work, leisure, community, and religious obligations intersected, showed a community attuned to “task orientation.”[10]

Every once in a while, an archival document imprints itself on one’s memory and conscience.

Rather than the colonial state, it was Memon community leaders who had “the power to shape [Memon] society by governing the repetitions that form its component selves.” In their ability to “control people’s movements and control their interpretation,” they “could control their identities.”[11] The Trust’s scheme revealed the colonial state’s ability and power to influence the repetitions of the Memon community, and reshape their everyday space, and thus their identity, selfhood, and personhood.

Figure 2. View of Haji Karim Muhummad Suleiman Cutch Memon Jamatkhana, Kambekar Road, ca. 1930. This is the jamatkhana (the common room/space where the community assembled) of the Cutchi Memon community whose ancestors came to Bombay from the region of Cutch in the contemporary state of Gujarat in western India. Photograph by Preeti Chopra, 2012.

The Trust, just like the British model it emulated, was largely controlled by local elites, some of whom were Indian.[12] The Trust’s Board included the Bombay Chamber of Commerce whose membership consisted mainly of Europeans, and the Bombay Millowners’ Association (BMOA), dominated by Indian businessmen.[13] Local elites viewed the city through the lenses of their own interests and a sense of time that differed from that of Memons. Bombay industrialists, for example, were attempting to impose a work-discipline on textile workers, to teach them “a clear demarcation between ‘work’ and ‘life.’”[14] The Memons, through Edwardes’s representation, were arguing that physical infrastructure was not important in terms of property, eminent domain, etc., but, rather, in terms of the communal temporal infrastructure that was afforded by the physical infrastructure of Memonwada. Thus, this road scheme, rather than simply a colonial imposition, showcased the asynchronous everyday: two different attitudes towards time that were in conflict in this industrial city.



[1] This line of inquiry was inspired by E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present, no. 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

[2] Letter from S.M. Edwardes, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to the Secretary to Government, General Department (hereafter cited as GD), no. 6180/6 of 1911, 1 July 1911, Maharashtra State Archives (hereafter cited as MSA), GD, 1912, vol. 45, comp. no. 531, pt. 1: 55-63.

[3] See Prashant Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 95-99.

[4] Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 6; see also Jim Masselos, “Power in the Bombay ‘Moholla,’ 1904-14: An Initial Exploration into the World of the Indian Urban Muslim,” South Asia, no. 6 (December 1976): 75-76.

[5] Henri Lefebvre, “The Everyday and Everdayness,” trans. Christine Levich with the editors of Yale French Studies, in Architecture of the Everyday, ed. Steven Harris and Deborah Berke (New York: Princeton Architecture Press, 1997), 32.

[6] Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, vol. 9, pt. 2., Gujarát Population: Musalmans and Parsis (Bombay: Government Central Press, 1899), 50-57.

[7] Letter from S. M. Edwardes, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to the Secretary to Government, GD, no. 6180/6 of 1911, 1 July 1911, MSA, GD, 1912, vol. 45, comp. no. 531, pt. 1: 62.

[8] Unless otherwise mentioned, the following account of the Memon community is taken from the Edwardes letter cited in note 7, 55-63.

[9] Edwardes letter, 60.

[10] Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” 60.

[11] Dell Upton, “Architecture in Everyday Life,” New Literary History 33, no. 4 (Autumn 2002): 719.

[12] Writing of the Bombay Improvement Trust, Sandip Hazareesingh observes that “Its Board comprised the Military Commander of Bombay District, the Collector of Land Revenue, the (government-appointed) Bombay Municipal Commissioner, and leading members of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, the Millowners Association and the Municipal Corporation.” See Sandeep Hazareesingh, “Colonial modernism and flawed paradigms of urban renewal: uneven development in Bombay, 1900-25,” Urban History 28, 2 (2001): 240, 240n18.

[13] Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis, 187.

[14] Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” 93.


This essay is dedicated to Dell Upton. I am grateful to the organizers, fellow panelists and participants of the symposium Architectural History Redefined in 2018 where I initially presented this work. I would also like to thank Ashok Captain, Atte Jongstra, and Mary McLeod.

Support for this research was provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Research & Graduate Education with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). In addition, this work was supported by The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS).

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