In This Review

Bombay Brokers
Bombay Brokers
Edited by Lisa Bjorkman
Duke University Press, 2021, 472 pp.

This collection of 36 short profiles by as many authors affectionately portrays the middlemen and facilitators who grease the wheels of life in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) in imaginative ways. There is the construction engineer who specializes in persuading municipal officers to approve water hookups for buildings that are not certified for occupancy; the retired municipal official who uses his connections to help neighbors with identity cards, rubbish removal, and death certificates; and a variety of entrepreneurs who specialize in assembling political crowds with money or entertainment. Some of the subjects are like those who run small businesses anywhere, but with an Indian twist: a messenger who specializes in delivering daily lunchboxes from homes to office workers through Mumbai’s impossible transit system, a group of transgender women who collect overdue loans by dancing in front of deadbeats until they pay, a “prison master” who serves other people’s terms. The characters in the book maneuver in the ambiguous spaces between the modern political economy and the tangled reality of irrational regulations, strained resources, and too many people. The book is an unconventional introduction to India’s biggest city and an invitation to the joys and challenges of ethnography.