Little-Big Stories and Nikhil Anand’s Hydraulic City: Water & the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai

Sometimes we need to tell big stories with little stories or big stories with little stories. But first, let me give some context.

In the most challenging course I’ve ever taken, Urban Theory, my class was going to read Anand’s work before we ran out of time. Instead, I was left with an unopened text and most of the relevant knowledge I would need to decipher it from the course itself. I figured, why not give it a shot now while I still remember a lot of the lessons. So I did.

I told my girlfriend when I was about ¾ done with the book that I thought it would be better suited as a paper— that it seemed like Anand’s kept talking about the same niche examples of lack of pipes in “settlements” and how that related to Foucault’s idea of biopolitics, the overall inevitability of structural failure in neoliberalism, and the legacy of colonialism in the Global South. I realize I was wrong though. This book is perfect in its form and it was actually my own form which was imperfect while reading this piece. What I didn’t realize until the end was the idea I propose of the value of “little-big” stories. Stories that use little examples (pipes in a section of Mumbai) to really show the praxis of the theories we talk about in the classroom. As a student at a liberal arts PWI, how insanely privileged is it for me to not realize the bigness in this seemingly little story? Anand shows that big theory has big implications in what we view as little examples. 

Aren’t these the stories that we should be spatializing to the same degree as we do the work of Foucault? Instead of spending a big amount of time on theory and a little amount of time on praxis why can’t they be of an equal size? So I guess what I’m trying to say is in the intestine vastness of theory which takes of the majority of space in academia, an equally spatialized and large text from Anand and his observations on water and infrastructure in Mumbai should coincide. If I am going to complain about the repetition in Anand’s work then I should equally complain when reading the works of Foucault. For some reason, we are being taught to believe that some spaces deserve more room than others— a method that undoubtedly comes from the legacy of white supremacy in education.  

Bring on the pipes. Bring on those niche examples of the theory we study so closely. Bring up the real world, yeah, the stuff that really matters. Bring up the things in your everyday working-class life that truly mean something to you. If we as academics don’t care for it, don’t pay attention to it, and don’t value it, then we are continuing academics legacy in white supremacist-bourgeois values. 

I’m not super interested in plumping, pipes, or Mumbai’s infrastructure but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pay attention. I read all theory even though I am a true Marxist-Leninist at heart. So I guess what this book gave me was two lessons. One on the subject itself— a real-life example of the theories we study. But two, (yes I’m an English major) this lesson on value in stories. Little-Big stories like Anand’s need to be valued, read, and studied. If we ignore these tales then our hours spent at lectures are for nothing. This is where the connection that so many students claim to lack between their teachings and their realities exists. Today it’s pipes in Mumbai, tomorrow it might be the road around the block where you live.

Pictured: book cover

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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