The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai

Hans Schenk

Loss and Survival

The setting

The setting of Maura Finkelstein’s ethnography looks clear enough at first sight: Mumbai (Bombay), against a background of the transformation from an industrial city (cotton mills) to a post-industrial one. The once-famous and ill-famous cotton industry in the city, with not less than 58 mills in the early 1960s and employing in those years more than 600,000 workers, lost its position on the world market from the 1970s onwards. Moreover, a major strike in 1982-83 accelerated its end in Mumbai. Most workers lost their jobs, but those with a formal status could profit from pensions. Some workers remained, however, almost forgotten in a city that proclaims itself to be post-industrial. They and their jobs are the main subject of Finkelstein’s The Archive of Loss.

The book gives a central place to workers’ living quarters, often – say – 10m2 single-room apartments (chawls), more or less attached to the mills. Profitable redevelopment of the sites of the mill-sheds – resulting in modern and costly high-rise apartment buildings, shopping malls, and other kinds of upscale attractions – also threatens the workplaces of the few remaining workers. However, legal regulations allow for non-industrial developments only under extreme external happenings such as fires. And there were many fires after 1983. Finkelstein writes that “mysterious mill fires provide the perfect avenue for non-industrial development …” (p.175). For the time being, employing an ever-smaller number of labourers along with the extra-legal renting out of most of the mill buildings forms an attractive status quo for the mill owners, but this may change any day. For the residents of the dilapidated chawls, eviction is structurally nearby: “some sort of ticking time bomb, destined to explode…” (p.115). After demolition of their old quarters and the construction of new high-rise and up-market apartments, return is far beyond residents’ means.  

Archives of a living past

A handful of workers and ex-workers in one of the rudimentary functioning mills (Dhanraj) guides Finkelstein through the spatial and temporal dimensions of this decaying setting. However, it is not just an ethnographic study of a few workers in Mumbai’s cotton mills. The central question that Finkelstein raises is “what it means to be an active worker in an industry that is understood to be defunct” (p.5). This question and related sub-questions are answered through sets of contradictions. These are grouped and discussed in five chapters, devoted to the mill of the workers with whom she interacted, to the workers themselves, to their housing, to the strike of 1982-3, and finally to the fires afterwards. Each set of contradictions is presented in what she denotes as an archive of a living past, whereby archives must be seen as organizing instruments which are far beyond the written past on paper: they are containers of memories, stories, and artefacts of people. And actually, as Finkelstein adds, her archives seek to organize “knowledge that has been disappeared or overlooked” (p.6). In even stronger words, she writes that she does not focus on how development of Mumbai is working (or not working), but instead “on what it feels like to live in the shadows of this development” (p.22).

The Cotton Market, Bombay by William Johnson and William Henderson. Courtesy of DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University


Finkelstein is aware of the restriction of her explicit methodology, based on five particular spokespersons. Her archives are “incomplete – limited by my placement, my perspective, my positionality. The archive holds power through these limitations.” And even here she introduces a contradiction, perhaps even a dialectical element, and then an element of metaphysical dialectics: “There is no way to know what has been lost and there is no way to know what was never there” (p.7). These explicit, staked-out picket posts guide her subjective path through Mumbai’s remaining mill land. Though unmoored from a formal timeline, Finkelstein introduces the reader in her five realms of archive-building.


In the five realms, the reader finds stirring, archive-filling narratives of mill workers vis-à-vis their factory, vis-à-vis their single-room quarters, and vis-à-vis their pasts. Stirring indeed, as Finkelstein gives fascinating stories of how these workers look at what is at stake in and around Dhanraj mill and their dwellings, now and in the past, and, indeed, in the shadows of ‘development.’ Her narratives are full of contradictions and dialectical reasoning. Her style is characteristic, and sometimes even her lay-out is as well. The mill, for example, is introduced thusly:

Dhanraj is alive, but it will die soon.
Also Dhanraj is already dead.
Therefore, Dhanraj is a sort of death that is deeply alive: a space of alternative life, a life outside of language. (p.14, italics in original).

Her narratives are confusing. They are rich and lead back to her sources of inspiration, allowing readers to dwell on her as numerous – often philosophical – questions. It is hence sometimes not easy to follow the main threads that make up the archives she is weaving. This is certainly a compliment, as it shows that she has her main stories embedded in a broad range of societal aspects. But here starts also the confusion: what does the reader read? Dealing with the fires following the strike in 1982-83 and the obvious subsequent rumours, she writes, “I once again resist my own urge to ‘discover’ the ‘truth’ at the root of worker stories. Instead I push myself to pay attention to what I’m being told…” (p.157). And the author is not focused only on what she is told; she is also determined to direct the limelight to the ways she has retold this information. She mentions in her acknowledgements the role of her writing teachers, who reminded her that “my voice is as important as my research. That the structure of language is as important as the theory that structures my arguments” (p.viii). Her text is really absorbing, and she encourages the reader to read her book as a novel, a piece of fiction, often poetic. Her accounts of ‘what really happened’ beyond all the narratives is often there, but a bit hidden, often in long endnotes, sometimes in interludes between parts of the narratives or at remote places. What is told to her matters most and is carefully worded.


The facts are subordinate to the narratives, the memories – or at least, they are presented as such. This gives real weight to her trump cards, her five major spokespersons – two women and three men, all bearing a name, all working in the mill, and most of them living in a chawl. My first astonishment is then: just five!? Is it not a bit shaky to lay the heavy baskets of archives on just five people’s shoulders, with only occasional support from a few others who remain in the shadow of these five persons? And even though there are ‘corrections’ now and then, in which it is briefly told ‘what really happened,’ my fear of shaky baskets remains. If memories and stories have been given such power in the five main chapters of the book, is then the risk of a distorting bias not extreme? My second astonishment is a related one. The reader is introduced to the growing ethnic cleavages (and resulting ethnic identity politics) between the textile workers from Maharashtra (the Indian state in which Mumbai is located) and those from elsewhere, mainly from the North of the country, such as Kishan, one of her main spokespersons. She writes suddenly: “Kishan is not telling me the ‘truth’” (p.120). This confession has its implications: are other stories by Kishan’s colleagues ‘true’? Why is this truth here so important, since elsewhere in the book just the content of the stories prevails and fills the archives? Moreover, and even more puzzling, Finkelstein adds that she does not like Kishan (p.148). Does this matter at all? If so, why? How? If it does not matter – and it should not matter in an ideal setting – why does she mention it in a such a carefully worded book? Is there a relation between a trustworthy story and a spokesperson she likes, or at least one that she does not dislike?

The book thus raises questions about methodology and presentation. Yet it is fascinating. It is an original, remarkable, and admirable account of other sides of the glossy coins of Mumbai as a post-industrial city aiming to reach world-class status (whatever that may mean). It is moreover a convincing ‘first-hand’ account of the working and social lives of those Mumbaikars who live somewhere in the shadows of ‘development’, in spite of the questions that can be raised.