ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Cultures of Repair

Cargo-cycles and Kinship in Kolkata

The labour of repair rooted in tutelage and kinship, and the loyalties and discontents that surround repair worlds regulate social order. They recast questions of interdependence and difference in cities. Kolkata’s cargo-cyclists and repair workers who assemble and maintain these old vehicles redeem the city from its disrepairs. Their location and lives are read against the history of capital, contemporary infrastructure building and the logistics of labour. While tutelage fulfils the promise of labour for those who were previously excluded from it, the kinship fostered in Kolkata’s repair worlds continues to keep workers at the margins of capital and profits.


The author thanks the reviewers for their suggestions and Eli Elinoff, Geir Presterudstuen, George Jose and Rakesh Kumar for their excellent comments on earlier drafts. The author is indebted to Anant Maringanti for his valuable questions and criticisms. The author received grants from the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore and Vice Chancellor’s Women’s Fellowship, Western Sydney University.

Every day, Ram Sahu rides his bicycle along the roads bordering the Tollygunge canal in southern Kolkata. He makes a living by purchasing cheap jute and plastic sacks and reselling them at a higher price to wholesalers in the godowns lining the canal. Before climbing on his bicycle, Sahu carefully ties up any loose jute and nylon threads to prevent damage to the spokes of his wheels. Like all cargo-cyclists in Kolkata, the bicycle he rides bears little resemblance to the one he purchased over 50 years ago. Over the years, bicycle ­mechanics like Babla, Teni, Prasad, and Suresh—whose lives and labours I discuss in greater detail in the pages that follow—have repaired, reassembled, and recreated cargo-cycles like Sahu’s. They not only grease creaking chains and laboriously remove rust from old wheels, but also skilfully discern which parts need replacing and which can be reinforced and retained. Unlike that of the bicycles, rickshaws, pushcarts, or the occasional pressure cooker or oil or gas stove that they also fix, cargo-bicycle repair blurs the boundaries between mending and reassembling: in other words, their labours make each cargo-bicycle a unique entity.

Kolkata’s cargo-cycles stand apart from European and American freight bicycles. As products of standardised extensions and uniform appendages with containers and additional wheels, the latter aid cargo transport by minimising demands on the body. In contrast, Kolkata’s cargo-cycles materialise ­relationships that revolve around repair, metal welding, and the use of cheap ordinary objects to generate a distinctive ­assemblage. While artisans attach sturdy iron carriers and pegs to make each cargo-cycle unique, vendors use easily available and mass-produced materials like coir, elastic, wood, plastic and iron extensions that help vendors to secure heavy goods. Cargo-bicycle repairs recall Gautam Bhan’s notes on a Southern urban practice. He emphasises that repairs are not just a set of actions but also a sensibility that sees materials in a constant cycle of use and reuse over time in ways that blur the margins between the “repaired” and the “new” (Bhan 2019). Nowhere was the drudgery of repetitive and hard ­labour as well as the innate sensibility that informs repair more evident than in Teni’s highly skilled wheel-truing services. Precisely aligned spokes and rims are fundamental to balancing the weight of the goods that cargo-cyclists carried—milk, fish, vegetables, and poultry often weighing over 150 kilograms—and mitigating the wear and tear of the road. Truing services, or tal bhanga as it is known in Bengali, were in high demand in Kolkata’s repair shops that primarily ­catered to non-motorised transport. This is a highly skilled and labour-intensive job that apprentices learn at an advanced stage of their tutelage. Repair transforms even old, heavy, and creaking bicycles into an assembly of enduring vehicles that shape access to the city, and its markets and warehouses.

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Updated On : 26th Dec, 2020
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