Was Your (Great) Grandfather a Bombay PWD Engineer?

Report by Vanessa Caru

"Was your (great) grandfather a Bombay PWD engineer?" Thus begins the post I published in May 2017, on the blog of our collective project ENGIND, dedicated to the history and sociology of engineers in colonial and postcolonial India.

Over the past few years, I have been conducting research on the Indian staff of the Public Works Department (PWD) employed in the Bombay Presidency between 1860 and 1950. Initially, my work focused mainly on the review of the PWD archives related to the management of its workforce. In particular, I spent six weeks at the British Library in London studying a very specific document, the "Histories of Service." These lists, compiled and published annually by the colonial administration, provided for each agent his rank, the position held, as well as some details of his professional life (diplomas, distinctions received, etc.). From 1912 onwards, they also included information for Indian staff on the village of origin, mother tongue, caste and even sub-caste. Through this rather tedious analysis, I sought, on the one hand, to identify the group on which I was working and, on the other, to gather information with the goal of creating a database and developing a statistical process to allow a comparison between the careers of British and Indian engineers. At this stage of my work, the 487 pages of notes taken at the British Library were not intended to be converted into individual records.

It was a meeting, initiated by a literary reference, which put me on the trail of the descendants of the engineers in question. I was then completing bibliographical research on the history of the city of Bombay, when I realized that one of the authors I was consulting had dedicated her book to her father, whose surname seemed familiar to me. Copying lists for weeks had the effect of burning some names into my memory and I realized he was one of the engineers employed by the PWD in Bombay. Since the author was a colleague, it was easy to get in touch with her and I held my first interview of the PWD Engineer project with her at the beginning of 2016. The experience proved fruitful as it gave me access to documents on her father that I could not find in the official archives (photographs, honorary document awarded by the Catholic community of Santa Cruz, etc.). Above all, it opened up a new question: by reconstructing family trajectories, could I examine the nature of intra- and trans-generational social mobility allowed by entry into the profession?

However, the process would still need to be systematized. It is one thing to find, almost by chance, a descendant, and another to conduct a sufficient number of interviews for the data collected to make sense. I waited until my request for an assignment at the Institut Français de Pondichéry was confirmed before starting this work, because I felt that my presence in India would simplify the task. In May 2017, I finally took the plunge and published this post on our blog listing the 105 Indian engineers employed in the Bombay Presidency before 1950. I used my social and professional networks built up over the years in Bombay to spread it, encouraging people to share it on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp lists; it circulated on lists of alumni from several engineering colleges and even one women's club! It was the recent popularity and development of genealogy sites which gave me hope that blogs and social networks would prove successful platforms for my search, despite the variable transcriptions of names in the Latin alphabet that might complicate it.

A week after the post was published, I was contacted by the grandson of one of the PWD engineers, G., who became a useful contact. His family was from Sindh (now Pakistan) and belonged to a particular group, the Amil, from which the vast majority of engineers from this region originated as already proven through earlier statistical surveys. (More generally, this community provided many cadres to the British government). Hindus, they left Sindh after Partition and this collective memory was directly related to the access I was given to this community. The trauma of displacement had already aroused their appetite for history, illustrated by G's first mail in which he forwarded all his own previous research on his grandfather's name on the Net. G. also helpfully put me in touch with another researcher, Saaz Aggarwal, who was completing a book on the Amil, for which she had relied heavily on oral sources (Aggarwal S., The Amils of Sindh, Black and White Fountain, 2018). She in turn referred me to other families who had had an engineer ancestor.

The blog post continued to bring me new contacts, while simultaneously this pattern of one interview leading me to another continued; interviewees often referred me either to a family member who had more memories or documents, or to another descendant within their friendly circle or community. The Indian staff of the PWD came from relatively small communities and castes. Just under half of the individuals for whom I had information on the origin group were Brahmins (and within that group, almost half were Chitpavan Brahmins from the Konkan coast) and almost 1/6th were Parsi. In Great Britain, access to this profession was through the apprenticeship system or, through its more expensive version favored by the middle classes, the "pupillage," making it possible to progress from the rank of manual apprentice to the status of engineer within a workshop or factory. In India, on the other hand, it was the awarding of a diploma, issued by the new English medium training institutions set up by the British, that regulated entry into the profession. The castes and groups from which PWD engineers were recruited were, in consequence, those who were, because of their cultural capital (proximity to knowledge and written language), their tradition of employment in pre-colonial administrations or their early contact with the British, able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the development of English-language education and the colonial bureaucracy.

Fig 2 : © Private Collection

Fig1: © Myrna Dalal

I conducted nineteen interviews. They took place mainly in Bombay (eleven), but also in Pune, Delhi, Pilerne (Goa) and Bangalore and were done in person, although in the case of two descendants based in the USA, interviews were conducted through audio or video calls. The first contacts were made by e-mail and involved sending a career outline of the engineer concerned, based on information collected within the "Histories of Service," the details of which were often unknown to the descendants. These career "histories" proved doubly useful: they allowed me to contribute something in exchange for the time—often long—that people agreed to devote to the interview and at the same time served as a framework for it, marking the pivotal moments of the engineer's professional life. In addition to the data collected on family trajectories, these meetings—conducted, in the vast majority of cases, in people's homes—also allowed me to collect other types of information. The interviewees often gathered together additional documents related to their father's or grandfather's life for me. Their number and nature were random, especially for families who had lived through the Partition and as such had retained only a limited number of their possessions. The most commonly preserved documents were individual or family portraits (photo 1) and newspaper clippings, including obituaries. As the official archives very rarely contained photographic documents, these photographs gave substance to the people studied, and made it possible to examine the way they had chosen to be represented. More rarely I was presented with diplomas and gold medals (photo 2) and/or books offered to students with the highest grade on the engineering degree examination (which all had received since being "First" was a condition for selection to a position in the PWD). Even more occasionally, I had access to letters (often exchanged with politicians or hierarchical superiors) or albums, with notations by the engineer, documenting some of his professional achievements. Of particular interest, were the number of photographs of Sukkur Dam that appeared in the family albums shared with me; the project's scale and duration (construction lasted almost a decade from 1923 to 1931) clearly having mobilized a high number of engineers (photo 3,4). Once, I was given a copy of the grandfather's memoirs, which had been published in very short print runs and written in Marathi, with some passages in dialogue.


Visiting people at home also effectively and firmly anchored the histories of these family trajectories in places: places of origin to which the family returned, places of exile, places of settlement after entering the PWD. The homes themselves also helped fill out details in individual histories. This is the case in particular when the current dwelling was the one inhabited or built by the engineer himself, and where objects chosen by him were kept which might include traces of his travels (English dishes, etc.) or his hobbies.

It is from this varied material that I plan, in the coming years, to analyze, first, what resources (cultural capital, social origins, caste, etc.) enabled these engineers to succeed and, then to examine how the social status gained by the engineer's position within the PWD assured the family's future and was transmitted to following generations.