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|Membership in the National Library|
|The fascinating primary material from 1800 Britishers.|
Walking through the front gate entrance to the National Library in Kolkata I see my first city post office. It is a small clean rectangle with backlit plastic signs. It is mark of modernity outside what I imagine will be a return to the scholarly adventures of the past inside the library buildings which are not ostentatious, but do show an elegant regard for the words inside. I imagine officers of the British Empire and professors or poets of the revolution who sat for hours in long echoing rooms with high ceilings and a double floor of thick leather bound manuscripts.
My imagination might not be shattered or reinforced because, as I walk up to the front desk, I read a new sign in Bengali, Hindi and English, informing everyone that, as of February of this year, everyone needs to have a membership card with a photograph in order to make use of the library. The man at the desk is not at his desk. The hours of operation might be 9:30 to 5 on the weekends, but this does not mention the 30-minute lunch break that is officially posted at the man's station. I wait ten minutes, rereading the membership sign and looking at the new arrivals display showing books with jackets that have faded from being in the sun for five years. Perhaps, I think, he will allow me through without a card? He returns, talks with two women who have questions about their membership card and then walks out of his office, ignoring myself and two others waiting in line. I catch his attention and, after a very brief conversation, he beckons me to follow him, pausing only to make me leave my bag at the front desk area. I am seeing one benefit of not speaking the language ... I will always be taken to someone inside who speaks English.
We walk through the main hallway where the paper card catalog is kept and I see catalogs for books in Bengali, Gujarati, Kannanda, Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, Oriya and Assamese. Only three of these languages have I know before this time. It strikes me that cross referencing subjects across languages in this library cannot be an easy task, but I have little time to ponder the thought further as he sweeps up to the reading room on the far right end of the hallway. My imagination did not disappoint; 150 feet of high ceiling, double layered reading room with old wooden tables and chairs stands before me. The Doric columns are painted peach and there are green fans with massive diameters growing out of any empty spaces next to or above the reading tables. They give out a strong breeze that circulates the length and height of the room and they send vibrations along the solid wood floor that is covered by incredibly thin squares of wood. At each table is a small moveable shelf onto which readers have placed their books and every chair is numbered with white paint. The lights suspended from the ceiling are not turned on and the bright glare from the fluorescent bulbs directly above each table makes the ceiling seem all that much dimmer, as if hiding us from the history in the bookshelves above.
I am ushered to a particular seat and the man from the front desk leaves me alone, flipping my square metal bag deposit chit between my fingers. I notice a small sign indicating that special reading tables will be assigned only to people doing scholarly research. A few minutes later a woman sits down and asks me why I am here. Thinking about the sign behind her, I explain that I am on leave from New York University, staying at the IIMC and wishing to do historical research using primary documentation that I cannot find at home. She doesn't really care. She has me write my name and address and reason for being here in one of the huge ledger books that every Indian office proliferates. Then she pulls out what looks like a receipt book and places a sheaf of carbon paper in between two pages. She tells me to sign the receipt and write my address; but the entire form is in Hindi and when I ask where I should write she gives me an odd look and doesn't provide further guidance. I sign somewhere and she rips out the receipt, leaving a third of it in the book, announcing that this is my temporary two-day membership card.
She rises and takes me on the guided tour consisting of the of desk at which I request books, the forms I must fill out twice in order to request books, and the card catalogue where she kindly explains to me what a call number is. I thank her for her help and think about what I should do now.
Looking through the subject index on India I am drawn to a section on personal narratives between the 1850s and 70's. Titles such as, "The mutinies in Rajpootana: being a personal narrative of the mutiny at Nasserabad with subsequent residence at Jodphore, and journey across the desert into Sind, together with an account of the outbreak at Neemuch and mutiny of the Jodhpore legion at Erinpoora and Attack on Mount Aboo." I could not resist this J.W. Parker & Son publication of 1860.
It takes thirty minutes for books to be brought from the stacks and I eventually get one of my requests; a copy of Charles Crossley Seymour's book, "How I won the Indian Mutiny Medal and how things went afterwards." This Prentice Hall publication of 1888 was checked out once before on July 27 in 1960 and has the dust to prove it. Seymour, an Irishman born into 1817 Calcutta at Belatee Bungalow in Esplanade Row, East, due north of the Ochterlony Cenotaph recalls the laying of the cenotaph's foundation as a child. He claims that his place of birth prevented him from seeking honorable livelihood in callings that are "beneath a gentleman," and he eventually became an Agra militiaman. His writings developed from a recital of his experiences that he gave to an audience that demanded a "second and supplementary recital, sine die."
With only a few hours until leaving for a dance event I was scheduled to attend, I had to skim to only the most intriguing sounding portions. For instance, Appendix F. The glory of self-abnegation - a Hobson's Jobson word if ever I heard one - it is noted how, "Sir Henry Hardinge laid aside his Governor-Generalship for one night of sorest emergency, and tendered his military services to his own subordinate, Sir Hugh Gough...The battle was fought...Sir Henry Hardinge resumed his Supreme Office the next day."
The rest of his account is battle movements, people names and scripture quotes.
The slip for another of books I had requested is returned to me with the comment Brittle on the top. I talk with another official who taps his desk to indicate that I must read it only at his desk. I collect my belongings from chair 7 and return to the assistant librarian's desk. I watch him disappear down a lime green and dirt infested spiral staircase and I trundle back to the reference desk to see if any of my other requests were around. "Arthur Moffat Lang's Diaries and Letters," had indeed been raised up from their never before checked out resting place. Between 1857 and 59 Moffat was a 1st Lieutenant for the Bengal Engineers. Like Seymour, he was born in India but born of Scottish heritage. I set Moffat aside when the Brittle book is brought up to me, thinking it will be more fascinating to from an old brittle book thank just an old one; there is the adventure of perhaps of being the last to read a page before it disintegrates entirely.
The assistant librarian bangs the book against a metal upright to get my attention. He drops the small brown leather bound item on the hunter green leather topped desk. The book is only twice the size of my palm pilot and is the "Lady's Diary of Siege of Lucknow," by Mrs. James Harris, 1858. She has a subtitle: 'Written for the perusal of friends at home.' In the preface it is written that, "since no lady's diary has hitherto been given to the public, the friends of the writer have thought that it might interest others, beyond the family circle." I am indeed captivated by Mrs. James Harris' account already.
Her diary starts as any great novel might, gripping from the opening salvo of words. "4 p.m. - Since writing to you this morning such awful news has come, that I still feel paralysed with horror. There has been an insurrection in Delhi and the Chief Commissioner (Mr. Fraser), Captain Douglas, Mr. and Miss Jennings, have all been murdered in cold blood. The news came by electric telegraph. No particulars are known, nor even the extent of the insurrection; or whether it is the people or the Sepoys. They have cut the telegraph wires between Delhi and Meerut, and destroyed a bridge to prevent the passage of the troops...There has been no post for four days from up country, and we are in complete ignorance of what horrors may be going on. Poor! Poor Captain Douglas! - or rather, one's heart should bleed for his miserable wife, who little knows now that she will never look upon his face in this world."
At one point she distresses that "People's servants seem deserting daily. We expect soon to be without attendants, and a good riddance it would be if this were a climate which admitted of one's doing without them; but if they all leave us, it will be difficult to know how we shall manage. Their impudence is beyond bounds: they are losing even the semblance of respect. I packed my tailor off yesterday: he came very late, and, on my remarking it, he gave me such an insolent answer and a look, that I discharged him then and there; and he actually went off without waiting or asking for his wages."
Since time is not unlimited and there is much to read I decide to read her entry on my birthday. She writes about being finally out of a compound in which they were holed up for quite some time. Now living in a campsite she writes " if it had lasted much longer, and I had not had plenty to do, I should have gone melancholy mad." On Julie's birthday, she writes about the prettiness of the campsite and the lovely piece of turf on which the dining tent is pitched. A "Mrs. Spry has kindly sent her dhobee over to me this morning, and we gave him an accumulation of unwashed clothes." She does not mention if her dhobi, like the one we give our clothes to on campus, actually adds more stains to the clothes than taking them away.
I move back to "Lang's and Gray's Diaries" for a change of pace and learn that the word 'pucka' means to be made permanent.
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