Last weekend we—Carrie, Sheela and I—went to Dakshineswar (pronounced like DoKKin-swor in Bangla) and Belur Meth, two holy sites in the far north of Kolkata.
Dakshineswar was crowded and disturbing. Dead crows, security guards throwing garbage on some of the women who were cleaning it. And some very distressed, desperate people. One women was crawling along the ground inside the temple as a form of penance. I don’t think I’ve felt my whiteness as much as when a number of beggar-children approached me on the ghat outside.
We took an open ferry ride across the Hooghly from Dakshineswar. Saw a dead dog, bloated, floating down the river.
Belur Math was closed, but still, it was certainly worth taking that ferry ride.
Dakshineswar was something I’d been meaning to see for a long time, so I’m thankful Sheela took the initiative to have us see it.
We took a right into a winding road, wide enough for one car. Brightly painted buildings on both side. We asked the nearest people, “English Cemetery?” No one knew.
As we were driving we came across a building, nearly as long as a football field. Red brick on one side. It looked like a palace, crumbling. Perhaps the cemetery was on the other side?
It was a mansion. It was huge. Painted a faint yellow and blue on the front, bleached from the sun. Two lions over the gate. We stopped and got out, and asked the people standing in front of it what it was. A palace they confirmed. People were living inside it they said. Something its size should have been in lonely planet or tripadvisor—but it wasn’t.
This Sunday we took a day trip to Murshidabad, the former capital of Bengal. We had driven since 4:30 am and arrived, after lunch at a dysfunctional restaurant, at 3:00pm. The road (National Highway 3) was more cratered pothole than road.
Then we came across the English and Dutch Cemeteries. Only 1 review in tripadvisor each. Then a tomb, small. Not in tripadvisor. Then another palace, owned by the Roy family. Not in tripadivsor. Then the Armenian lake, surrounded by walls and with a garden inside. Not in tripadivsor.
I’m amazed that Murshidabad does have the international tourist attention it should have. Its mention in lonely planet is a stub, but it’s much more to see than the Sunderbon, for instance.
When the Mughal Empire started crumbling in the 18th century, power devolved into a number of fractious princely states, ruled by Nawabs. These states still held loyalty to the Empire but it was without effect, and they ruled independently.
Bengal was one of these states. The Nawabs of Bengal ruled over the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa (now modern day states in India). The Nawabs granted a number of trading contracts to different European East India Companies: the Dutch, French, Danish and British, and if I’m not mistaken, the Portuguese as well, though they had faded into history. Murshidabad was once a center of culture of learning, attracting communities from world wide, like the Armenians
In 1756, the Nawab, seeing the success of the most powerful of the Companies, the British, grew fearful and decided to invade. He sacked British trading “factories” and marched on Calcutta. The British fled, but came back the next year with a small, though professional army.
They retook Calcutta, advanced North to Murshidabad, and only thirty or so kilometers south of the Nawab’s capital, the two sides met in battle. With some deception—including that the British general had bribed some of the Nawab’s lieutenants, the British scored a tremendous victory, and forced the Nawab to give up all his territory. It was a momentous moment for the British Empire—and it was the most major step in the creation of British Raj, and the British dominance of India.
Murshidabad contains hidden and crumbling architecture everywhere. Tombs dot the streets, there are fantastic British and Dutch cemeteries from the European settlements at Cassimbazar (Kasimbazar). It has a beautiful riverside, clean by Indian standards. Between the river and buildings overlooking it are an endless stretch of football fields. Along the river itself are a few ghats—steps down to the water—and a lovely stretch of road with chai and ice cream stands. But it’s not crowded like I expected. There’s room to walk.
Most fantastic is the Hazar Duari—the palace of 1000 doors. Opposite it is the also impressive imambari (imam’s house). There’s also a very impressive mosque and a number of smaller palaces in different states of disrepair.
What Murshidabad lacks is development. Most of what we found was unmarked or driving on random streets. With money and time it has the right to be the tourist destination it should be.
Business economics, an Indian news magazine, published an article (view the original PDF) about my research on Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, Asia’s first newspaper, printed in Calcutta from 1780-1782, and early Indian printers. Please read it to see what I’ve been up to and why these old newspapers are important.
Last month, I requested twice to digitize an issue of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette extraordinary.
I was rejected twice.
My first letter requesting permission to digitize their copies of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was rejected. The employees of the High Court, including the lawyer who had helped me much and the assistant in the research room had declined informing me that my petition was rejected because they did not want to be the bearers of bad news—a fairly typical custom in India.
I received my rejection letter in good grace. It took the correspondence section all of 15 minutes to get it to me, which is about the quickest thing I’ve ever seen them do.
Given my rejection, I asked the research room if there was anything else I could do. One very helpful man, Hussain, in the research room provided me incredible assistance. When I explained my issue, he asked how I had gotten the British Library copy. I said they just gave it to me.
“Just it gave it to you? No formal petitions?”
“They gave it to me as a big PDF file.”
“They just let you do that?” he was shocked.
I rewrote my application, arguing that if I could digitize this copy of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette then I will be able to preserve an historical part of India’s history before it is too late. I hope this tact will grant me success. Another change in tactic is addressing the judge in a very obsequious manner. This process took the entire day, bringing me to three different offices.
My new application was 24 pages long (that includes a duplicate copy). The triplicate copy which I had printed out turned out to be unnecessary.
This was also rejected. The most frustrating part was the Research Room managerà the man who supposedly assists me in the room.
There was another court record I needed to look at. A trial in 1797 involved James Augustus Hicky versus some Bengali inhabitants who were convicted of assault and battery against him. The trial mentions Hicky’s wife. If I could find out more about her, I could understand another side of Hicky—and understand him, his wife and their family better. Perhaps she was a British woman and not a Muslim as is historically thought?
“How do you know this record exists?” he asked
“I have a source describing it”
“Ok we will need to check the catalog.”
We went to the catalog room. I told him the catalog for 1775-1800 was missing. Apparently he didn’t know that.
Then we went into the record room. This was the first time he, the research manager, entered the room. (!!!?!?!?). He turned to me, saying that he had advised the registrar that I not be allowed to digitize Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the unsaid words being: If only he had known what was in this room, he would have submitted his opinion that I get to digitize.
I frequently say that if I were doing my research in the US and not Calcutta I could have completed my Fulbright in a month. There is much that I leave out of my blog in terms of my work and research. There is much more that simply takes time in Calcutta, from searching through archives, to gaining permissions, and to reading secondary sources for writing a book. It’s this painstaking work that is not the feature of my blog. It’s not as entertaining.
There are two copies of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette that exist in the world. For a while I thought there were actually three, after coming across a single newspaper article in 2006. The article mentioned an archive in Bhopal, India. The article said the Sapre Sangrahalaya Archive had a “treasure trove” of old newspapers and was planning on making an exhibit. After tracking down the archive, whose website was only in Hindi and whose listed phone numbers did not exist, I had my research assistant get in touch. The director did not know what they had at first.
Phone calls from three different Hindi speakers over successive days, one of whom was another American Fulbright researcher. (I shamelessly crosschecked) led me to the conclusion that the archive had only a photocopy of the front page of a March 11, 1780 edition—hardly useful.
When asked who provided that photocopy to them, the director replied, “How should I know? I wasn’t there at the time.” So much for the etymology of sources.
Many researchers have had similar issues. In fact in R. P. Kumar’s excellent article, Origin and Development of Periodicals in English in India before Independence, he noted the very poor helpfulness of libraries in India. “The response was very poor. A few librarians gave only encouragement. One of the leading librarians replied, ‘We are not going to do research for you.’”
‘We are not going to do research for you.’ When all he wanted is for them to provide a catalog. What good is a library if it does not provide a catalog?
At daybreak at 5am, we had beautiful views of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kachenjunga, the world’s four tallest mountains (With the exception of K2 in pakistan), all around or above 8500 meters.
Our trek up Sandakphu was four days and three nights. The first day was a 17m hike from Mane Bhanjang to Tumling at 2900 meters. The second 19km stretch took us to Mt. Sandakphu, West Bengal’s tallest mountain at 3636 meters. This was not the first time I had seen these mountains, but it was by far the most amazing.
Along the way we stopped in cabins and had chow mein, momos (dumplings) and/or fried rice. The British built a rock and dirt road up to Sandakphu in the 19th century and it looks little repaired since then. It extends some 36 km up 1600 in elevation with numerous changes in elevation. We hiked that, and then down a forest of birch, rhododendron, and bamboo — traditional red panda habitat — on the third and fourth days to the town of Rimbik and then back to Darjeeling, where we were staying.
Each of the cabins had photos of white babies and cute sayings, that, or strange idyllic photoshopped posters of homes in the west, with gleaming corvettes in driveways, swans in lakes and houses covered in snow. Strange.
There is no electricity along the way but frequent way stations with squat toilets. Houses have no insulation, heat or water. Only solar electricity All is carried up by jeep. The days in April were warm but the nights frigid at high altitude. In all, the path we took saw us cross between Nepal and India four or five times. Each time we crossed into India the Indian army had us sign our names and take down our passport numbers in traditional Indian bureaucratic style. The Nepalis could care less. There were no Nepali army stations.
When we asked our guide where the Nepali army was, he said, “There is
no Nepali army.”
Unlike much of India, in the hill country, there is a blending of
Buddhist and Hindu religions. Tibetan language signs and Nepali
intermix freely, so do monasteries sit near each other.
Freestyling in Calcutta. With Feyago and crew. Under the Lake Gardens Flyover.
I think it’s best I not quit my day job.
Oh the bittersweet High Court of Calcutta.
How much work must I put in for little gain?
My letter requesting permission to digitize their copies of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was rejected. The employees of the High Court, including the lawyer who had helped me much and the assistant in the research room had declined informing me that my petition was rejected because they did not want to be the bearers of bad news—a fairly typical custom in India.
I received my rejection letter yesterday. It took the correspondence section all of 15 minutes to get it to me, which is about the quickest thing I’ve ever seen them do.
Given my rejection, I asked the research room if there was anything else I could do. Hence, I rewrote my application, arguing that if I can digitize this copy of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette then I will be able to preserve an historical part of India’s history before it is too late. I hope this tact will grant me success. Another change in tactic is addressing the judge in a very obsequious manner. This process took the entire day, bringing me to three different offices.
My new application is 24 pages long (that includes a duplicate copy). The triplicate copy which I had printed out turned out to be unnecessary.
Additionally, I realized there is another court record I need to look at. A trial in 1797 involved James Augustus Hicky versus some Bengali inhabitants who were convicted of assault and battery against him. The trial mentions Hicky’s wife. If I can find out more about her, I can understand another side of Hicky—and understand him, his wife and their family better. Perhaps she was a British woman and not a Muslim as is historically thought?