January 2019 Book Tour in India

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be returning to India next week. If you want to interact with the author (that’s me!), get a signed copy, or have me speak at your event, send me a message.

January dates:

  • 20: Talk at Diamond Harbour Women’s University. Hosted by Dr Oindrila Ghosh
  • 21: Talk at Vivekananda College.
  • 24: Talk at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. Hosted by Dr Biswajit Das
  • 26: Presenting at Hyderabad Literary Festival
  • 29: Talk at Pondicherry University, DDE.
  • 30: Talk at University of Madras.

What did Hicky do after his newspaper?

Hicky was a journalist for only two years, before Governor General Warren Hastings and the Supreme Court of Bengal shut down his newspaper.

Two years is a short time. So what did Hicky do after his newspaper?

He spent the years from 1781 to 1784 in jail. Unable to pay his debts (at this time in history, prisoners had to pay for their own food and lodging in jail, leading to a vicious cycle of debt and a lifetime in prison) Hicky had no hopes of freedom.

On Christmas 1784, as one of his last acts just a month before he resigned his post as Governor General of India, Warren Hastings freed Hicky from jail. Now that the Governor General was leaving, he had nothing left to fear, should Hicky restart his newspaper.

Hicky did not restart his newspaper. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. In March 1782 – after Hicky had been in jail for nine months but was still printing his Bengal Gazette — the Supreme Court ordered the Sheriff of Calcutta to seize Hicky’s types and printing press. These were then sold at auction to, out of all people, his hated pro government rival newspaper, the India Gazette.

What Hicky did in his later years has been an enduring mystery to me, and one that I expended every effort to find out. I have followed every lead, dug deep into every archive, and searched for materials that have been lost for centuries. But I am no closer to finding out than I was when I started this project in August 2011.

All I know are the bare facts that: 1. Hicky was listed as “Dr. J.A. Hicky” in the Bengal Directory, the yellow pages of old Calcutta. 2. He had in his possession when he died large quantities of liquor and Chinese porcelain, so he was either an alcoholic or trading on the side. 3. He died on a ship going to Canton, China, backing up point two.

In 1792 Hicky posted an advertisement in the India Gazette (The same India Gazette as before, but under different management I know this because there are government records over the payment of an advertisement Hicky placed in the India Gazette. Why did he advertise? What was he advertising for? Could this be the key to unlock what Hicky was doing for the twenty years after his newspaper? Could it lead to more discoveries?

I don’t think I will ever find out. Other leads like this have also had dead ends. There are no surviving copies of the India Gazette for 1792 (that I know of). It’s another mystery that I think will never be solved.

What do James Augustus Hicky and Serial have in Common?

There is an interesting part in Hicky’s trials where the Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, says to the jury in his closing remarks, “Hicky is a man among the dregs of the people. He keeps sepoys at his house.”

I have a couple problems with this:

1. These are the last words a jury is going to hear before deciding guilty or not guilty. It doesn’t sound very impartial for a Chief Justice to be calling a defendant human backwash.
2. Apparently renting out your house to dirty, smelly, scary Indians makes you a worthless human being.

This is not unusual for 18th century British India. But, imagine if a prosecutor could say today that you shouldn’t trust a defendant because they are Pakistani-American, and you just don’t know what him or his “people” could do, and the jury would believe that.

In Sarah Koenig’s podcast, Serial, about the conviction of 17 year old Adnan Sayed for murder, the prosecutor said that Adnan killed his ex-girlfriend because of his culture. “He became enraged. He felt betrayed that his honor had been besmirched. And he became very angry and he set out to kill Hae.”

This argument was backed up by a report the police commissioned from an “expert” consultant group on Islamic Thought: “It is acceptable for a Muslim man to control the actions of a woman by completely eliminating her,” read the report. “Within this harsh culture, he has not violated any code — he has defended his honor.”

The jurors said that Adnan’s religion did not affect their decision. But their statements indicated otherwise. “I’m not sure [about] the cultures over there, how they treat their women. He just wanted control and she wouldn’t give it to him,” one juror said. Another said that when the jurors were deliberating one was saying, “They were trying to talk about his culture, and Arabic culture. Men rule, not women.” (Serial, Episode 10, Around Minutes 8 – 12)

That’s just blatant racism. Also, Adnan was born and raised in Maryland.

The more involved my reading becomes, the more I see modern parallels of institutionalized racism, and how unfair nearly everything happened to be for you if you happened to be poor. You didn’t stand a chance (you still don’t really stand much chance) and no one except the disenfranchised seemed to realize this.

Mysterious Calcutta Municipal Corporation

The day before I left Kolkata, I gave a talk at Presidency University in Kolkata in which I summarized my research and the work I had been doing for 13 months in the city. It was a great presentation and I got many questions during and after it. The student and professor interest was heartening to my work. Frankly, I was surprised: who would care to show up to someone presenting on an aspect of Indian history from 200 years ago? Certainly people would have better things to do with their time.

After the talk, a number of the students from the History Department, who invited me, also invited me to have tea/coffee with them, which I gratefully accepted. We had a discussion on the comparative difficulties, opportunities and challenges of research in the US and India. It was rewarding and informative–I know little about the affects that studying at an Indian institutions would have on the ability of one to do research. The students informed me that the lack of resources and opportunities to do independent research (the expectation is less on independent research and more on classroom learning) creates mediocrity.

One of the students came to me and told me that the Kolkata Municipal Corporation indeed has an archive! I had asked through my contacts at the Fulbright Office in Kolkata who came back resolutely and said there was no archive. Now, I am upset with myself for never having gone in person to investigate, and with other people who have been too lazy to tell me they don’t know rather than to make up answers.

This has happened before though: People at the Victoria Memorial have assured me beyond any doubt that records I had been looking for were absolutely at the Supreme Court of India. But when I arrived at the Supreme Court, they said they had nothing. I can only describe it as an infuriating and painful experience to spend weeks applying to locations for permission only to realize I have been lied to because people either think they are being helpful but don’t know what they are talking about, or are too lazy to check.

What is there at the Municipal Corps Archive? Does it actually exist? What am I missing? Are the minutes of the Supreme Court there? (I am fairly confident these still exist somewhere. The British library has a few volumes, the High Court does, with maybe more in a forgotten basement, and the Victoria Memorial a few more. I find it hard to believe these have been thrown out; the British were so good with record keeping!) These are all questions I desperately want answers to, but I think only future scholars will be able to find out. My turn is over.

Nevertheless, I thank Presidency University’s student history group for their time!

Edit: Turns out the Bar Library (Room 1) of the High Court has only law reports. But they do have some very interesting, and I assume very rare booklets on the proceedings of the Sudder Dewanee Adadaults (Sadr Diwani Adalat — Indian Courts established by Warren Hastings. One of the first British attempts to standardize Hindu and Islamic justice)! There are 5 rooms in told and I need special permissions to visit each one, so I can only assume that rooms 2-5 would have more of the same. But who really knows?

The Calcutta High Court Bar Library: Under My Nose the Whole Time

I had this terrible sinking feeling that what I have been searching for the last four months – these Minutes of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William – may have been under my nose the whole time, in the High Court of Calcutta Bar Library.

When I went into Jadavpur University on Thursday I got to see the entirety of what has been digitized of Hyde’s Notebooks, and I saw they came from the Calcutta High Court Bar Library. (I went to see what copies of Hyde’s Notebooks may contained shorthand that was not in the Microfilmed version at the National Library–and I found some!) But of course, while at the High Court, no one had told me such a thing, or that the Bar Library has old records. If the Bar Library had Hyde’s Notebooks, what else could it have?

I know these documents should still exist, but the question has always been where? Have they been thrown out or lost, or have they been at the Bar Library all along?

I go Tuesday to investigate, only two days before I leave Calcutta.

The Missing Minutes of Calcutta’s Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of India and the Nehru Memorial.

1911 is the last date that the Minutes of the Supreme Court of Fort William, which was British India’s highest legal body from 1774-1862, are known to exist. They were transferred out of the Court, some to the Victoria Memorial. It has been my goal to find them. I believe they contain records of the trials of James Augustus Hicky, the founder of Asia’s first newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette.

I got my visa extension on Monday, August 4. On Tuesday I bought a train ticket to Delhi. On Wednesday I left, and on Thursday I arrived, dropped my bags at Johnny and Raj’s Green Park apartment and went straight to the Supreme Court of India, armed with my letter requesting permission to research in their archives.

What I found was much different than the High Court of Calcutta. In Delhi you can’t enter the Supreme Court of India’s premises without being invited in by someone inside, so I couldn’t submit my “humble petition” to the registrar personally. And therein lay the second problem: which registrar would I submit my letter to? The Supreme Court has 8+ registrars, double that number sub registrars and additional registrars to boot. Where was my letter to go and who in the Court is supposed to have authority for overseeing it?

Nevertheless, I submitted my letter and documentation to the clerks outside, and called the next to see if anyone had received it. I had already called a friend of a friend (Thank you Abhishek) who’s relative is a powerful bureaucrat and who assured me if I have any problems to let her know.

In India, there are two ways of doing anything. There’s the by-the-books follow the rules, and there’s the “who do you know.” There’s a hindi word for this “jugaar” which means “get it done.” Doesn’t matter how.

By Saturday it became apparent that no one had my letter. It was lost somewhere in the warren of paper. And on Monday, when the Court reopened I got creative. After an hour on the phone and numerous missed connections later, I was on the line with the Director of the Supreme Court’s library.

“Sure you can come in,” he said.

“But, sir, I need a photo ID pass as a guest, and I have been refused it.”

“That is no problem. Go to the Public Relations Officer and he will make you a pass. I will call him now and he will get it done.”

I arrived, the PRO summoned his officers over, they did the work quickly, and that was it. I was in.

Not knowing which way to go—for there are no signs in the Supreme Court—I picked the first staircase on the right, when up a flight, turned left, and there I was, right in front of the Library. I met with the director. He said they didn’t have the minutes.

“Is it possible to visit the archive personally?” I asked.

“No” he said

So I left, took another flight of stairs up and wandered to the end of a dead-end hallway where I saw a sign that said, “Deputy Registrar (Research). Should I go in? I thought.

I knocked and opened the door, and was greeted by an oxford educated lawyer who the Court had just brought in last month to make the process easier for researchers. This is the guy I’m looking for, I thought. A couple of phone calls later, we had the Archive/Records Room director on the line.

“Sure” he said, you can come and visit the archives.”

I went down below Court Room 5, He had my letter in front of him when I arrived. He said that the Court throws out all of its records every year, and digitizes them. Moreover, they have no records before 1937. And no records were ever transferred to the Supreme Court. (Neither the National Archives, nor the Nehru Memorial, where I also went this week have them.)

So the search for the Minutes of the Supreme Court of Judicature of Fort William continues.

Rejoice, Americans Rejoice!

When news reached Calcutta in the spring of 1780 that the American rebels/revolutionaries had signed a treaty with France, and that France would be joining the war against Great Britain, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette published the following satirical poem. Poetry was a common way of expressing political and social views in the 18th century.

It compared Americans to frogs and the French king to a stork. Americans’ initial joy would turn to sorrow, he wrote, when they realized that the French King loved nothing more than to eat frogs!

This poem is significant as a witty example of how English in another distant corner of the British Empire thought of the “treasonous” Americans.

Rejoice, Americans, rejoice!
Praise ye the Lord with heart
and voice;

The treaty’s sign’d with faithful France,
And now like Frenchmen, sing and

But when Joy gives way to reason
And friendly hints are not [akin to] treason
Let me as well as I am able,
Present your Congress with a fable.
[Tied down] with happiness, the frogs
[Sedition] croak’d through all their bogs
And then to Jove the restless race,
Made out their melancholy case
Fam’d as we are for faith, and pray’r,
We merit sure peculiar care,
But can we think great good was meant us
When legs for Governors were sent us?
With numbers crushed they fell upon,
And caused great fear; — till one by one
As courage came, we boldly faced ‘em
Then [heaped] upon ‘em, and disgraced ‘em
“Great Jove”, they croak’d, “no longer
fools us,
None but ourselves are fit to rule us:

We are too large, too free a nation,
To be incumber’d with taxation.
We pray for peace but wish confusion
Then right or wrong a revolution!
Our hearts can never bend t’obey;
Therefore no King—and more we’ll

Jove smil’d, and that to their fate resign’d
The restless, thankless, rebel kind.
Left to themselves they went to work;
First signed a treaty with King Stork,
Who swore that they with his alliance,
To all the world might bid defiance.
—Of lawful rule there was an end on it
And frogs were henceforth independent
At which the croakers, one and all,
Proclaim’d a feast and festival!
But joy today brings grief tomorrow;
Their feasting o’er, now enters sorrow
The Stork grew hungry, long’d for fish!
The Monarch could not have his wish
In rage he to the marshes flies;
And made a meat of his allies;
Then grew so fond of well-fed frogs
He made a larder of the bogs!

Say, Yankies, don’t you feel compunction,
At your unnatural, rash conjunction?
Can love for you in him take root,
Who’s Catholic and absolute?
I’ll tell these croakers how he’ll treat ‘em
Frenchmen, like storkes, love—frog
to eat ‘em.

Dakshineswar And Belur Math

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.

Murshidabad: The Versailles of Bengal

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.

Victoria Memorial Hall Research

I was looking at the Minutes for the Mayor’s Court of Calcutta at the Victoria Memorial Hall from 1748-1749 this week.

The Mayor’s Court with the Supreme Legal body in British India from the founding of Calcutta in 1690 to 1774, when the Supreme Court took its place.

The Victoria Memorial only has a couple years of the records of the Mayor’s Court. It’s now my task to find where the rest of the records are kept! Could they be in the National Archives, the High Court of Calcutta or the Supreme Court of India Museum?

Pretty cool stuff!

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper in Asia, still remains, and will remain, incomplete.

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.

On Libraries in India

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?

Trekking Sandakphu, April 20-23

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.

The High Court of Calcutta Redux. Part n^unknown

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?

Birp! The Court

Been listening to Birp! Indie music compilations. Thanks to Rishi for these. Feeling hipster in Cal.

Today back to the grind. Allons-y High Court! (Searching for permissions to get a copy of Hickys Bengal Gazette digitized)

Sapre Sangrahalaya Archive

Sapre Sangrahalaya Archive

Sunderbans with Sam Larussa!

After briefly back in Calcutta Sam and I set off to the Sunderbons.

We made no planning.

Known in Bangla as Beautiful Jungle (lit: sunder = beautiful and bon = trees/forest/jungle). The sunderbans are a vast expanse of mangrove forests, wide and narrows cross cutting waterways, and are home to a dwindling number of infamous man eating tigers. It’s a vast swamp.

It’s a beautiful swamp, and away from Calcutta, is unpolluted serenity. That’s largely because half of the Indian side of the Sunderbans—Bangladesh owns the other side—are strictly off limits to humans. You can try to glimpse that serenity, as we did, by visiting the other half that people are allowed to visit.

We made it to the Sunderbans from Calcutta by way of the Baghajatin train station outside our apartment to Canning, the end of the line. Canning is clearly a town that’s seen better days. I’ve been told its harbor, which the British once made as a contingency plan should the Calcutta harbor become unusable, has itself largely silted up drying most of the trade with it.

We crammed into Tata Magic carrying 20 people to Godhkhali to catch a boat. Fortunately we were met by a two man crew of Ramzan and Moni who piloted a rather nice houseboat and negotiated what appears was a fair price of Rs. 7000 for a full  1 night 2 day package, but strikes me as exorbitant.

We didn’t do much the first day but traipse around a town at the edge of the Sunderban called Gosaba. It is always interesting to be the foreigner, the bideshi, the outsider in a world that even though I know some conversational Bangla, remains difficult to understand. I’ve come to the realization that no matter what I do, and no matter how much people will excited and willing to invite me into their family, I will always remain an outsider and a curiosity in India. People will form stereotypes about me based on my skin, and second based on the first question I am always asked, “Where am I from?”

Another strange thing I’ve recently become aware of is that I am frequently asked questions or told statements in the negative, accusative or assumptive. Such as, “Why didn’t you take that bus?” “America doesn’t have poverty” “What about your permission to get copies?”

It’s not a bad thing. It just is.

At night we docked next another boat. It’s our mother’s boat Moni and Ramzan said in Bangla. But as I said, we were looking for serenity, not to be anchored next to a rowdy crowd of Bengali men staring at us longer than was comfortable.

I made this clear to Ramzan and Moni, who replied, “But if we dock here, we will not have fear.”

Fear? Why fear? Is it a fear of the tigers, who people in the region might be afraid of swimming up to the boat and nabbing a human? Or is it a fear of pirates? Last week, I had been told, a boat had been hijacked and pirates made away with it.

Either way, there wasn’t much I could do other than to shut up and stop being pissy about it.

We woke early and set out to the Mangrove Interpretation Center, a surprisingly good museum on the ecology of the Sunderbans. We were also given a guide, apparently a necessity for the trip. He mumbled, liked birds and deer—telling us to take copious photos of every one we saw— and said the word “also” at the end of every sentence.

We then ventured further into the Sunderbans. Up until now we had only been on the North Eastern edge.  The forest protection agency has a camp set up purely for the delight of tourists to spot wildlife. They’ve carved out a giant square tank (pond) for animals to sip water as well as four or five 50 meter wide half kilometer long swathes through the jungle so tourists can spot tigers or fauna crossing them. I’d call it environmental destruction. But this is India and India doesn’t really do environment, unless it is accompanied by a pile of garbage.

Later we went to another similar location, called “Dobanki” where the forest agency has set up a canopy walk, but is really just an elevated concrete walkway. After Dobanki, our boat slowly chugged its way back to Godhkhali with its 95hp diesel engine.

 Highlight of the journey:  Riding on the roof rack of a Tata Magic (Minivan like vehicle) with 26 people (Perhaps twice it’s max intended carrying capacity) in and on it between the Godhkhali boat launch and Canning (where we got the train to Calcutta).

Bhubaneswar & Konark

Bhubaneswar, to me, seemed like a dusty, open, and spacious developing city. It is also entirely improperly mapped by google. The rock edicts of Ashoka, a 6th century king of India who conquered most of the country and converted to Buddhism—google says they are located under a highway flyover on a four way intersection. The modern art gallery—google says it is located in a back alley of a non-descript housing development (it has since moved to adjacent to forest park).

We spent one day walking around the city, I with a cold, Sam sicker. We saw Abhishek again and had drinks at his hotel.

The next day, convinced that a taxi would be a better way to go about it, we visited Konark and its UNESCO world heritage Sun Temple. It was huge and is designed in the shape of a large chariot, drawn by a team of horses. When it was constructed it was apparently on that coast and faced a position that the sun’s morning light would directly shine through the center of it.

Next we visited Konark’s beach—a lovely piece of sand, and the best beach I’ve seen in India second to that at Kochi (Ok, I’ve only seen about four beaches in India). We were told no swimming, that people were afraid of the ocean there, but we saw no signs forbidding it, so we decided to walk in. Lovely.

Our train ride back to Calcutta was not as lovely. We booked sleeper class again and found ourselves next to a group of Indian men—the same type of group that I had warned about two posts ago.

They sat on Sam’s bunk while he was sleeping, threw a bag onto my bunk too (Sam had lower, I had middle). One of them, possibly drunk was certainly creepy, telling me that he was in the India navy and that he had a girlfriend in Calcutta with a large lecherous grin. And did I have a girlfriend in Calcutta? I pretended to not understand him.

It was a great relief when they left the train.

Mayor of Calcutta

The internet says the first mayor of Calcutta was in 1924.
I’m concerned, because some guy in 1773 was calling himself mayor.
And people seemed to believe him.

Sam and I to Vizag!

Sam and I set off on a sleeper train from Howrah train to Vizag two weeks ago, leaving at night for the 14+ hour journey where we had the upper bunks—a surprisingly pleasant journey, and the first time I had taken a long distance train in India since I had been studying abroad in Hyderabad in 2010.

Our ride to the train the station was the usual madness figuring the number of red lights we ran, cars we nearly hit and the one way street we went the wrong way on.

We arrived into Vizag around 2pm in high spirits, taking an auto to Abhishek’s parents, who live on the coast in a beautiful 6th floor ocean-view apartment. We were well fed, and spent the first day going to a beach north of the city as well as to hill park overlooking the city via chairlift. Sam had a cold and I was beginning to feel it too.

Next day we went to Borra Caves by a train but found them to be closed, a bunch of people milling around outside the gate. Different people told us they were closed until 12, 1, or 2. So we decided to hedge our bets and walk to a waterfall 7 kilometers away, rather than paying the outrages fees for a shared car. Plus, we had plenty of time to kill.

I noticed I got significantly more intrusive questions about which country I was from here than in Calcutta.

We arrived to the amazement of the many other tourists who were shocked that we walked. The waterfall, which was cool, contained plenty of garbage at the bottom.

We took a shared jeep back in time for a quick lunch at the dhaba outside the caves and saw the caves, which I was told were either discovered by a British guy in 1807, or by someone who’s cow fell into a hole at the top. The side entrance to the cave was excavated later on for tourists.

We went to train station to buy tickets back, but the train was going to be three hours late. After a wait, we took a shared jeep to a bus station about a 45 minute drive away but our jeep broke down. And it wouldn’t start. At all, even after attempts to push start. The driver sent his buddy in an auto to get fuel which they poured into the tank but just poured out the bottom of the engine. After an hour wait in which two buses to vizag passed by—our fellow passengers asking why we didn’t get in the second bus and us telling them that we asked the conductor, “Vizag?” and he looked at us, gave us a confused hand gesture and then just drove away.

Anyways, we got back to Vizag no issue and made it on our train to Bhubenswar, arriving the next day.

I had forgotten how aggressive groups of young Indian men can be.

It is one of my least favorite aspects of India.

Indians sometimes ask me how I am adjusting to India. Is the food too spicy? Is the weather too hot? Those things are fine, good, and aren’t necessarily true.

In truth, it is a subset of young men in India that make my experience negative. I may regret saying this, but it is Indian people (some, not all, young men) themselves who make adjusting difficult.

I am reminded of when, these past two weeks that Sam and I traveled, we were accosted by groups of young men.

At the Baghjatin train station outside my house, men yelling, smiling and waving, saying “Hey You!” And not in a friendly way.

At the Borra Caves in Andhra Pradesh, a group of young men, standing outside of the gate, staring, laughing and asking, “From which country? Where are you going? One photo?” And not in a pleasant way.

At the Konark Sun Temple in Orissa, a UNESCO world heritage site, and finding that we are the tourist attraction, men asking for “One photo.” As if we are zoo animals to show off to their friends.

In a taxi with Sheela on the way to a friend’s house in Calcutta, hearing “There’s a bideshi (foreigner)! Hey you! Hey bro! Bro! you! Hey Hi Hey!” from a group of drunk soccer fans in a truck bed. And not in a nice way.

Young men, when in groups, are aggressive and juvenile. I’m not sure if it’s a need to prove masculinity. I’ve been in India long enough to become used to this, and I’m surprised that I’m still so shocked by it, having lived in South Asia for a long time. It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s harassment.

It’s India number 1 social problem.

It needs to change.

High Court Sagas

I went to the High Court much of the time that I was not traveling last week (more on that in a post coming tomorrow—hence why I’ve not been able to update the blog in awhile)

So, here’s a list of things that I’ve found at the ‘Mayor’s Court’ record room in the Centenary building adjacent to the original High Court building.

  1. An original copy of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette Extraordinary from 1781.<— If I can make a soft copy of this then I will have completed in stitching together all of the known issues of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette into a complete copy.
  2. Unlisted trials regarding James Hicky and his debts in 1776, as well as in 1773 when he was a surgeon in the city. These have given me more insight into Hicky, in that he had an active medical practice when he arrived in India in 1772, as well as that he owned a house which he rented out to boarders and mariners. After which he moved into the shipping industry, becoming a merchant and trading goods, before one of his ships was wrecked and his creditors called up his debts, throwing him into jail—in which he struck up the idea to begin a printing press to pay off his debts.
  3. Trials involving John Hyde in 1798 regarding his estate after he passed away and non payment of debts to the East India Company. Rule of thumb is that if you owe the Company money, it’s going to get you. Hyde was a Justice on the Supreme Court and my personal favorite—the most honest of the bunch. He recorded almost every trial that happened in Calcutta from 1774 to his death and wrote parts of it in a pesky shorthand that I am desperately trying to break/have broken.
  4. Numerous trials involving Peter Reed from 1770s to the 1780s, salt merchant and founder of the India Gazette, the rival to the Bengal Gazette. Appears he was notorious for not paying debts.


Today I went to the High Court and submitted my request asking for permission to make a “certified copy.” I had gone to the Court on Tuesday and submitted a request to make a digital copy of the Extraordinary issue. But, apparently I had done so in the wrong form, and had to re-write my letter, where I went to one office where they double stamped and then hole punched and dated it. Then I brought it to the registrar, pleaded my case and he said I could bring it to the Chief Justice and if “his lordship pleases it” I could proceed in making certified copies. Then I brought the form to a person in a little-tiny desk with huge stacks of paper, he took the original form, marked something on it and took my copy and stamped and signed it, “received but not verified” and that was that.

Now I wait to see if “his Lordship the Chief Justice pleases it.” I’ve been here so long that it all doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore.

So, my tasks are now:

  1. Wait for a reply about whether I can make a certified copy of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette from the Chief Justice.
  2. Once done, bring scanner and start scanning away!

Badger certain people at the Victoria Memorial about the shorthand in Hyde’s notebooks Start looking through the manuscript archives of the Asiatic society with Priyanka Build an itinerary for Calcutta Walks based around the city’s Early Newspaper History

Grumpy Man Strikes

In the High Court, resides a man who I affectionately call “grumpy man.” He has a perpetual frown on his face, tired eyes, and takes every conceivable moment to mutter something under his breath and fall asleep.

I have had the pleasure of interacting with grumpy man daily. (I’ll refrain from giving his name as it would compromise his anonymity).

Grumpy man works in one of the internecine offices of the High Court, of which one I’m not really sure.  But I’ve had sightings in multiple locations.

For the past two weeks grumpy man has chaperoned me to the archive room at the Mayor’s Court, adjacent to the main High Court building. He has acted as my peon (remember I’m to be accompanied by a “peon” at all times while in the archive room, because, who knows what I could do with these old files).

My usual routine has been to call grumpy man in the morning and send him a text letting him know that I’m arriving at noon for the archives.

I’ve long since given up on trying to get to the archives in the morning. And recently, grumpy man has started bargaining with me over when the archives will close.

“Konta baje bondo/What time will we close?” he asks

“Shadaronoto somoy. Panchta baje? / Normal time, 5pm?”

“No. 2pm close.”

“Ek dum na! Ekhon 1:45! / Absolutely not, It’s 1:45 right now. How about 4?”



“Tik ache. 3:30”

He is, at least, malleable. I’ve only permission for looking at a list of 18 documents. But, I found a 19 document and after some fighting (fortunately, after I had finished transcribing it) he said ok, but no more. He had gotten suspicious that I had been looking at year 1784/5 and 1776 when I had no permission to do so.(again, only after already looked through half the files) So, we also negotiated that I could look at some other files as long as I was only “checking” them and not actively opening them.


We made it to Guwahati after Cherrapunji later than expected. It was election day, the day we went out. In the morning, we went to Sumo taxi stand next to our hotel, and were shown a taxi back to Shillong, which we declined because we had not yet eaten breakfast.

By the time we were finished, we learned that all the jeeps were commandeered for the election. There was no transport. We did, however, get a shared taxi to Cherrapunji market, where we were told we might find a ride. And we were in luck. A bus, crowded though it was, came twenty minutes later.

Guwahati is a rapidly developing city. It’s dusty, and congested but has a certain vibrancy to it. We arrived to meet Rehanna, a grad student, where she was appearing as a guest judge in a talent show. There was a bit of a miscommunication and we  shuffled from one bus station to another, all the way back to the first where the show was being aired.


Sheela and I traveled to Cherrapunjee (Sohra as it is locally called). I found the village to be one of the strangest and eerie places I have been to. Not from any material threat, but because it was the dry season and all around us were burning fields of tall grass (apparently used as a harvesting technique). The air was heavy with smog—I would say the air was mostly smog—and the air pollution was far worse than Calcutta.

It was dark, despite being the middle of the day when we arrived. There were no trees, either.

Cherrapunjee exists on a narrow plateau, which is part of the reason that makes the rain fall there the second highest on earth (the highest being a neighboring town), as clouds from the Bay of Bengal are forced up the valleys in between the plateaus and deposit rain on their way up.

I remember walking off to the edge of one of these cliffs, and looking down. I couldn’t see anything.

We checked into a decent hotel, which was recommended to us by the fantastic owner of By the Way Hostel (we decided not to stay there—eastern toilet, not attached. I was feeling a little sick.)

The hospitality given to us by the owner of By The Way was fantastic. He brought us to excellent local restaurants, where we had great food.

The next day we went to see the living root bridges, which was by far some of the coolest sights I have seen in India. Along the way we met a few backpackers, including an English couple who were staying at By The Way, and we trekked down with them to see the bridges.

At the moment the living root bridges are still fairly pristine. More tourists are coming however, and that means more plastic bottles and trash. I saw people who were certainly seemed educated throwing their wrappers and trash into the water. It would be terrible to see the consequences of these bridges ending up like so many other things in India: polluted.

We joined other travelers on the way up: an Indian couple from a city in northern India I can’t remember, and a British woman.


Have you heard of Don Bosco? I hadn’t. But if you’re in Shillong you will see his likeness or his name more than you will see Tagore in Calcutta, or perhaps, the Virgin Mary in Rome.

He was a missionary and his disciples proselytized Christianity to many parts of the world, including Meghalaya.

Some type of guilt exists in Shillong as portrayed by the Museum: As if the people of Meghalaya were so indoctrinated with notions that, before the missionaries came, they were savages, lacking in humanity. You can see this at the Don Bosco museum where there is an image of a missionary getting beaten to death. The next images in the museum portray all the good things the missionaries brought.

There’s also an ‘interesting’ segment on evolution. “If you believe in it.” Another floor tries to describe all the religions in the world. (very colorful)

For some reason, the Don Bosco museum is around the top tourist destination on tripadvisor. I can probably ascribe this to different sentiments from different cultural perspectives.

There’s a quote from Indira Ghandi that goes something like this found in Don Bosco’s museum, “I have only seen two floors of this museum but I can tell you this is the greatest museum in India.” Clearly, she didn’t see the other 5 floors.

Nevertheless, it was a colorful museum. Plenty to look at. And the experience of climbing up the disorienting conical rooftop is something else.

We took a day trip to Laitlum canyon, in a remote part of Meghalaya rarely frequented by tourists. At the top of the valley you can see a town at the base of the valley, perhaps 800 meters down. Remote in all senses except a power and television line going down the cliff side. Reception was perfect, however. At one point there was a chairlift, now long since broken.

We walked down, me cajoling Sheela against her better judgment to go all the way down. People kept asking us, “Why are you here?” What answer could we give?

 I made it to a soccer field in the center of the village, Sheela a little farther up. It was a tiring way back, with no water  and food, and a brush fire to our left that really did concern me. We got back to the top, but It being a Sunday, there was, of course, no transport of any kind going back to Shillong.

I was incredibly thirsty so I asked a man where I could get water, and he pointed at a concrete aquifer. That was a bad decision—the following days I got more of a cleanse than I wanted. We ended up knocking on the doors of every house that had a car. We didn’t have the energy to walk to the next village 8 miles away on the main road for a lift. Eventually a school teacher and her family took pity on us, gave us tea and bread, and a lift to the main road—where we caught a taxi back to Shillong.

“You will need to take a peon with you” — Incredible Discoveries Researching in the Madness of the Calcutta High Court

Pre-September. I began asking scholars and Fulbright Kolkata about how I might gain access to the records that exist at the High Court of Calcutta. The Court holds records, I have come to believe, involving the first newspapermen in Calcutta and some of the important libel trials they were involved in. I was told many stories about the Court’s archives, including that they all been moved, or had been destroyed, washed away in a flood sometime between last year, and twenty years ago.

September. Fulbright sent a letter of introduction on behalf to the High Court asking for permission to begin research. It was returned rejected.

December 12. Not taking no for an answer, I went to High Court along with the AIIS Bangla students as part of a class trip, and met with a lawyer who works there and is a friend of an AIIS teacher.

January 9. Arranged a meeting with the lawyer, and met with the members of the Registrar of the High Court’s (“Original side” of the building) staff. They informed me of the documents that I would need:

  1. Letter of introduction from Fulbright, signed and stamped. Addressed to the registrar of the High Court, Original Side, Runafi Kundu
  2. Letter of introduction from a supporting institution, signed and stamped. Also addressed to the registrar of the High Court, Original Side, Runafi Kundu
  3. Photocopies of my passport and visa pages
  4. My original passport.

January 15. I return with the above documents, having gone in person to JadavpurU., Fulbright, and U. Calcutta to retrieve my letters of introduction, and I submit them. The letters are looked over, and I am brought from one office where they are stamped “received but contents not verified” to another where they are stamped again, to a third office where the double stamped papers are stamped a third time with the date they were received. I am also questioned by the registrar for why I would want access and the nature of my research.

January 17. I am called back to the High Court to draft another letter requesting access to specific record rooms at the Court: The New Building Records Room, The Old Building Records Room, the Mayor’s Court Records Room, the Testamentary Records department and the Company Matters Department.

January 21. In what I think is truly record time, I have been told that I have been granted access to the High Courts records rooms! I also meet with some members of the record rooms that I am to be going to, going to the Old Building Records room, moderately clean room containing people very much focused on their chai and newspapers. I meet with the New Building Records room staff, too, in their dingy room, their staff even more focused on their chai and newspapers. In both cases I indicate what I am looking for: Trial records involving newspapers in the 18th century.

January 22. I come to the High Court where I inspect the New Building Records room. It contains three stories of putrid stacks of decaying Court records from 1862 onwards, many of which are strewn across the narrow floors in giant piles, black with dust. The lawyer informs me that because January 26 is a Republic Day, the workers at the High Court will not be inclined to do any work for the next week, until Tuesday, January 28.

January 28. I visit Old Records room and am told to come back tomorrow. They are not ready. I also return to the New Building Records room. Although they adamantly told me they had no records pre-dating 1870, I had earlier found records from 1862 onwards. I conclude that, indeed, no records exist in this room prior to 1862. Not what I’m looking for.

I am also told that all the records for the whole court have been moved to Khidderapore, on the other side of the city. I find this extremely unlikely.

I also go looking for Mayor’s Court record room, which I’ve been told has 18th century documents, but it’s in another building, the Centenary Building. Can’t find it (keep in mind that there’ no front office or floor plan to speak of), but I do stumble upon a room called “Appellate Records.” Although the director of this room says he “has 18th century records” that may be useful to me, he ignores my questions asking what he might have and insists that I must apply for permission to access his room first. (Of course, this would require me to repeat the whole approval process again, and I’d guess the registrar would be less than amenable to me going to him an saying, “That dude over there says he has records from 18th century, but he won’t tell me what they are, would you pretty-please let me see his records?”)

While waiting, I notice a man comes to the director of this room with his “Peon Book” Peon book!?!? No joke. They actually call people peons at the High Court.

I see another room in the CentenaryBuilding, called the “Records Research Room” founded in 1977. This seems promising, but the room is bolt locked. I also find the Testamentary Records room. The suave director of this room, smoking a cigarette, tells me he has only post-independence records. He appears believable.

January 29. I visit Old Records room again. Their director tells me they have no records on what I want. I don’t believe them. A man does bring out some wills from the 1830s, seems lazy like they don’t really want to show what they have, and irrelevant. The director tells me to go to the Mayor’s Court record room, but I tell him I can’t find it, and ask if one of his staff can accompany me. This appears to be a stroke of genius because it works! One of his staff accompanies me to the registrar’s office where after a short wait, one of their staff members brings me to the Mayor’s Court record room, on the third floor of the Centenary Building, behind the “stamps office” in what appears to be more like a closet than a room.

Inside are sitting two elderly women wrapped in sweaters in the dark. In what appears their only function, they guard a file cabinet to their left in which are five books that contain lists of trials that occurred at the mayor’s court in Calcutta from 1750ish until 1774 when it was abolished and from 1800-1850ish for the Supreme Court. Conspicuously missing are records from 1774-1800, ie, my research period. Disheartening.

I mark some of trials on William Bolts, who had tried to found a newspaper in the early 1770s in Calcutta, and Peter Reed, a salt merchant turned proprietor of Calcutta’s second newspaper, the India Gazette, founded in 1780, as well as a heretofore unknown trial involved James Augustus Hicky, founder of Asia’s first newspaper the Bengal Gazette, in 1773. I am told that I need to apply for permission to see the documents containing their trials. The same permission process again!?!?!?! Argh!

January 31. Armed with my letters of request detailing the trials I want, I blitzkrieg (this how I like to think of it) into the registrar’s office seeking permission. Something comes over me before I do, and I add in handwriting that I am also looking for Hasting’s libel trial against Hicky in 1781—the whole reason for me coming here, despite it not being mentioned in the 5 catalogue books.

I receive permission, but am told in the strictest terms that at all times I must be accompanied by a peon! So, with the accompaniment of Mr. Chandernath Paul the peon (his word, not mine) we enter the Records Research Room.

It’s a mess. Thick with dust, the records are arranged in barely recognizable order in giant twine bound volumes. Despite some setbacks, there we find it! In a volume mistakenly marked 1782, is a record for Hicky’s libel trial, containing an issue of his Gazette recounting his trial, and which exists no where else but in that very room. (Paul mentioned an objection to me opening 1782, but I said the trial I was looking for started in 1781 and ended in 1782 so therefore I had permission to look at it).

Incredible discovery, that the only remaining copy to my knowledge of this issue of the Bengal Gazette exists in dusty room in the High Court of Calcutta, lost to time for over 230 years.

Partial victory is mine!

(No photos, otherwise, I would have let you all into the madness)