“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)

Been Awhile off the Blog

It’s been a awhile since I last wrote

This past weekend I:

Played in Hiland’s Park Squash Tournament, which I took far too seriously (intentionally). I lost in the semi-finals, if you can call them that, to Shivam, Hiland Park’s best player. The final set was epic, and I lost 21-19! That’s 10 overtimes. I think on nearly every point, I had to make a diving shot for the ball. A normal squash set only goes to 11, with the winner having to win by two. It was awesome to have a crowd cheering, too!

If I have one goal for the end of my time in Calcutta, it is to be able to beat Shivam and Ankur, the number 1 and two respectively at Hiland consistently. This is more important than my research. Did I say I take squash far too seriously?

Sunday morning I left with Ankit and his father to see the The Statesman’s Vintage & Classic Car Rally. It was an incredible display of cars and something that makes Calcutta seem so incongruous with itself. It’s a city with abject poverty but one with a history of extreme wealth, and even if that wealth doesn’t exist today in the same forms, these cars tangibly represent the city’s privileged class. But, I think more strangely is the fact that these cars signal old wealth. Where else in India is old wealth visible? Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Adhmenabad—predominantly new wealth, cities with incredible growth. Calcutta doesn’t really have that. Much of its wealth is from the past, and many of its families are dignified in the peculiar way that perhaps, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby captured.

The car show had one Rolls Royce. I couldn’t figure out the exact model, but I recall it being built in 1923.

But the real steal of the show, for me, was a, bright yellow, unusual German made car by Messerschmitt, a company which to me evokes images of camouflaged WWII fighters. I had no idea that Messerschmitt as a company even survived World War II. Anyway, they developed a couple cars with two wheels in the front and one in the back in the 1950s. You sat in it, and the door closed above you like a cockpit. The steering wheel pivoted much like a the dials on a clock face.

After the car show, I headed with Sheela to join our friend Ifte as he presented a Calcutta walk (his company) to a group of South African tourists around some of the historical colonial sections of the city, including St. John’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s, and Dalhousie Square (now B.B.D. Bagh—named after three martyrs (I suppose the British would have called them terrorists) who tried to storm the Writer’s Building (then opposite Dalhousie Square), the seat of the British Government. We also the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta which is where the Nawob of Bengal threw the British Inhabitants of the city he captured in 1757 into a hole where many of them died, though this history is certainly debatable. It was good to see parts of the city on a Sunday when it was quiet, and of course parts of the city that I hadn’t seen as a tourist.

In other news, we’ve had Turkish-Dutch guests over, and they just bought a motorcycle which they plan on riding all the way back to the Netherlands on! As well, Mithu our maid came back from her Holiday to Jharkhand. Also confirmed is that One Step Up on Park Street has great burgers (lamb, meaning they are great for India standards) if they are available.

In Calcutta, simple things can be difficult.

Accessing the High Court still poses a problem. I’ve managed to figure out that if I have my passport, passport copy, a letter of introduction from Fulbright and a University in Calcutta, know a lawyer at the High Court and have the registrar’s and chief justice’s permission then I theoretically will be granted access to the High Court’s Archives—whatever those might be.

But, just getting these letters in order, finding a time to meet with professors and with the lawyer is not nearly as easy as it is in the U.S., where everything, meetings and documents can be handled via email.

Second, in anticipation of sending the codes found in Hyde’s notebooks back to the U.S, I have traveled to the National Library more times than I have wished. Looking at Microfilm, requesting scans (the Reprography/Microfilm department now offers digital scans of microfilm as well as photocopies. Who’s even heard of the word Reprography? Am I spelling it correctly?) getting scans, finding out that the scans I got, my research assistant couldn’t pick up, looking for books, giving up looking for books because they only exist in the west, etc.

Right now I am searching for copies of Hyde’s notebooks from 1775-1776. These years, I believe, contain a passage of Hyde’s shorthand that I believe has been broken 100+ years ago. If I can find that passage, I can compare the code with the translated section and break it (or have it broken) much like the Rosetta Stone. Exciting!

The notebooks, which reside at the Victoria Memorial, are being scanned by the Jadavpur University School of Cultural Texts and Records, and therefore seem to be difficult to access now. The national library’s collections of Hyde’s notebooks begin in 1778 (the National Library has only microfilm copies, not the originals), as I unfortunately discovered. I fear that the years 1775-1776 fall into the so called “brittle sections” that I’ve heard talk about. That means things could get really complex…

Though I knew it before, I am often reminded that research in India is not easy.

Calcutta’s Marathon Began in Chaos

Calcutta’s 11k/Marathon began in chaos.

The announcer shouted, “Women to the front! Women at the front!”

The women moved to the front, shuffling through the crowd. The announcer said that they would start the 11k race five minutes before the men. As I was mulling the patriarchy and patronizing-ness of the situation, the starting gun went off.

The women began the race, but so did the men too! A horde of green shirts and cold, excited men stampeded forward, bursting through the attempts of the race authorities to stop them.

The announcer was shouting for the men to stop and managed to succeed to some extent. But then the starting gun went off again, by mistake! 

And the race began! A total chaos of swarming moving bodies

But, actually, it was chaos before the race even began. The “public toilet” was a bamboo structure with blue FEMA tarp constituting all four walls. No actual toilets or urinals, you just peed on the dirt on the ground inside the structure.

The desk in charge of giving out numbers and t-shirts to runners was overwhelmed. After a few minutes a shouting match broke out. The desk collapsed as people were climbing over it. I managed to snatch someone’s number (and made it mine), but Sheela nor I could get a shirt.

I don’t know if anyone knows their time. I don’t. (I think I came in in 44 minutes but that’s just an estimate) There was no starting clock, no specific starting time, and no times noted for people approaching the finish line. 

But hell it was fun!

(The actual marathon runners started about 20 minutes before the 11k)

বাংলাভাষা (Bangla Language Learning Guide)

বাংলাভাষা (Bangla Language Learning Guide)

Please Excuse Me I Sink Into the Mind of a 13 Year Old

(Explicit Post. At moments like these I want to doubly remind readers that my blog is no way a representation of the views of Fulbright nor is condoned by them.)

Ok, here goes:

From Mike,

When performing intercultural exchange during your Fulbright, it’s important to be in depth and thorough with your language skills. Of course, the first things you have to learn when studying a foreign language are the curse words. Thankfully, our trustworthy intern, Priyanka Ray, has a strong grasp of many languages and understands our need for exchange. After being taught several new words, we had to ask Google for a better understanding. One of the first links we found for bokachoda was http://www.bangla-choti-online.com/ . A wonderfully educational site.

With our new found vocabulary, I asked Mithu some questions to test his pronunciation- and she clearly understood what I was saying! And proceeded to chase me and slap me 15x.

So, after some instruction, we have created a short vocabulary list:

পাছা / pacha = ass/tail/butt
বিশাল পাছা / bishal pacha = badonkadonk
ঝাটের বাল / jhater bal = pubic hair

গুদ / gud = vagina
ধন / dhon = penis
বিশাল ধন / bishal dhon = HUGE PENIS
বোকাচোদা / boka choda = fucker
দুধ / dudh = boobs / milk
বড় বড় দুধ এবং ছোট গুদ লাগবে / boro boro dudh ebong choto gud lagbe = big boobs and small pussy needed

Last night I fond a bamboo stick in a garbage can and gave it to Mithu. The moment you pick up a bamboo stick from a trash can, and give it to your maid so she can beat your housemate. Priceless.

To Sikkim, Or What I learned On Many Mountainous Jeep Rides

There are few geographical features that evoke mysticism like the Himalayas. There are even fewer passes through the mountain range. For Christmas Tanmoy arranged a trip to the far north of Sikkim, to the mountain pass in which the Chinese and Indian armies meet in tension.

This pass, which follows the river Teesta north from Sikkim’s capitol, Gangtok, travels through remote mountain villages to the Chinese border. It was been fought over for hundreds of years, and within the last two centuries has seen invading British, Bhutanese, Nepali and Tibetan armies. (Yes, Tibet once tried it’s hand as an expansionist power). Eventually the British succeeding in establishing their dominance over Sikkim.

Our destination was Gurudongmar Lake, a holy lake surrounded at mountains on the plateau on the other side of the Himalayas, and just south of the Chinese border. The lake had stood out like the holy grail of our trip. The blue beacon we had been aiming to reach. Tanmoy had assured me that I would be able to reach Gurudongmar and its 17,000 feet elevation.

It was a journey that brought thoughts into my mind of the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. With long jeep rides, I had much time to think and to read, and to reflect upon my experience. I also had time to reflect upon how I want to approach life, and with what attitudes, values, norms and acceptance of others. What joy a the respite from the barely functional chaos of Calcutta was.

We started our trip with an interminable 16 hour bus ride from Karunamoyee Bus Stand, Salt Lake, Calcutta to Siliguri, and then a 5 hour jeep ride from Siliguri to Gangtok.

Gangtok is a lovely small city, and has probably the most attractive people I have seen in India. (That’s a plus, you know). The center of the city is a road only open to pedestrians known as M.G. Margh and reminiscent of Istiklal in Istanbul. In our limited time in the city we were able to explore a beautiful park at the top of a cable car that transports people from one hillside to another.

Another 8ish hour ride brought us to Lachen. On the road from Gangtok to Lachen, along the river Teesta you can see much construction work, including the building of a great damn near the town of Mangan. This huge infrastructure project, which I was told the 2011 earthquake claimed dozens of workers’ lives, will surely change the nature of the valley.

Lachen is a small town in Northern Sikkim, reachable by a treacherous and winding dirt road. It’s a wonder that, amid the road’s many switchbacks, more trucks don’t fall off the edge. There we stayed at a small guesthouse, suffering in the cold unheated building and sleeping in all our clothes. On the hillside on the west side of Lachen is a two hundred years old Buddhist monastery, with beautifully painted walls and interiors.

Further north and more remote is Thangu. Thangu is another 2-3 hours. It’s not really a town as much as it is a small village of a few roughly made homes attached to a larger military base. Three years ago there was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that forced some of the outlying homes to be abandoned.

The next day we traveled to Thangu at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). From Lachen, At 14,000 feet, I felt the altitude distinctly, in my sluggish movements and low level nausea at certain points. But altogether, it wasn’t terribly difficult to adjust to.

From Thangu, Tanmoy and the Indians traveled to Gurudongmar (only Indians are allowed to reach the lake). The night before Tanmoy were to had told us two Americans that we would be unable to make it to Gurudongmar lake. When I heard Tanmoy’s words, I was indeed disappointed. Despite the initial disappointment in knowing we would not reach Gurudongmar, Richard and I decided to make the best of it and, with Sonam, our Sherpa guide, we trekked into the Chopta valley, climbing another estimated 500 to 1,000 feet.

Our short hour and a half hike stretched into 5 hours, whereby the end of it we were thoroughly exhausted, and surprisingly hot, the sun’s rays at 14,500 feet warming us well despite the bitter winter cold. Sonam told us were the first tourists he had taken so far into the valley—so it was nice to know we were the “first” at something.

Midway in the Chopta valley, after scrambling down a hillside off any path, we came across a few large boulders. What do I do when I see a large boulder? Climb it!

I will not forget that valley.

It was nice to have a trip organizer, and to bond with Richard, a Fulbright researcher. We shared our thoughts from everything from Consumerism to the Great Classic novels. I didn’t have to think about a thing. Every detail was planned for and I was simply taken along for the ride. Not having to think or plan is great. That said, my usual gripes remain in that Indian hosts tend to be overbearing especially in wanting to ensure that we are fed and comfortable. (Also, dinner at 9pm or later?)

Great trip. Wonderful Christmas! Goodbye Himalayas.

Brewing Beer

Today we brew beer.

Entering India I would have never thought that it would be possible to brew beer here. Not that it is not possible, but that it would happen. However, we have all the necessary ingredients and equipment now. Capper, fermentation tank (literally a cooler), brew pot, bottles, caps, yeast, hops, malt, adjuncts, etc.

So, to start, using Alec idea’s for a beer, we’ll make an I2PA. India’s first ever India Pale Ale. The first might be a misnomer, but I’m too lazy to check/don’t want to have my assumptions crushed by the internet.

This coming week is the last week of the fall semester of Bangla, meaning tests are coming, as well that I am to give a slideshow presentation. Now, the question is, do I present about my research or about brewing beer? Which is more interesting? You can tell me, but I think I know the answer.

Calcuttan Junction, What’s your Dysfunction?: Calcutta High Court

Last Thursday our Bangla class visited the High Court of Calcutta, a zoo of a place, in that it keeps a very strange breed of creature called “lawyers” in its walls. They swarm around in vast halls, sitting in plastic chairs, and yelling at each other and with judges in barely audible court rooms. I’m sure there’s a system in the High Court, but on a first glance, I’m surprised it’s functional.

We also went to see some of the criminal courts in an adjoining building. Unlike the High Court, the lower criminal courts were largely vacant. This is because Calcutta has no crime, one of our teachers wryly noted! Judging by the quality of the bathrooms and the number of shitstains in and around the toilets, I have little faith in the diligence of the cleaning staff. I can’t tell you about the diligence of justice.

My real reason for wanting to visit the High Court is that it supposedly has an archive of some type, with manuscripts and attestations dating to the 18th century. However, different people have assured me that the archive has either (A) been destroyed in a flood 20 years ago (B) been destroyed in a flood last year, (C) moved to the Alipore Court or (D) never existed.

Last month I received a reply back from Fulbright that the letter of introduction they sent on my behalf to the Court had been rejected and that I would not be able to access whatever archives exist there. Being Calcutta, I thought, I’d have more luck if I went in person, met the right people, and prayed for rain, so to speak.

Luckily AIIS (American Institute of Indian Studies) contacted a lawyer at the court, who toured us around and introduced us to the deputy registrar, who then introduced us to a man who position I still have no idea about, but who assured me that he would give it his all to assist me in accessing these supposed archives.

Now, to wait and see, and pray for rain.

No pictures, sorry, not allowed at the Court.

Going to Sikkim

Sheela is in Delhi till Saturday at a conference for iMerit! Doing the whole networking thing for her new company. The Manthan Conference is for companies showing innovative ideas in the realm of social entrepreneurship in India.

This is where I’ll be going for Christmas break: Gurudongmar Lake is one of the highest elevation lakes in the world. Second highest to be exact, I believe at about 17,000 feet elevation. The lake is right at the border of China and India.

Bangla passes well and already after four I am somewhat sort of. coherent, and can read Bangla at an intermediate level (I think). বাংলাভাষা খুব জরদী আমার গবেষনার জন্য. হয়ত আমি সংবাদপত্র বাংলা থেকে ইংরেজি অনুবাদ করতে পারব. তাই আমি বাঙালি ভাবুক (Bengal Renaissance) নিয়ে বুঝতে পারব.

Jazz Fest and Updates

Last night I went to Calcutta Jazz Fest. What an awesome event, and what awesome music! Last night featured Aakash’s band and the international faculty from a University just South of Chennai called Swarnabhoomi. The drummer was from Mexico, the pianist and base from the US, and the Guitarist from Calcutta. Two of my favorite songs of Aakash’s were Monsoon Blues and one sung about the pacific Northwest Coastline in which Jayanthi joined in, adding her voice and bringing the a stark cloudy day on the NW coastline to life in Calcutta.

The days pass, with some limited successes in research.

  1. A few cryptographers have expressed interest in deciphering the shorthand/cipher I have encountered a cipher in Hyde’s Legal Notebooks (a source I am using at the National Library) which I have been unable to solve.

  2. Bangla is progressing well, and during the weekdays I have increasing confidence to read and translate documents. It’s a difficult language.

  3. Out of the blue I received a personalized email from a company called vedams books about a book called, “A History of Calcutta’s Streets,” which I had been looking for for months. Apparently a German had bought the last copy available copy to my knowledge a month ago. I don’t know how they knew they I wanted the book. Perhaps someone knew I was looking for it and called them? I don’t know—but I do now I have someone to thank for the help.

And some setbacks

  1. I was denied access to the High Court of Calcutta’s archives despite Fulbright sending an introduction letter. Other scholars (not connected to Fulbright to my knowledge) have been granted access.

  2. The National Library of India has run out of ink for photocopying, so I will have to wait a month until I can request photocopies of materials. Meaning that I can’t supply the cryptographers with the scans of the shorthand they will need to solve it.

As well as some interesting travel

  1. Last weekend I traveled to Bishnupur on a class trip with Matt, Jessica and our teacher Debanjan. Bishnupur is a fascinating small city/town with an array of Terracotta temples dating to the 17th century, with numerous surrounding villages that produce a variety of handicrafts. Each village specializes in a certain craft, granting it comparative advantage in that specific craft. Ricardo and Adam Smith would be proud! I also fulfilled my dream of driving an Ambassador car—the ubiquitous yellow taxi of Calcutta. Fantastic!

Apologies for some banal writing. I’ve lost my voice due to a few successive days of having a sore throat, and a little too much partying. I therefore think I’ve also lost my writing touch. With more things to do and more people to meet, it’s harder and harder to find time to write. I also should have been around to talk to my grandfather during thanksgiving, maybe there will be time for that too!


On Tuesday Jess, Matt and two of our teacher went on a day trip to Chandernagore (now Chandannagar).

A fascinating town, now effectively a distant suburb of Calcutta, Chandernagore was owned by the French until 1952, a few years after India gained Independence. So, there existed an entirely landlocked French town surrounded by India. How strange.

The town had passed back and forth between the French and British as the British, in a series of successive wars, captured the town, only to repeatedly give it back.

You can still see the French influence. In the long stone waterway promenade with large trees, steel benches, the smattering of Colonial Buildings (such as a church), and in the street lamps that look as if they come straight out of turn of the century France (Although Debanjan noted that, “Do you really believe those remain from the French?” Regardless, they give the town a colonial feel.

However, you wouldn’t know the historical aspects existed if it you had stepped of the train or bus station as Chandernagore looks similar to the other Calcutta suburbs.

We went to Chandernagore to witness an idol immersing festival. I think it was Doshami, related to Kali puja, but someone should correct me on that fact. It was a hot, sunny, loud, polluted day, so I wasn’t quite following the intricacies of the festival.

Supposedly there exists an interesting library in town or nearby.

Enough of this—look at some photos!

It’s a War Zone Out There!

Right now, It’s Diwali / Kali Puja. That means tons of fireworks, অনেক বাজি! Also means tons of pollution that I’m sure could challenge much of the worst cities in China. But hey, that’s another story.

The joy of today was taking a mini adventure to the village of Barasat, a couple hours north of where I live in Calcutta with Jess, Jayanthi and Aakash.

The last couple days have been a whirlwhind of craziness. Lights, sounds, smells, though not to the extent of Durga Puja, when the city does in fact shut down to party, and I mean shut down. Newspapers are not printed for four days during Durga here, and that means a lot!

Last night, seeing that I was unable to find a reasonable means of transport home after going Kali Pandal hopping, I decided to stay at Jayanthi&Aakash’s place in Ballygunge. In the morning, Jess came over and proposed that we all go to Barasat for some pandal hopping. After some convincing, I said sure yes—promises of Jayanthi’s famed granola bars also were convincing—and off we went on the train ride!

I hope the photos on facebook do the dusty town of Barasat justice. But there’s nothing evidently remarkable about it other than one pandal site which was the oddest fusion of romantic-classical cardboard architecture with images of the virgin mary and Jesus Christ next to that of Kali (pre-chopping her own head off and having her acquaintances drink her blood—as we saw in one pandal.)

I had a crap experience as I was going home today from the train station in Ballygunge. Two teenagers came up to me and asked where I was from. I gave them my “I’m from South Africa” response, and they started to say how much they liked my culture, my people and my music.
I’m like that’s total bullshit. You don’t know anything about South Africa, kid. It wouldn’t matter what country I said I was from, they’d say the same things. They started to walk on both sides of me and I smelled something fishy, so I grabbed one of the kids by the shoulders and threw him out of the way, and got into an auto. Going to the gym pays off!
Yesterday was intriguing as well, as we went, among other places, to a pandal at a crematorium. There’s nothing quite like anthropomorphizing goats an hour before they’re sent for ritual sacrifice—at all places—a human crematorium!
Tata for new. Oh, check out this band: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TgmrfHbZkM I think they’re my new favorite—via Jess.

Not the most coherent post

It’s been awhile since I last wrote. The evaporation of time has been encroaching on my work time. India, perhaps you have made me too exhausted at the end of every day to write.

In the meantime, our house has turned into a proto hostel, hosting people from around the world. Mike’s couchsurfing profile has become quite active. We’ve had people from Israel, the US of course, and now China. It’s pretty cool! That’s one of the beauties of our apartment in Calcutta—we can comfortably (I hope) host people.

But the constant flow of people here has also made it difficult to concentrate on work or Bangla. Well, whatever.

Over the weekend, I went with the Germans, my housemates and T, to the beach at Mandarmani where we stayed at a resort near the beach that apparently many Bengali films are shot. Finally, we also explored Diga, where hundreds upon hundreds of fishing boats depart every day, forming an endless chain of red as rust boats that dwindle into the horizon.

Right now, my housemates and a couple of friends are on our 12th floor balcony, launching fireworks and sparklers. I’m sure it violates multiple fire codes, not to mention Hiland Park’s regulations. But hell, it’s fun! It’s amazing the cool things you can do with fireworks and long exposures! It’s not even diwali yet.

In other news, I’m also getting into Of Monsters and Men—what a lovely band! And their Icelandic accents, whew!

Sheela comes next week, I’m excited! She’s on the plane right now to Hyderabad to visit family first.

Durga Puja

Durga Puja was this past weekend. With the metro open until 4pm, there were back to back all night parties, which I, being the old man I feel like, did not often have the energy to attend.

The photos above are at different puja sites. You can see how trippy the puja sites can be. The wheels in the third photo were constantly spinning, and a loudspeaker was playing soothing music, making the whole scene surreal.

The final photo is an image of Ganesh made entirely out of different types of gram (dal) and glue. The complexity and creativity of designs of puja sights is incredibly given the inexpensive materials they are made from—cardboard, gram, besan, bamboo, twine. One puja site had five or six series of ping balls attached to bent metal poles on motors. They were synchronized to provide a constant background noise. It was incredible to listen to!

Everything in durga puja is temporary and will be taken down at the end of the festival. The pandals, which are constructed out of bamboo, will be desconstructed, the twine holding the bamboo together removed, and the idols of Durga dumped in the river. As everything comes from the Ganges (Hooghly) everything will return to the Hooghly, and the process will continue, year after year.

Idol submerging is tomorrow night!

Bicycle in Sewage

The bamboo structure the bike repairman dude was working on collapsed and we all plummeted into the waist deep sewage below. There were five of us on the structure—appears that was enough weight to make it collapse.

He sent his poor kid to fish out the bike parts from the water.

So, my night of going to get my bike tires patched ended smellier than I had anticipated. Rs. 80 is a good deal, I think, for four tire patches, a tire change, and breaking his front yard. 

Couldn’t help but share this experience…

Durga Puja Begins

Today, the festivities for Durga Puja started. All around the city, communities are erecting “pandals,” small houses to worship the gods, especially Durga. Durga is an incarnation of Devi, the female manifestation of the supreme being. If I’m not mistaken, she’s quite a strong willed, you might say ruthless goddess. This is great. How many cities can claim that their most important religious festival of the year centers around a powerful female goddess!?

At the festivities today, which involved sand painting and a DJ, I finally met a fellow squash player. I’m stoked to play him. Couldn’t be happier. I was struck by how much life at Hiland park resembles that of a suburban US town, and how Durga Puja so far seems to be a form of a block party, where family get together and meet. I’ve also been surprised so far by how accessible and down to earth people are. Most people are willing to give me time n Calcutta and exchange plesantries.

Durga puja is also like an odd variation of Christmas. The giving is such that you tip staff and workers. By giving them a bonus, you spread the good cheer.

The next week will certainly be an interesting one. I’m told the city will be awash with festivities, which will span a week. Given my previous knowledge of India. This means noise, crowds, colors, traffic, and revelry 24/7. On a scale beyond anything from home. It’s uniquely Indian. Uniquely Calcutta.

Last night was an interesting one. My housemates and I went to the consulate to visit a friend. The consulate residence is swank, and it’s nice to see a little bit of America—or America in the type of quality of life that I’ve dreamed of, but would need either the patronage or income to afford.

After some meats, cheeses, fine beers (stouts!) and some imported licquers we took a car to Jadavpur University of watch a concert that our friend S, a fantastic guitarist, was playing in. We went from the privileged life of the consulate to wading through mud and muck in a wet outdoor concert with more than its fair share of bromance—hordes of men dancing with each other, etc. It’s fun, but there’s only so much I can take.

As an aside, right now I am listening to Alexi Murdoch, and I have to say, that he is an excellent musician to fit my mood. Thank you to Sean for introducing me to him while we were in Sri Lanka. I miss that time a lot.

Calcutta has an amazing variety of live music and cultural events which makes it a truly awesome city for the arts. Just in the past two weeks, I’ve gone to see a play (in hindi/english/bangla/french and spanish) starting Kalki Koechlin, a fantastic modern dance performance, both at Tollygunge club as it celebrated Tagore. I’ve also seen a live table concert running from 10am one day to 6am the next. Non stop drumming. As well as the concert I mentioned earlier.

Bangla Class

Photos of AIIS in Ballygunge and the train station at Baghajatin that leads to the school

I’ll have to give an update on my life, which I have repeatedly put off the for the past week.

Recently people have asked me what exactly am I doing in Calcutta. Not in sense of my grant, which is to ostensibly focus on early newspaper history in the city, but what I am actually doing on a day to day basis.

To this, I reply, I am taking Bangla classes intensively at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Calcutta, in Ballygunge. That is, from 9-2 every day, Monday to Friday, I go to class. It’s a humid, sweaty, diesel fume-choked 45 minute bus and auto ride after which I arrive fairly exhausted. 

I’ve been going since September 1st and will be taking classes in this fashion until around January. After these first four months, I will begin the official part of my research on the newspapers. For the first few weeks I arrived, I was “settling in,” meaning dealing with bureaucracy, meeting my contacts, affiliates and surveying site locations. Since catalogues are not generally posted online in India, I travel to each institution and ask around to understand their resources. 

I’ve been to, or intend to go to, the below:

Classes consist of a mix of reading ,writing, speaking and listening. Basically everything, as well as field trips. I have one-on-one instruction. I’m incredibly grateful for the personalized attention and the professional setting in which I am taught. After class, I usually try to do the copious amount of Bangla homework, but have a nasty habit of procrastinating. Nonetheless, I hope to be conversational by the end of my CLEA grant.


(Old building at Sobhabazar, Calcutta)
A close friend asked me to “please not go away again next year”
So, I reflect:
I haven’t planned my life to travel as much as I have since I graduated (or even during college). It wasn’t my plan, and I am shocked that pieces of my life have so far come together like a puzzle. I am grateful for my opportunity and privilege. 
I wouldn’t have thought a year ago that my life was going in this positive direction. In the hindsight provided by my grant it was not as unfocused as it then seemed. I remember thinking of my life last year around this time, wondering what the heck I was doing at the British Library perusing old dusty papers that seemingly only I had interest in—and my interest was sporadic. “Why did I care about them,” I asked myself? Or when I was in Korea thinking: what the hell am I doing teaching little kids English (and doing it badly). Why am I here? Or being a waiter, thinking, this wasn’t what I had signed up for after four years of college. Or at NPR thinking: maybe journalism, being a foreign correspondent, which had been my dream job, wasn’t for me. The constant pressure of having to produce content was too much. Not that I could find a job as a journalist anyways. 
At times I felt more aimless than I cared then to admit.
I have worked, since I graduated college, as a waiter, a writer of online content while taking my GRE, briefly as an English teacher in South Korea, as a researcher at the British Library in London, as a temp in a number of jobs, as an Intern at NPR in DC, as a lab rat at NIH, as a bicycle courier, again as a temp and finally for an adventure sports company in Sri Lanka. I’ve worked more different jobs in a two year span than I had ever thought possible in a lifespan, or reasonable. 
Am I doing my friends or family at home in the US a disservice for being gone so often? I’m not sure. Maybe I can’t answer that in any way except to say that friends are made, become close, and sometimes become distant. Wherever I go I try to make new friends. I wish I could talk about them more, but necessarily, a blog is where one speaks about oneself. I wish I could keep up with them all. My life has given me the opportunity to make leave friends many times who I still I miss and care about.
Life is strange. It’s just weird. I haven’t planned it so far, and even if I had, I certainly would not be on the path I am on. It is with a great sense of wonder and bemusement that I look at my own.
So I thank my friend for asking me that question and causing me to reflect. 
On Friday, I turn 24. I look forward to the next two years. Let’s see what they bring.

Ballygunge and Back on Bicycle

We three white guys rode our bicycles to Ballygunge and back. What a sight we were for those 20 km.

Turning on to the desolate EM Bypass, we began to make great pace. I got to test the true speed of my bike, easily going faster than the few cars and autos.

Out on EM Bypass, I saw a woman alone, dressed in heels, a reflective mini skirt and wearing copious makeup. Clearly she was not lost, and as I rode by, I am sure I awkwardly gaped. She said hello but I had no intention to stop.

B. and G. were behind me, and as I they passed her, she said aloud, “Can I fuck me?” B and G started laughing as they rode by, probably spurred on by the awkward humor of the situation.

I found myself bothered by their laughter (although I can’t criticize them for doing so and there much greater injustices). She probably knows limited English, but does that give right for her to be laughed at? She is out on a lonely dark road at night, soliciting business from men she does not know, and has no reason to trust. That takes guts, if not desperation. How does she keep her dignity then, if laughed at?

Alas, as we rode by the hundred pillars of the under-construction metro line along the Bypass, enjoying the blissful night ride, my tire popped as we were pulling into Big Bazaar, just 200 meters from home.

Voices of India

Birla Institue of Art in Kalighat had a fantastic exhibit called “Voice of India” where the Weavers Studio Center for the Arts featured “artists of the early 20th Century from all over India and specially Bengal, their photographs, brief bio-data and listening kiosks/android phones.” The exhibit was fascinating. Having been given an Android Phone, we were set loose among a gallery of 50-60 of the most important cultural-musical figures of the early 20th and late 19th century. At each portrait, we could listen to a short clip of that artists’ singing.

One item that struck me in particular was a poem by Tagore. Here is an extract of Tagore’s poem “প্রশ্ন

I see secret violence under cover of darkness
Slaughtering the helpless,
I see the just weeping in solitary silence,
No power to protest the oppression of the mighty,
I see tender youths hitting out blindly
Cracking their heads against stones in their agony.

Today my voice is choked, my flute is without note,
The prison of the no-moon night
Has extinguished my world, given me nightmares;
And this is why I ask, through my tears:
Those who poison your air and blot out the sun;
Do You truly forgive them, do You truly love them?

The Last Two Lines, I think, are a special jab against Gandhi. How could you love or forgive someone, Tagore asks, who does such terrible things? Is that truly possible? Or does Gandhi live in a fantasy world of impracticable pacifism?

Bangla Class, Draining

Bangla classes at AIIS have been draining. I must admit that four hours of class monday to friday saps my energy. Traveling there and back is a trip: either packed into a suburban rail so tightly that boarding is a process that involves shoving people further into the carriage. On the plus side, I don’t need to hold on to anything as the mass of humanity around me holds me up. Alternately, I can take a bus and then shared auto to class: more civilized, but does take longer.

Class is intense, but also great in that I have one on one tuition, so it is highly individualized. They teach Bangla comprehensively: so I get training in speaking, reading, writing, and listening.

After class on Wednesday I went to the Asiatic Society to meet with the general director and the head librarian. As with most of my meetings, they are awkward in the way that I have found only meetings in S. Asia can be awkward. This one involved the gentlemanly general director, who acted as if the 1850s had never passed, expatiate on the evils of overpopulation and the downfalls of the Indian nation. After that meeting, he directed me to the librarian, who insisted on showing me every single holding they had in glass case in their manuscript room which smelled strongly and oddly of diesel fumes. She then launched into a spirited blow-by-blow account of one of the Indian epics. Of its nature, I could not be sure, but it had something to do with a prince, princess, and a fish that swallowed a ring. She later insisted on teaching me Bangla script (parts I already know) as I wondered how to politely disengage conversation. Two hours later, and with a comprehensive tour of the old and new Asiatic Society buildings, though still not having seen the manuscript catalogue (my main goal), I left.

Friday after class Mr. P. of AIIS took us three students on a tour of college street—a street known for its numerous book sellers. What a trip. Nevertheless, I am still unable to find P. Thankappan Nair’s many books on Calcutta history. (I found his history of Calcutta streets at Rs. 4000 but I’m not about to pay $70 for a beat up copy of a tangentially useful book) Hopefully I will meet him soon at the National Library. I’ve been told he goes there in the mornings, and everybody knows him. We also visited the “Coffee House,” originally the haunt of Calcutta’s intelligentsia from the 19th century onwards. It looks like an ordinary cafeteria with uninspiring food. I’ve no intent to return.

Later, I had dinner with Alec and some more AIIS fellows at Banana leaf, a Keralan restaurant. What interesting stories these interesting people have!

In other news, I had another ‘interesting run’ today. It was nice up until the five mile stretch of running along a canal, eg open sewer. On the way back, I passed a dead kitten sprawled out in garbage. Not pleasant.

I’ve also begun reading Dalrymple’s White Mughals. What a fascinating book. At so many parts I keep thinking, “But that’s what I want to say!” Alas,

Bomb Blast

Last Friday (Aug 30) there was a small bomb blast (IED) in Kolkata, nearby Chandni Chowk, on Madan street, near the Central Ave crossing, around 12-12:30pm. No one was hurt, and the police defused a second bomb thereafter. I was walking by Madan street on Central Ave an hour later as I was on my way to Calcutta Walks. I heard about the blast middle of this past week.

The Green Arrow, and Red A are the approximate location of the blast, while the star was my destination.

How scary is it that I missed the bomb blast by an hour or two?

Some Reflections

I start Bangla classes tomorrow. I don’t know why exactly, but I’m nervous. I haven’t had formal education in 2 years, and I’m not sure if this class will get me to a point where I’ll be fluent enough for grad school. Then there goes that whole history Ph.D. (assuming I’ll still want to do it). That’s if I want to do S. Asian history, but I think I have different hopes, perhaps covering world English journalism history.

I’ve set up a meeting with the director of the Asiatic Society on Wednesday. I don’t know what exactly it is that I’ll be meeting about. That’s of course the way things work here. Their archival materials are not listed online. I just need to show up, ask questions, and poke around.

(Mithu keeps cooking food. More than we’ll ever be able to eat. She’s cooked the same Alu Dum dish for the last three weeks. We have a constant supply of leftovers and the supply far exceeds consumption.)

After we went to the FRRO today (a surprisingly painless process to retrieve our registration papers) Alec and I went to Blue Sky Cafe. It was exactly how I remembered it! A good, solid diner, filled entirely by বিদেশী (foreigners). There we met an American volunteer at the Mother Theresa house, fresh out of college, who’ll be living in Kolkata, Kalighat, for the next year. It’s nice to meet another American of our age, who’ll be living here long term, so we exchanged contact information.
Afterwards, I picked up my suit (looks good!), and Alec and I went to Nahoums. I for some sweet buns and baked goods, him for some type of chocolaty goody.
I haven’t had much time to reflect on my time here as of yet. Though matters such as: Will I learn enough Bangla for my career? Will I be able to get all the resources I need? Will I be able to finish my book? all provide me enough anxiety.
It’s not that stressful here. But I wish I could put myself back in Rush Rhees library, in the periodical reading room, the secret history grad room, the balcony overlooking the quad, the dark quiet old stacks and more. The resources of a good library are invaluable. It’s frustrating here that I can’t access all the books at once, can’t have all the databases, and if I’m missing materials, can’t interlibrary loan them. I hadn’t realized the value of a good library until now, when it really really matters. I wish I could put myself in a box without time so I could complete everything and not have to worry. But that’s not human life, is it?
I knew all of these issues coming in. It will be difficult now, but when I finish, I hope to look back and say: Fuck yeah! I learned Bangla. I wrote a book. (And maybe even created a genealogical website of editors and their presses). Then I think I can relax, but I don’t know when that might be.
I have been surprised by the infrequency I have felt moments of sadness or loneliness here. They come, but are fleeting. So, I am stopping myself to ask: Am I happy? I’m not perfectly happy in the way I was in college. I don’t have a large group of friends here (being new anywhere presents this challenge). I don’t have the community of study abroad. I don’t have a 10 minute commute to the library. I don’t have the resources I had before. Life is not as open or intellectually stimulating as college, an atmosphere I recognize I will likely never have again. But I do have great opportunities. I do like hanging out with Alec, Mike and the people I’ve met. I am working on a project I have spent two years off and on, which I don’t love, but do like. These opportunities are what I will make of them.
I am not living forever to do everything I want, but I do what I can to stay satisfied.

Bought a Bicycle

This weekend I bought a bicycle.

A very nice road bicycle.

Ok, it’s Chinese made.

Still, it’s very nice.

And I fly fast.

But the roads are bad.

People stare.

Mithu thinks I’m crazy.

And it is dusty.

Also, exhaust fumes.

It’s totally impractical.

I love it.

Here it is: http://www.fomascycle.com/products_detail.php?p_id=1080&c_name=ROAD%20BIKES&c_brand=FOMAS

(For the record, I was really surprised I could find a few types of racing bikes in Calcutta on Bentinck street Pretty awesome! But I have no idea where people would ride them, give all the traffic!)