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Category: Historians and history (Page 2 of 3)

Panoramic view of the Maidan, Kolkata.

Government publications, periodicals, and communists at the National Library of India

Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it is still sometimes spelled), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, was once the capital of British India. After 1912, when the capital moved to Delhi, most imperial institutions also relocated once new facilities were ready for them. The Imperial Records Department, for instance, moved from the Imperial Secretariat Building in Calcutta into its own building designed by Edwin Lutyens in the new capital. (After independence, the IRD became the National Archives of India.) But even as most institutions moved, some stayed behind, and one of these was the Imperial Library. Renamed the National Library of India (NLI) after independence, it is today the largest library in the country.

I had the privilege of spending two weeks at NLI while doing research for my dissertation in 2015. Of the three major institutions I visited for research in India (the other two were NAI and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library), the National Library was certainly the easiest to find and navigate once I was there. My Rough Guide tourbook had a listing for NLI, including details on registration requirements. The people at the India Tourism office told me how to get there, by catching the 230 bus from Esplanade. Upon registration at the library, I received a full-color orientation booklet, with details of the different buildings at the complex and what can be found in each.

The National Library of India is located south of the city center at the Belvedere Estate, a big landscaped compound with a former imperial residence in it. The Belvedere House, as the residence is known, had once been occupied by Warren Hastings and (much later) was the main library building after independence, but in 2015 it was much the worse for wear and was being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The current main library building, Bhasha Bhawan (Language Building) is in the back of the compound. It is an attractive library building, with neither the dreary institutionality of the NAI New Building nor the high-class staidness of NMML.

Belvedere House.

Belvedere House.

Main gate of Belvedere Estate.

Main gate of Belvedere Estate.

A statue of Rabindranath Tagore in front of Bhasha Bhawan.

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore in front of Bhasha Bhawan.

Registering to use the National Library is free, and foreign nationals need only to fill out some forms and hand over one’s passport for copying along with two passport-sized photos. There is no need to present a letter of recommendation or any other credentials. Getting permission to use a laptop computer in the library requires filling out an additional form.

My NLI reader card.

My NLI reader card, issued to me after registration.

I spent most of my time at NLI in the periodicals reading room in Bhasha Bhawan. The library has a huge collection of magazines and journals bound into volumes, as well as the exhaustive gazettes produced by the central and state governments.

Bhasha Bhawan is climate-controlled, but at some time in the past the periodicals I looked at had been stored in a less favorable environment. Some of the volumes were covered with black dust, and many of them had holes in the pages where bugs or worms had eaten through them.

Request slip for the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.

Request slip for the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.

I also spent some time in the government publications reading room in the Annexe Building. The Annexe is a forbidding early-independence period highrise, with a plaque at the entrance saying that it was dedicated by Nehru in 1961. The government publications reading room is on the second floor, and it is reached by an elevator with doors that are opened and closed by hand. The reading room is as dreary as Bhasha Bhawan is attractive, with bare concrete floors and walls painted in an institutional blue without primer. The shelves holding the government publications are in the reading room, but readers are not supposed to enter the stacks. Instead, readers can request documents by submitting a slip at the front desk.

Foundation stone of the National Library Annexe.

Foundation stone of the National Library Annexe.

Since registration and orientation at the National Library were straightforward, I was able to start research quickly and without much confusion. The main challenge I faced at NLI was when employees in certain departments would abscond from work for political reasons. West Bengal has a long history of being ruled by democratically-elected communist governments. Even though the communists have not been the ruling party for several years, they are still active and wield some power. One day, the Left Front (communists) and Bharatiya Janata Party staged a state-wide bandh (strike) to protest the results of the recent state and municipal elections; in the latter, the Trinamool Congress won a huge victory (114 seats for the TMC as opposed to 15 for the communists and seven for the BJP).

Wall-painting by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announcing a statewide strike on April 30.

Wall-painting by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announcing a statewide strike on April 30, 2015.

Despite the huge showing for the Trinamool Congress in the election, much of the city went on strike, including some workers at the library. I spent the morning of that day in the periodicals room, and I had no trouble getting the volumes I needed. But when I went over to the government publications reading room in the afternoon, a lone worker there told me that most of the staff were on strike, so I wouldn’t be able to request documents. I left the library early that day, at 2:00.

The next day was May Day, an important holiday in India’s most communist city. The staff at the library departments were back at work, but then in the evening my bus got trapped in an epic traffic jam caused by a long parade of the different trade unions on Chowringhee street.

May Day procession on Chowringhee Street.

May Day procession on Chowringhee.

Statues of Marx and Engels freshly garlanded for May Day.

Statues of Marx and Engels freshly garlanded for May Day.

Front facade of Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

A tryst with research

When he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, a palatial residence originally built for the British Commander in Chief of India. Teen Murti Bhawan sits on a large landscaped plot due south of the president’s palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), formerly the Viceroy’s House. A long circular drive leads from the compound gate to Teen Murti house itself. Behind the house is a formal garden planted with rose bushes. After Nehru’s death, the house was preserved as a memorial to the man and his times, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Schoolchildren flock to the free museum, tramping through the big house’s empty corridors and taking in a show in Hindi or English at the planetarium on the grounds (built after Nehru’s death).

Behind and to the east of the house, tucked in among the trees, is a remarkable research institution, the library of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Housed in a modern concrete building with dark wood paneling on the interior, the Nehru Library has an elite air, fitting for a place established in memory of wealthy, England-educated Nehru. The regular collection of the library is focused on modern India, and the Nehru Library is without a doubt one of the best places in India to study the late colonial and independence periods. In the back of the library, reached by its own stairway, there is also a small reading room for the library’s archival division, which is supposed to hold the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to modern India.

The lobby of the library sometimes hosts public exhibitions, but the main stacks are only open to serious researchers, who have to apply for a membership and pay a nominal fee. (When I did some research for my dissertation at NMML two years ago, I paid Rs. 300 for a two-month membership. There are also options of a one-week membership for Rs. 100 and six months for Rs. 500.) Getting permission to access the archives requires its own application, with a letter of introduction from the researcher’s home institution and a form from the researcher’s diplomatic mission in India (for international scholars; I used a photocopy of a form I got for the National Archives of India).

The Nehru Library has open stacks, which is a rare treat in specialized research libraries. The archives, of course, are not open, and the holdings can only be accessed by filling out a request slip. Not all of the archival records are accessible even to legitimate scholars. The papers of Jawaharlal Nehru are only open to 1947. Nehru’s papers from his tenure as Prime Minister are off-limits because they are still classified. (The Indian government’s policy for declassification is not transparent. Even though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, his papers are kept out of public view because they theoretically still hold state secrets.) But scholars of modern India need not despair, because the papers of many other post-independence leaders are accessible.

When I did my research at NMML, I ran into two challenges that made my work there harder than I expected it to be. The first was just getting there. Teen Murti Bhawan is located in the sprawling neighborhoods of colonial bungalows on the south side of Rajpath in New Delhi, an area that is poorly served by the city’s metro. I rode the 604 or 620 city buses from Sansad Marg (still sometimes called by its English name Parliament Street) to Teen Murti Circle, but the street was frequently blocked by sit-down protests staged by one or another disaffected part of the population. When that happened, the bus would be routed down a different street, and I never did figure out where.

The other challenge was a result of my not understanding how government business works in India. The National Archives of India is closed for only a few holidays every year: Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), and the lunar festivals of Holi (February or March) and Diwali (October or November). NMML and most other offices are also closed on India’s many regular gazetted holidays, which are posted online on the official government calendar, but are not posted anywhere in the building itself. This was at least the case two years ago. I kept making the long trek to Teen Murti Bhawan only to find that the library was closed for a religious holiday celebrated by one of the minority communities. One day, the library was dark and empty for Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), and the next it was closed for Good Friday (Christianity). If I had known to check for gazetted holidays, I could have planned accordingly and used my time better.

These challenges aside, researching at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was a rewarding experience. The private papers I read at NMML provided a human counterpoint to the formal, technical documents I found at the National Archives. The landscaped setting of Teen Murti Bhawan was a refreshing place to research. When I needed a break from manuscripts, I could go walking outside. I enjoyed spending a few weeks at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library while researching my dissertation, and I hope I get the chance to return there for a future project.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

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