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SILENT ARCHIVISTS

- Historians and newspapers

For a very long time, historians of modern India relied largely on government records — printed as well as unpublished. Files of different departments, deposited in state and national archives, were the staple source for the writing of dissertations, research papers and monographs. Some historians innovatively tapped the private papers of politicians and social reformers; others reached out into oral history, conducting interviews with eye-witnesses or participants in important historical events. Yet the periodical press per se remained an under-utilized resource.

I was myself alerted to the richness of newspaper sources by two historians I befriended early in my career. One, the Bengali polymath, Hiteshranjan Sanyal, worked in the next room to mine at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta. The other, the scholar-activist Shekhar Pathak, who taught in Kumaun University in Naini Tal. Sanyal had used a range of Bengali newspapers in writing about peasant nationalism in Medinipur in the 1930s and 1940s. Pathak, who wrote a pioneering thesis on popular movements against forced labour in Kumaun, had extensively used Hindi newspapers published in the district of Almora.

I was myself working on peasant protest in Garhwal, the region of Uttarakhand immediately to the west of Kumaun. Inspired by Pathak and Sanyal, I went in search of a local paper whose old issues might give me insights sarkari files could not. I found one in my home town, Dehra Dun. Called Yugvani, it was founded in the 1940s by a Gandhian named Acharya Gopeshwar Narain Kothiyal. Acharyaji had gone to jail in the Quit India movement; freed on completion of his term, he settled in Dehra Dun, and started a newspaper devoted to the ideals of the freedom struggle.

Issues of Yugvani, carefully filed in the newspaper’s office near the town’s Clock Tower, provided invaluable in my research. From them I gleaned many new facts about peasant protests of the 1940s as well as the Chipko movement of the 1970s. An additional pleasure was that the editor-proprietor of Yugvani worked in the next room. Two or three times a day he would call me in for tea, where I would tell him about what I had found, and he would reflectively set my findings in context.

I worked in the Yugvani office in 1982 and 1983. Ever since, I have turned again and again to old newspapers as a source for my research. I have read African newspapers in London, British newspapers in New Providence, Indian newspapers in Cambridge and in New Haven. On occasion, I have even read old files of newspapers in the towns in which they were (and sometimes still are) printed and published.

However, the place where I have done most of my newspaper research is the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. I discovered the NMML at about the same time as I discovered Acharya Kothiyal and Yugvani. For the past three decades, this wonderful institution has been the bedrock of my professional life. I have used its vast collection of private papers, its holdings of books and journals, its series of parliamentary proceedings, and not least the newspapers and magazines it has collected from all parts of the subcontinent.

The newspaper holdings at the Nehru Library are mostly on microfilm. To maintain its collections an archive must be airconditioned — which means that once I enter NMML I manage to keep out the dust and the heat of the North Indian plains. The staff is courteous and co-operative. But the microfilms are old and faded, and the microfilm readers somewhat antiquated. To make sense of the type as one scrolls down those pages is very strenuous (besides, I wear glasses). The stress and the strain have always been compensated by the fabulous things uncovered within.

The NMML is my favourite historical archive, not least because it contains the most extensive collection of my favourite newspaper. This is the Bombay Chronicle, which was established in 1910 and ran until 1959. In its pomp, it was a major influence on public opinion in Western India and beyond. Established as a nationalist alternative to the British-owned Times of India, it had a series of superb editors — B.G. Horniman, Marmaduke Pickthall and Syed Abdullah Brelvi. The paper carried coruscating essays about the perfidies of the colonial rulers. It covered Mahatma Gandhi’s activities closely and sympathetically. Yet it had room for much more than politics. Its city pages were extraordinarily diverse — featuring the frivolities of Malabar Hill at one end and the struggles of textile workers at the other. The Chronicle also ran excellent reviews and previews of the productions of the Bombay film industry.

I had heard of the Bombay Chronicle, yet I really got to know its character and quality only when I began work on a social history of cricket. My study was centred on the Bombay Quadrangular (later Pentangular), which from 1912 to 1945 was Indian cricket’s premier tournament. I was not so much interested in the cricket as in the stories behind the scorecards—stories about the politics of selection and representation, about the sociology of crowd behaviour, about how the sport reflected or refracted relations of race, caste, community, and nation.

I had used local newspapers in my doctoral dissertation, as a supplement to government records. But it was only while working on this project on cricket that I realized how valuable newspapers (in any language, including English) could be. In the realm of sport, where the sarkar was mostly absent, there were few official files in any case. Here, papers like the Bombay Chronicle had helped me recreate the past more effectively than other sources conventionally used by sports-writers, such as books, statistical almanacks, pamphlets, brochures, and interviews.

For what I was doing, the Bombay Chronicle was an absolutely indispensable resource. Files of this newspaper are not available in the city in which it was once printed, but fortunately the Teen Murti library had them on microfilm. The Quadrangular was normally played in November-December. To understand its social meaning and context, I read the Bombay Chronicle closely, consulting, for each year, all issues from September to December (sometimes spilling over into the next January). Since I was writing a social rather than narrowly ‘cricketing’ history, I had to read, apart from the sports pages, the news pages, the opinion pages, the advertisements, and (what perhaps gave the most pleasure) letters to the editor. For particular controversies, I supplemented what the Chronicle had to say with material from other city papers, such as the Times of India and the Bombay Sentinel.

Looking for stuff on or around cricket, I was diverted and enchanted by fresh, original, vividly readable reports on the major political figures of the day, Gandhi, Lenin, Hitler and Churchill among them. I even found some fresh material on two writers I greatly admired — the anthropologist Verrier Elwin and the novelist Shivarama Karanth, both of whom happened to visit Bombay at the time of the Pentangular, albeit for reasons other than cricket.

I once dedicated a book to “the selfless tribe of librarians and archivists”. I should perhaps have added a line about the unknown editors, reporters, type-setters and printers who made the newspapers that these libraries and archives now maintain, and that historians yet unborn shall cheerfully and ruthlessly raid.