The Archive Box #1: Calcutta Pulp Fiction

By Anindita Ghosh*, University of Manchester

The Archive Box is a series featuring global urban historians reflecting on their archival experience, and on the practical and theoretical challenges they faced while working with a variety of archives in different cities across the world.

From small libraries in Kolkata to the British Library in London, through police records and pulp fiction published in late nineteenth-century colonial Calcutta, Anindita Ghosh reflects on her journey through archives, on the tension between formal and vernacular archives, and on the crucial importance of the latter for writing the urban histories of ordinary people.

My work has been on the colonial history of Calcutta. As the first city in South Asia where a modern metropolis was built, it offers a blueprint of the colonial urban. I am from there, and knowing the language is quite significant because my archive is vernacular, popular literature available in the Bengali language. It is not usually consulted by academic historians of colonial Calcutta, as it is not regarded as important. I am talking here of pulp literature on the city, songs about the city sung in the streets, printed in very small pamphlets of ten-to-twenty pages, on bad paper, with an awful print quality, and yet rich in texture and provenance. There is only so much you can glean from the colonial documents, the plans, and that is why my focus has always been on popular culture.

I had always been interested in popular culture, and in understanding the structuring of language and literary taste. The nineteenth century in Calcutta is seen as a period of “great awakening”, where the British come and people become “enlightened”, through a growing body of high literature and culture. I wanted to question that narrative, so I turned my attention around: what else was coming out of the printing presses? Literacy grew rapidly, and these presses were opening up, making it cheaper to publish things, in particular the aforementioned pulp fiction, crime or romance stories. In them you find a trenchant critique of elite society—biting laughter against high literature.

I first came across this material when I was researching earlier work. I put it aside but it stuck with me. I was interested in a history from below, of ordinary people, the subaltern. How did these people record the changes they were experiencing in the city? How did they make sense of these huge transformations happening almost overnight – bridges, electricity, drainage and steam boats? These songs were printed in very cheap presses, and the print runs were significantly greater than for so-called high literatures. They were topical, and mentioned electric lights, tramways, or cyclones.

Colonel Turner’s house, after the 1865 cyclone. Courtesy: National Library, Kolkata.

This research had started in the missionary archives of Kolkata, because the missionaries needed to write in a language ordinary people would understand, so they could not write in an elite literary style. They experimented with the colloquial style of writing, and used folk songs for their missionary work. Consequently, I was lucky to get a scholarship to research at the British Library, as I unfortunately would not have found much of this material in India. In 1867, there was a Book Registration Act that was passed in India. For any book that was published, two copies of it had to be submitted to the colonial government. One was being kept at the Imperial Library in Calcutta, and the other one was shipped across to London, to be housed in what was then known as the India Office Library.

The Floating Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly, postcard, Calcutta, c. 1910. Courtesy: British Library, Asia Pacific and Africa Collections.

There are meticulous records and catalogues of all these publications: a quirky outcome of colonial surveillance has made my research possible. Elites, cultured families in India would have thrown these out, and not kept them. It is telling that such vernacular documents are not being conserved in their original place, but rather in the metropolitan and imperial core.

Often, vernacular archives are not consulted. People do not know the language, scholars do not reside there. The more important books that are published are in English. Whenever you come across the vernacular archive being used, for example in Brenda Yeoh’s book on Singapore, they are usually more layered and productive.

My practical advice for younger scholars researching this material? Things don’t move quickly in Kolkata, it is a good idea to know what you want to research beforehand and contact people in advance. Target your archives and documents, have a very clear plan. There is not a great deal of time during fieldwork. One tip I can share is that the West Bengal State Archives takes ages to bring up files, but you have the copies of the same files in the National Archives in Delhi, so you can get them faster there. Smaller libraries are bit quirky and work through personal connections – it is about building a local network before you go. Some research may be a bit of a hit-and-miss – sometimes you see something in a catalogue but when you go look for it has decayed or does not exist on the shelves. The National Archives has a rare books section and the staff there are always very helpful. Similar for the British Library, they have 20,000 Bengali tracts and dedicated language experts. Discuss your project with them, and they will be able to take you to the right catalogues.

*As told to Ayan Meer

Anindita Ghosh is Professor of Modern Indian History at the University of Manchester. Her research relates to questions of power, culture and resistance. Her published work so far has focused on the social and cultural history of the book, and the making of indigenous identity in colonial Bengal. She has published, Power in Print (OUP, 2006), a study of the printing industry and the shaping of literary tastes in Bengal, and Claiming the City: Protest, Crime and Violence in Colonial Calcutta (OUP, 2016), an examination of Calcutta in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, analyzing its material cultures and social structures in the context of colonialism, technology, changing patterns of occupation and public spaces, crime, scandals and protest.

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