I arrived at Kolkata during the last 15 days of my study trip. At Kolkata, my main intention was to investigate the relationship between the British, the Deb Raja of Bhutan, and the Tibetans, as well as the influence of the Tibetans’ religio-political institutions on Northern Bengal and North-Eastern India. For that I went to the Kolkata State Archives, where the early documentation of the East India Company was located.
The Kolkata State Archives were a curious place to begin my archival research. The front door was jammed shut and clothes hung in a makeshift clothesline outside of it, performing a dual function – both their primary function of drying, as well as informing us that this was not the entrance into the Archive.
The seating area was comfortable, air conditioned to escape from the enervating West Bengal heat, but the archival texts were in shambles. I had to take to wearing a mask to avoid allergies. Legal and Official texts from the 18th century were moth-eaten, with ink fading from the pages, which were decaying and peeling in my hands. It made me think of how smart Vedic scholars were to preserve oral texts through embodied mnemonic devices instead. Paper is very unreliable and we still do not know the extent of our preservation technology – let’s see if our books last 2,000 years.
There is, however, a digitization project under way. Hopefully the memory of a machine will last as long as the collective memory of man (although I am in no way suggesting that the Vedas have been passed on without ideological and cultural infiltrations. Just that they have been passed down through the only thing that was known to permeate through time – man).
The texts themselves were a fascinating revelation of the period. I collected information on the Sanyasi revolts, on the complex relationship between the Bhutanese and the British, right until the 1864-65 Anglo-Bhutan war, and the resultant shifts in the socio-political landscape of that period. The 18th century is a very interesting period to read through, because both the native Indians and the British were clueless about each other’s customs and sociality, and both were trying to communicate with each other through a newly-learned cultural vocabulary. What was particularly interesting were all the gaps, erasures, misinformations, miscommunications, and manipulations that result from this lacuna between the two people.
Unfortunately, the British, in their alienness, were not able to provide a complete picture of the political landscape. For instance, their Fakeers and Sanofies (Fakirs and Sanyasis) were indistinguishable from each other. Religious sects were unrecognizable, actions performed were bracketed through an understanding of state permissible or anti-state acts, instead of positioning them in the wider cultural environ in which they arose. The British seem to be desperate to make their system understandable, legible to a rather confused population, rather than being interested in understanding the population in their own terms. Rather than focusing on differences and similarities, alliances and enmities, they tended to bracket everything under categories that they created through their lack of understanding. The flip side of this was the manipulation employed by the people, who were forced to learn the British system while balancing their own systems against the newly imposed legal system.
Fascinating as it was to leaf through all those old, crumbling texts and to occasionally laugh out loud at the bewilderment of the British, I left Calcutta with an excess of doubts and a hankering to look more closely at the public reception of this alien British system.