• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Un-British Activities

William Lawler made a most unlikely literary policeman. He was a librarian, a learned librarian, who looked out on the teeming city of Calcutta from the perspective of Roman antiquity and Victorian morality. Before him, spread out on a table, lay a huge sheet of paper divided into sixteen columns. Around him, above and below him, were books, piled on floors, crammed on shelves, a huge harvest of books published in Bengal in the year 1879. Lawler’s job was to fill in the columns.

The first columns posed no problem. They organized information required for the registration of new books, and their printed headings conformed to the law laid down by Act XXV of the Governor General of India in Council for 1867: title, author, publisher, and so on. By registering a book and paying two rupees, its publisher acquired a copyright for all of British India and protected himself against prosecution, for any unregistered book was deemed to be illegal, and its publisher could be punished by the British colonial government with a two-year jail sentence and a five-thousand-rupee fine. And by printing the filled-out sheets as a “catalog,” issued four times a year as a supplement to its official gazette, the government of Bengal kept a record of all the books published in the province.

Despite their innocent-sounding name, however, the catalogs were not available to the general public. They circulated secretly within the channels of the Indian Civil Service—“A” matter, deemed to be “confidential”—along with identical catalogs from the other provincial governments. Taken together, they provided the agents of the British Raj with a running account of everything in the subcontinent that appeared in print—or at least everything that publishers submitted for registration. The catalog entries from 1868 to 1905 cover about 200,000 titles—more by far than the total output in France during the age of Enlightenment. For Bengal alone, the catalogs from those years run to fifteen enormous volumes, each containing at least five hundred pages. Their scale is staggering, their ambition enormous; they contain millions of words, printed with precision in sixteen standard columns. They represent the civil service talking to itself about the “natives,” a discourse on literature by the colonial authorities at the high tide of imperialism—or, if you prefer Foucault’s formula, knowledge and power.

Lawler satisfied the discursive requirements of his job when he filled in the blank space under the last of the rubrics, column sixteen: “Remarks.” He summarized the narratives of novels, poems, and plays in a way that would make their moral clear for his own readers, the men in the Indian Civil Service who ruled over the “natives.” For example, his remarks on a Bengali epic poem, The Female Bird in the Forest (I will cite titles in English, my Bengali not being what it should be), begin with a general observation: “The present work of eighteen chapters commences with a touching appeal to Mother India, whose sad lot is deplored, and the oppression at the hands of the Yavans (or foreigners) pronounced unbearable.” Then they include a long summary of the plot, which concerned the attempt of a Brahmin to rescue his wife from a wicked Nabab, who had abducted her. And they end with a reference to the ideological subtext of the story:

From pages 50 to 55 in chapter three, the poet digresses to portray in forcible language the subjection of the Aryan Bengal race to foreigners, who have placed their feet on the heads of Brahmins, but that the time must come, though it may be distant, when the Aryans will be freed from the yoke.

The catalog was, in effect, a literary digest, reserved for the Raj’s administrators. By consulting it, a district magistrate in the Punjab or a secretary in the India Office in London would know what the natives were up to when they published books.

They were up to no good. When they weren’t deploring Mother India’s subjection to the foreigners, they were regaling themselves with stories about Krishna’s dallying with the milkmaids and other material derived from the Mahabharata, which Lawler found disgusting. A Hindu tract entitled The Pleasure of Females, for example, took the Krishna theme far beyond the limits of decency, as Lawler understood them. He deplored it as a compendium of “the most openly vulgar and obscene observations ever made, not even having the semblance of an excuse for the public good. It should be at once suppressed.” Mysteries Revealed, a nonfiction account of crime in Calcutta, was equally offensive to Lawler’s Victorian sensibility:

The production is devoid of any merit, the style is colloquial, and the sentiments are obscene…. The fact of its publication is a discredit on Bengali literature and the taste of the native reading public…. It is devoutly to be wished that some means were available for putting a stop to the threatened publication of more trash like this in a second volume.

The message is clear enough, but it is also puzzling. The implicit readers of column sixteen were the masters of India. They needed to be informed about the literature pouring from the presses in a bewildering variety of languages. But why did the Raj content itself with accumulating knowledge? Why did it not repress the books that men like Lawler would cheerfully have burned? Can the cataloging be considered as a kind of censorship? Evidently not, at least not the direct, prepublication kind such as that of eighteenth-century France. But the story of imperialism and native literatures involves much more than repression. One cannot make sense of it without considering the peculiar character of the book and of the Raj in nineteenth-century India.

The printed book in India was both very old and very new when the governor-general tried to bring it under his control by the Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867. Printing had existed on the subcontinent since 1556. But it remained confined to tiny enclaves of missionaries scattered along the coasts, and the total number of publications, including pamphlets and news sheets, came to fewer than two thousand titles by 1800. The printed book did not penetrate deeply into Indian society until the second half of the nineteenth century, and even then it faced formidable obstacles: mass illiteracy and dozens of mutually incomprehensible languages.

The act of 1867 was but one of several attempts to restore order in a world still shaking from the after-shocks of the Sepoy Mutiny and peasant uprisings of 1857–1858. The mutiny—or the First War of Independence, as some Indians prefer to call it—had exposed the fragility of the British hold on power. Regions larger than England had risen in revolt. Although the native soldiers had remained loyal throughout most of the subcontinent, the sepoys of the Raj’s heartland, the territories from Delhi to Calcutta, had shown that they could not be trusted, and, equally disturbing, that they had not been understood. Who would have thought that the introduction of a new rifle, the breechloading Enfield, would have provided the spark for the conflagration? In order to load it, the soldiers had to bite off the tips of the cartridges; and that, to them, was unthinkable, because the cartridges were said to be sealed with the fat of pigs and the grease of cows, making them an abomination to Muslims and Hindus alike.

When the British inspected the devastation produced by the revolt, they began to measure the cultural distance that separated them from the natives and to shift to a new form of imperialism, one that would combine an increase of knowledge with an expansion of power and that would be fundamentally liberal. Parliament abolished the East India Company in 1858, brought India under the direct rule of the Crown, and governed through an administration that depended on modern modes of information-gathering—that is, on an endless flow of words on paper.

The Indian Civil Service, recruited since 1853 by means of competitive examination, produced reports on everything under the subcontinental sun. Everything was surveyed, mapped, classified, and counted, including human beings, who appeared in the first Indian census in 1872, divided neatly into castes, subcastes, and a dozen other categories determined by the columns of a printed form. The catalogs of books belonged to the same effort to catalog everything. They were in effect a census of Indian literature as the imperial authorities understood it. But I’d prefer to concentrate on the literary qualities of the reports, that is, on what could be called the discourse on literature among the imperialist authorities.

Foucault’s formula equating knowledge with power fits the later phase of British rule in India and helps to explain the catalog of books, but it is far too facile. Many rulers genuinely cared for the welfare of the “natives” and truly believed in the liberal principle of promoting happiness. In fact, the father and grandfather of liberalism, John Stuart Mill and James Mill, developed that principle into a philosophy while working for the East India Company. J.S. Mill’s testimony about the company to the House of Lords in 1852 anticipated his manifesto of liberalism, On Liberty. And the ultimate liberal, John Morley, tried to translate that philosophy into government policy fifty years later while serving as secretary of state for India. Thanks to the educational system inspired by Macaulay, an Indian elite, trained in English, developed a modern literature marked by Western as well as Eastern traditions (for example, the movement now celebrated as the “Bengal Renaissance”) and also flooded the lower ranks of the British bureaucracy. These “Babus,” as they were called, sometimes with respect, sometimes with derision, filled in the forms and drafted the reports that shaped the Raj’s understanding of itself. That was a complex process, visited on the Indians by the British and executed in large part by the Indians themselves, and there is no better site on which to study its elaboration than column sixteen of the Raj’s catalogs of books.

Column sixteen was not added to the standard form until August 1871; and the first librarians to use it kept their comments to a minimum, though they did not hesitate to pass judgment on the books they registered: “miscellaneous songs, chiefly of a filthy character”; “a Hindu mythological tale. The filthiest poetical effusion imaginable”; “pieces of poetry on different subjects, professedly written for, but not at all suited to boys.”

After this initial stage of culture shock, the confrontation of the Victorian with the Bengali imagination in column sixteen produced increasingly complicated reactions, and the “remarks” grew apace. Soon they spilled over the neatly ruled lines between the columns, invading the neighboring space, running across the page, and filling the whole sheet with a flood of words. By 1875, column sixteen began to read like the column of a journal, and the remarks turned into reviews. After 1879, when Chunder Nath Bose succeeded William Lawler, the catalog was compiled by Indians. But the tone of the remarks remained essentially the same, though the Babu librarians seemed to be less obsessed with sex and more concerned with philological correctness. When they detected signs of restiveness among the “natives,” they sounded just as concerned or indignant as their British predeces-sors. Bose deplored a Bengali novel, Surendra-Binodini Natak, because “the story of love is mixed up with another story, the object of which seems to be to excite in the native mind a strong hatred for English rule and the English character. There are passages in which the author’s language becomes almost seditious.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print