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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.