A literary treasure hunt

A new project to digitize all Bengali books till 1914 leads Abhijit Gupta to Rev James Long’s little black book, which lists everything published in the language, from scholarly to erotic works

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Last month, some of us descended, Dante-like, into the lowest circles of the British Library’s stacks. In the freezing cold of the manuscript pens, we saw row after row of bound volumes, or torn papyri pressed within glass, ranging from seventh century Arabic passports to 17th century Bengali manuscripts. There were photographs, letters, memoirs, hunting records and a hitherto undiscovered translation of the Mahabharat. And somewhere among the miles and miles of shelves sat a slim volume bound in black, in the hand of the Rev. James Long, who has appeared earlier in this column as the unlikely hero of the indigo disturbances of the 1860s.

In the 1850s, before he had begun to interest himself in the indigo question, Long had begun to carry out a systematic census of the Bengali book trade. From the middle of the decade, he began to publish the lists. The crown of his achievement was A Descriptive Catalogue Of Bengali Works, an exhaustive list of “fourteen hundred books and pamphlets” which “have issued from the press in the last sixty years”. Based primarily on the collection of the philanthropist Jaykrishna Mukhopadhyay (which became the Uttarpara Jaykrishna Public Library), it was also remarkable for being the first attempt to classify Bengali works according to genre.

The black volume in the British Library stacks contained Long’s handwritten notes for what would eventually be published as the Descriptive Catalogue, printed by Sanders, Cones & Co. of 65, Cossitollah. For over a hundred pages, Long ranged alphabetically over genres beginning with “Almanac, Arithmetic, Biography, Dictionary”, and ending with “Vaishnav Works, Vedantic Works”. There were occasions when Long, as a man of cloth, disapproved strongly of the material. He was scathing when it came to “Popular Songs”: “Bengali songs do not inculcate the love of wine, or like the Scotch, the love of war, but are devoted to Venus and the popular deities; they are filthy and polluting: of these the best known are the panchalis, which are sung at festivals and sold in numerous editions and by the thousand; ...some on good paper, well got up, others on the refuse of old canvas bags.” In other words, good old pulp fiction. The next paragraph is devoted to jatras: “The Yatras are a species of dramatic action, filthy in the same style with the exhibition of Punch And Judy, or of the Penny theatres in London, treating of the licentiousness or the amours of Krishna.”

In the final paragraph, Long writes: “On erotic subjects there are various books which have passed through many editions in prose and poetry, and have a wide circulation....” He then proceeds to give a cursory list of 30-odd titles—in complete contrast to his highly detailed bibliographical descriptions in the rest of the catalogue—and ends with the crushing comment: “These works are beastly, equal to the worst of the French school.” A few years later, he would be instrumental in playing a leading role in pushing through legislation which made the sale of obscene books and prints in Bengal punishable.

Long would produce seven such bibliographies, beginning in 1853 and ending with the 1867 list of Bengali books for the Paris Exhibition. He seems to have been an unofficial clearing house for pretty much everything that was printed in British India. From this he could make a selection and forward to the library of the Court of Directors, or to the Bodleian at Oxford. He would write: “Here is an illustration: these two Vernacular books were sent to me a few days ago from Benares—one Robinson Crusoe in Hindi, the other a Choral Book in Urdu. Almost every week I receive new Vernacular Books, and I make a point of bringing them to the notice of Europeans on various grounds.”

Now, a century and a half later, a brand new digitization project has begun, aiming to make all Bengali printed books till 1914 freely available online. As we chase elusive volumes across continents, Long’s little black book acts as our guide to the underworld, not of lost souls, but of all sorts of books.

Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is the director, Jadavpur University Press.

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