Four centuries in its corners9 min read . Updated: 26 Aug 2010, 10:10 PM IST
Four centuries in its corners
One day, around two years ago, a Sikh man walked into the research room at the National Archives of India in New Delhi. He sought out Jaya Ravindran, an archivist, and told her everything he knew about his paternal grandfather.
The gentleman hoped to persuade Ravindran to go on a historical wild-goose chase through the National Archives’ holdings.
Ravindran spends most working days in her office inside the research room in the National Archives’ annexe building. Situated in a little, rectangular, walled-off portion at one end of the research room, Ravindran’s office is furnished in a style that can only be called “post-liberalization government of India". It is a melange of aluminium and formica and plastic, with files arranged in neat piles on the desk. There is a computer to one side, and beneath its monitor, there are some pictures of the Gilgit manuscripts from Kashmir.
“I am working on a brochure about the manuscripts," Ravindran says. “They are also the oldest objects currently in the National Archives." Ravindran, dressed in a blue sari and matching blouse, has the instant warmth of someone eager to answer questions and the frankness of someone who knows most of the answers.
The Sikh gentleman’s problem was simple enough. But its resolution was not. Ravindran remembers: “He said that his grandfather had gone to Japan to set up a business before World War II. The grandson did not have any documentary records, but he said that the man probably had a big establishment with several businesses."
The only information his descendants were sure of was that the man was based in Kobe, the city famously devastated by an earthquake in 1995.
Previous queries to the ministry of external affairs and the Indian embassy in Japan had proved fruitless. And the Japanese government had no clue either, especially since many records had been lost in the turmoil after defeat in World War II, and then the earthquake.
However, the Japanese promised to compensate descendants in India if they could unearth any address for his property in Kobe. Now, the desperate grandson wanted Ravindran to scour the National Archives for some clue.
The National Archives has a regular series of records going back to the earliest correspondence of the East India Company in India, dating from 1748 (this is not to say that it doesn’t have older records. The collections include Mughal farmans and the Gilgit manuscripts that are around 17 centuries old. But the timelines for those are sporadic and the chronology incomplete).
If there was one organization that was obsessive about writing and recording letters it was the Company. “The East India Company had to report everything back to London, and then ask permission for every small thing. Sometimes, it would take months before they would get approvals from the board of directors of the Company in London. So often they would just go ahead with an action in India without waiting for official orders," Ravindran says.
You can fault the Company on many grounds, but an aversion to fastidious record-keeping is not one of them. There are books in the research room, available for browsing, that include everything from 15-page descriptions of military campaigns and embassies to kings and princes, to one-page letters from soldiers requesting leave, or desperate exhortations for new uniforms.
And the Company’s, then the Raj’s, clerks filed away every scrap.
Almost everyone, from William Darlymple to the Sikh gentleman, ends up depending on Ravindran’s instant recall. “Dalrymple used to sit here every day. When his book came out he gave me a free copy!" Ravindran says, chuckling, a hint of a Malayali accent in her voice. She was referring to Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. “Now, he is working on a book about the First Afghan war."
In fact, at least eight books, searchable on Google Books, have author notes thanking Ravindran, and some of her colleagues, by name, for help with research.
Always game for a good manhunt, she was piqued by the “Kobe case". She promised the Sikh she would do her best. “And you won’t believe it, " Ravindran says with obvious glee, “we managed to trace down a letter from his grandfather in Kobe to his father in India that had been routed through the external affairs ministry just before independence."
It is the sort of historical wild-goose chase that Ravindran relishes but finds precious little of. “We are ready to share all information with the public. The archives are for the public only. But very few people come. Sometimes, it can be very disappointing sitting here," Ravindran says.
Apart from the scholars and historians who use the archives as a matter of course, another class of frequent visitors is the diaspora. People of Indian origin (PIO) resident in other countries frequently visit the Archives to trace their roots. Some do it out of curiosity, but many do it in order to get a PIO card from the government. “We have shipping records with us that show which families were sent abroad as indentured labour. To plantations and farms," Ravindran explains.
Yet the general public, even while lapping up books on Indian history by authors such as Dalrymple or Abraham Eraly, seldom visit this mother-lode of facts. Which is a pity. Few government offices are as welcoming as the National Archives. Visitors can use the library and research room without anything more than a gate pass from the main entrance. Ravindran and her colleagues will help you navigate the vast collection of documents, maps and records, but if you want to do any serious study then submit a copy of Form 8 (available on the Internet), along with a copy of some form of identity.
It is always best to approach the Archives staff with a clear information request in mind. Unlike some of the archives abroad, such as the British Library, the National Archives is not suited for browsing. While there is a small museum on the premises, with some interesting displays for casual browsing, to really enjoy the breadth and depth of the collection, one must visit with a clear purpose.
“Whatever you ask, we will find something in our collection," Ravindran says. “But it is unfair to compare us to the British Library and such places. Look at the amount of money they have. We are improving slowly. Our funding is very little." If public awareness increases, she says, then more people will come and eventually funding and development will follow.
The day we spoke to Ravindran the research room and the library were sparsely occupied. There were a few scholars in the research room, many of them equipped with Dell and Apple laptops, iPods, manicures and pedicures. The library had even fewer people, some four or five visitors (in fact, the day before, according to the register at the gate, only a total of 100 people visited the Archives. And this included some labourers and contractors).
Around the table were a few scholars quietly noting down details from dusty old books.
This included a tremendously shy female MPhil student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “I am looking at education in 19th century Punjab," she said over cups of tea in the Archives café, which has just received a new coffee machine (one of the decisions of the new director general).
In the library, Komal (name changed) sat poring over a thick book, as long as a man’s arm and at least a third as heavy as Komal herself. She said it was a copy of the landmark Hunter Commission report of 1884 that looked into the status of education in India. The heavy book with aged brown pages was propped up on a reading board, and Komal was carefully copying passages into a thick A4-sized notebook.
Later, this writer decided to put the friendly National Archives system to the test. Would the archives have any letters from the earliest years of the Raj? Perhaps, something by Robert Clive himself?
Ravindran didn’t even have to turn away from her computer.
Along two opposite sides of the research rooms are long shelves that carry a collection of guides, and printed volumes of popular references. One such collection is a series of volumes of correspondence from Fort William, the Company’s headquarters in Bengal, to East India House, its office in London.
Volume 20 had a first-person description of the Battle of Plassey, written by Clive. It was unlike anything you’d read in a history textbook. And vastly more complex. At one point in the letter, Clive says he asked his soldiers not to raid some villages in order to avoid harm to the native residents.
Clive’s letter ends, typically, with these words: “Filed in triplicate".
From avid history buff to the weekend visitor, the archives have something that will surprise and inform most people. And for a change, this is a public institution that wants to help and share.
It took this writer approximately 5 minutes to be registered as an independent scholar in the research room. If you ask nicely, they will even arrange for the mandatory photocopy of your identity card for you.
Once that is done, with a little help from Ravindran and company, over two centuries of Indian history is yours for the asking. You might even have family in Kobe. Who knows? Maybe someone at the National Archives does.
How to use the Archives
Figure out, with as much accuracy as possible, the location and date of the event, place or data you are researching. The archives hold extensive records for the period between the East India Company’s establishment and independence. In addition, the archives have comprehensive cartographic and survey data. If you know when or where something happened, archivists such as Jaya Ravindran will know how or where to look.
Skim through the Archives’ collection of records and see if you can spot any quick matches. A comprehensive listing can be found on the National Archives website: http://nationalarchives.nic.in. Click on the “Services" link and browse through the “Holdings" section. You might find documents that cover the period you are looking for. Remember to browse through all the collections.
Use the Internet to search for related records. Wikipedia and Google Books can help you unearth names, places and dates related to your query. This will further help the Archives staff.
Visit the Archives. Sign into the register and say you want to visit the research room. At the research room, ask for Ravindran or one of the other archivists. Share your findings and queries with them. In most cases, they will help you skip a few steps and directly find related records.
Next, sign up as a scholar. You might want to sign up as an “Independent Scholar" if you are doing your research for personal use, independent of any organizations or educational institutions. To do this, you need identification, copies of this identification and a filled-in copy of Form 8 (all forms can be downloaded from http://nationalarchives.nic.in/WebContent.aspx?id=15&type=homemore)
Now if all goes well the staff should be able to find documents and you should be able to refer to them. There are certain procedures for using the research room and library. Especially regarding the time slots in which you can request documents, and when you can return to refer. All the details are available on the Archives’ website. But if you have doubts, feel free to ask any of the staff around.