Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The Scottish surgeon who “discovered” Hindoostanee

You don’t see endpapers much nowadays, but if you have older books at home, especially hardbacks, you might still see a stiff sheet of paper pasted at the beginning and end of the book. One half of it is pasted against the inside cover (both front and back) while the other half forms the first free page of the book. More often than not, the paper would have a swirly design, technically known as “marbled", feature a motif, or even depict characters from the book, as is the case with the hardcover Tintin comics.

As a relic of a bygone age and yet not totally obsolete, the endpaper seems an apt title for a column which will be a kind of bibliographical time-machine, a scooper-up of books falling through the cracks of history. Post-Google Books, such a scenario might seem fanciful. Nevertheless, the cracks of history have chiefly disgorged books in Roman script; non-Roman, especially Indic, continue to be in free fall, soon to pass beyond the reach of any archaeological tool.

The bewildering diversity of Indic scripts was one of the things which confusticated British colonialists. For some, there was a simple solution: Romanize all Indian scripts! Such was the prescription of a Scottish surgeon, John Borthwick Gilchrist, who arrived in Calcutta in 1783 as part of the East India Company’s medical corps. A keen student of north Indian languages, the good doctor was invited to teach Hindusthani and Persian at Fort William College, set up in 1800 by the British to train their future cadre. Gilchrist was by then famous for A Grammar Of The Hindoostanee Language, published in 1796 by Chronicle Press of Calcutta.

It was Gilchrist who literally “discovered" the language called Hindusthani (or Urdu, as it was then called) and came to the conclusion that “it was a unified language that had three major dialects, which could be distinguished by the extent to which they used Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, or ordinary Hindi words". Gilchrist also had his own press, Hindoostanee Press, from which flowed a stream of college textbooks in Urdu, Arabic and Persian.

But it was the less known Hurkaru Office that published Gilchrist’s most curious work, The Oriental Fabulist, Or Polyglot Translations Of Esop’s And Other Ancient Fables, in 1803. As the title page makes clear, the translations were all printed in Roman script. This ambitious attempt to render Aesop’s fables into Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Braj Bhasa, Sanskrit and Bengali had a two-fold aim: first, to acquaint the would-be scholar-administrator with an overview of the major languages of India, and the kinships between Urdu, Persian, and Arabic on one hand, and Sanskrit, Bengali and Braj on the other. Second, Gilchrist was keen to propose a system of transliterating these languages into the Roman script, on grounds of utility and ease of use. In the preface, he wrote: “There are not wanting some very warm advocates, even among expert orientalists, for an exclusive adoption of the Roman letters in all Hindoostanee publications, intended expressly for beginners or for Military men and others."

Towards the end of the preface, Gilchrist mentions the names of his fellow-translators, one of the first occasions in which the role of the “learned natives" is explicitly acknowledged. They were “Tarnee Churn Mitr, Bengali, Persian and Hindoostanee. Meer Buhadoor Ulee, Persian and Hindoostanee. Meer Sher Ulee Afsos, Persian and Hindoostanee. Mouluwee Umanut Oollah, Arabic and Persian. Sudul Mitr, Sunskrit. Sree Lal Kub, Bhakha, Ghoolam Ushruf, Persian." Together, the team accounted for 54 of Aesop’s fables, each of which was presented in six languages: English, Hindoostanee, Farsee, Bhakha, Bongla and Sunskrit, to use Gilchrist’s own spellings.

In 1804, Gilchrist returned to his pet theme of Romanizing in The Hindee-Roman Orthoepigraphical Ultimatum, in which an Urdu translation of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit play Shakuntala was rendered in Roman script largely through the labours of the head munshi Tarinicharan Mitra. But in the same year, his declining health forced him to return to Scotland. William Hunter, another Scottish surgeon, who had co-founded the press along with Gilchrist, now became sole proprietor (his assistant in the Hindoostanee department was John Leyden, yet another Scottish surgeon!). Unfortunately, both Leyden and Hunter would perish in Minto’s expedition to Java in 1811-12, thereby severely depleting the Hindusthani department.

Gilchrist, on the other hand, lived a thoroughly eccentric and quarrelsome post-retirement life in Edinburgh till 1841. According to the Dictionary Of National Biography, “his fiery temperament, violent politics, which savoured strongly of republicanism, and no less violent language, appear to have considerably astonished his fellow-citizens, especially at civic meetings". He also set up an aviary of Indian birds and started a bank, but both enterprises, much like his Romanizing project, eventually came to grief.

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

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

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