Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Kolkata chromosome: Bibliophilia from a lost age

A decade after India’s first camera manufacturing factory formally closed down, the third-floor library area at National Instruments Ltd (NIL) in Kolkata lies buried under dust and soot. Official letters and documents are strewn on the steps leading to it; optical equipment and computers sit idle in the factory’s gargantuan halls; and the glass jars in the laboratories still have the fetid whiff of chemicals.

The factory, set up in 1957, had an eye on the future with its National 35mm range of film cameras, and its work on India’s first SLR camera. Today, it is a study in anachronism—floppy discs, manual typewriters and four-blade fans speak of its vintage.

The books in the library, however, have outlasted technology.

The recent discovery of the library by the authorities of Jadavpur University (JU), which had been given the 10-acre factory for its campus expansion in 2009, is being seen as a veritable gold mine. The 6,000-odd books retrieved by the university’s English department cover genres as disparate as the writings of V. Lenin, unauthorized translations of English detective novels, children’s literature, pulp and literary novels, religious texts, travelogues, poetry and horror, even stories where ghosts have a fondness for chow mein. They have opened up avenues for a critical study of literary tastes, publishing and translations, not to mention the operation of a library for workers in a factory environment.

Some of the pages retrieved
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Some of the pages retrieved

While most are Bengali titles, there is a smattering of Urdu and English literature as well. There are two prominent genres in the collection: detective stories/ sensational literature and political writings, especially of Leftist orientation, in keeping with the nature of industry in Bengal, says Gupta. In its prime, NIL had an employee strength of around 5,000; going by the library documents retrieved, a sizeable percentage were library card-holders.

Library members not only borrowed translations of English pulp and detective fiction, but also classic and contemporary Bengali literature. The popularity of authors is reflected in the number of their books in the library.

The library catalogues indicate that James Hadley Chase (86 titles), Agatha Christie (42) and Ian Fleming (15) were among the popular English writers “though, most of these translations being unauthorized, there is a literary subgenre waiting to be explored," says Gupta, who has himself co-edited Print Areas and Moveable Type, both part of a Book History In India series.

Established authors like Hemendra Kumar Roy (85 titles), Goutam Ray (82), Gajendra Kumar Mitra (80), Sanku Maharaj (29), Buddhadeb Bose (23 titles), Syed Mujtaba Ali (20), Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (17) and Satyajit Ray (13) were widely read. So were genres as distinct as travel literature, which had a separate catalogue of 336 titles.

Two wooden almirahs at the NIL library were labelled “detective".

“While on the one hand you had the gulags and sweatshops in China, where workers weren’t allowed toilet breaks, at NIL, the management had separate funding for a library where workers took time off to read," says Gupta.

A corridor leading to the library
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A corridor leading to the library

That the decline in reading habits of employees is directly proportional to the upsurge in entertainment options is clear from the experience of the employees’ library at the main office of the Life Insurance Corp. in Kolkata, which has a collection of around 20,000 books. Sunil Dhar, a retired higher grade assistant who was the primary mover behind the establishment of the library in the mid-1980s, saw book lending decline by a fourth every decade as newer forms of entertainment emerged. “In recent years, I found a lot of employees visiting the library only to read newspapers and journals in the reading room," says Dhar.

Two years ago, Prof. Swapan Chakravorty, former director general of the National Library, of India, told Mint Lounge that Bengal was “beehived with libraries, where every locality has a public library with voluntary services, and Kolkata has a very good reading culture". Gupta, however, believes Kolkata is now in the “post traditional library age".

For the academician and researcher, the NIL treasure trove is valuable not only for the books but also for the catalogues, as well as book-lending, buying and subscription records. These, he says, will help in constructing the identity of readers. Gupta, who has also salvaged rare long-playing records, cameras and flash cards, plans to apply for a grant to facilitate work on the material and find answers to some nagging questions.

For instance, library cards have stamps of “NIL Clerical Staff Recreation Club", “NIL Staff Recreation Club" and “NIL Labour Welfare Library". Did the library lend according to hierarchy? Were different books slotted for different categories of workers? Did the vast collection of political books perpetuate a certain kind of political thinking? Did the assortment of travelogues reflect the Bengali propensity for travel?

What there is no ambiguity about are dedications such as the one found on a thin Bengali paperback: “Dedicated to those who are not moneyed," it states bluntly.

A library record, damaged by silverfish, is headlined: “List of books borrowed long ago but not yet returned". The membership card of Gourchandra Das from 1957 bears a stern warning alongside the name of a book: “Lost, reported to secretary".

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