On 29 March 2017 a group of UG1s found themselves at the National Library browsing through personal letters, early printed books and exquisite manuscripts. Agni, Sreemoyee, Ayantika, Sambuddha and Shohini share their experience. The Department wishes to thank the NL authorities whose enthusiastic support is making the series of guided tours possible.
An AC1 deposited thirteen odd first year undergraduates at the Hazra crossing under a notoriously bright Kolkata summer sun. Chasing one another through Alipore traffic in four autorickshaws, we weren’t quite sure of what to expect at the end of the road.
Despite living in Kolkata for the major portion of our short uninspired lives, we were as close to being oblivious to the ins-and-outs of the National Library as the ghosts that are said to loiter in its premises before we were dragged by the ears to acknowledge the existence of an inexhaustible degree of literary heritage and resources.
An expanse of well-maintained green dotted with the infamous and grotesque National Library garbage cans, humongous unruly trees, and straight well-behaved shrubs welcomed us. Our sentry was a grayish squirrel which strayed onto the pavement in front of us before scrambling away; and a few dogs who padded over to us in search of biscuits and love. On one hand stood a white marble edifice of British architecture, an ugly brown scaffolding pretending to be its exoskeleton while on the other side stood a concrete and glass mixed-bag building that one could mistake for a multi-corporation’s over-artistic nest.
Teeming with exuberance, we climbed a set of black marble staircases plastered with warnings about their propensity to cause fractures when not dry and burst into a stuffy ballroom smelling of pigeons and secrets.
The underground mystery room reminded us of Harry Potter’s journey with Hagrid to his safe at Gringotts. The room was opened and we lined up to see rare books, manuscripts, and maps we would not forget for years to come.
The next one hour was a jumbled rush of wonder and information, and even after hours of consultation while composing this article we couldn’t figure out the actual order in which we saw the rare books, comprising limited and first edition books distinguished by their design, illustration, and history.
Among the many hidden treasures we saw the earliest forms of prints and original written manuscripts preserved over time. In the tour we were accompanied by an over-enthusiastic and officious gentleman who imposed two questions repeatedly: a) How old is this book? (Yeh kitna saal purana hai); and b) What material is this made of? (Yeh kis material se bana huya hain?) with persistent jabs at the rare books with his fingers while we exchanged glances. Then he lamented the general decline of handwriting in our fallen age. It was a little unfair to us, we thought, because he compared this generation’s handwriting to those of century old texts written by professionals!
We saw books that dated back to the 13th Century; books as heavy as 30 kilograms that required at least three people to pull it out of the shelf; a book published for Rabindranath Tagore, The Golden Book of Tagore, as a tribute to the bard on his 70th birthday edited by Ramananda Chatterjee with an introduction handwritten by Tagore; Persian books with intricate calligraphy on gold; books printed on vellum–unborn calf leather–and Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts.
Our guide had the kindness to introduce us to letters written by Subhash Chandra Bose while he was in jail, handwritten manuscripts of authors like Sarat Chandra Bose, Sarojini Naidu, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and other writers we have read and admired. We also saw the original hand-drawn map of the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Kandhar, and the landscape of the city of Lahore–as detailed as it was panoramic.
There was also a remarkable dictionary of the English language measuring 1 inch by 1.5 inch, with an engraving of the venerable Doctor Johnson on the endpaper, printed in Glasgow. It came inside a locket, one side of which was a magnifying glass, through which one could consult the dictionary in times of dire need–provided they could remember where they last put it!
While Prof. Abhijit Gupta introduced us to the art of lithography and other intricacies of print culture, Sujaan explained how using reprography–a form of storage on tape–one can preserve and access newspapers dating back to as early as the 18th century.
The faint hint of the sunset through National Library’s cascade windows announced the end of the tour. While only four of us returned with our memberships, all of us were ready to bring home an experience that had had a profound impact on us and the way we perceived Kolkata, books, and the art of books.