A paean to archivists worldwide


Yesterday an old friend, Jael Silliman, someone I grew up with, posted an article about the disappearing Jewish community of Kolkata. [If you get the chance, you should read The Man With Many Hats, which she published last year. Powerful.] Our families were neighbours through the late 196os and throughout the 1970s, and in those days it was normal and civil for people to know their neighbours and be friends with them, even in big cities.  Jael’s sister was my first-ever girlfriend, and we still keep in touch, our families meet.

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When I read Jael’s article, it took me back years, to a time I still think of as magical. The photographs above, taken from the article, represented people I knew, people I’d known since childhood. In fact Jael’s mother was the first adult to confer upon me the right to call her by her first name, something I found hard to do given my upbringing and conditioning. So Auntie Flower she remained and remains to this day.

The Calcutta I grew up in was as secular as I can imagine secular to be, a society where we weren’t just tolerant of others’ beliefs, we celebrated with one and all. At home and at school, a person’s faith was not an issue. We recognised that people of different faiths had different cultures, languages, diets and festivals. And we celebrated with one and all.

We understood when someone had come of age, and completed the requisite rituals. We knew the badges and tokens that signalled those rites of passage. We knew what it meant if one day your teenage classmate came to school with a shaven head, and offered our condolences in classic abrupt-yet-authentic schoolboy style.

Maybe I saw things from a narrow elitist point of view then: after all, I was part of an English-speaking family, at least two of my grandparents had graduated from university, I lived in fashionable “central” south Calcutta and went to a fee-paying Jesuit school and college. But from what I can remember, the tolerance I remember wasn’t born of relative affluence. Everybody celebrated Burra Din, it was a “great day” for all regardless of your beliefs or culture; everyone knew their Navroz from their Hannukah, their Navjote from their Bar Mitzvah. Everyone knew when it was Ramzan, when it was Id. [At school, this really mattered. Some of our best sportsmen were Muslims, and when Ramzan cut across the football season, some of our best players couldn’t play. Yup, Jesuit schools had Muslim students. And Hindus. And Parsees. And Sikhs. And everyone else.]

The “catholic boys” would have their First Communion and the Brahmin Hindus would have their Poitay, and both were treated with the deference and dismissiveness of youth. That went for all faiths, for all rites of passage. Respect the ritual and then move on.

Except for the food.

We never forgot the food.

Every rite, every ritual, every festival, every cause for religious celebration, meant an invitation. An invitation for everyone. Of course there were some closed areas, some holy-of-holies, some places you could not go. Of course there were things you couldn’t partake of, and others you wouldn’t partake of. People who ate beef spent time with those who worshipped sacred cows, without sense of conflict or tension or even hypocrisy. People who worshipped fire  and whose dead were placed in towers enjoyed the company of people who cremated their dead along with those who buried them underground.

Biryani and boti kabab, dhaba murgh and dhansak, dosas and idlis, coexisted peacefully with marcher jhol and sandesh and rossogolla.

We never forgot the food. Priorities.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Archives.

Jael has been spending time building momentum and support for collecting and making available archives to do with Calcutta Jews, and I was delighted to see how that’s been developing. Take a look at Recalling Jewish Calcutta and you will see what I mean. Incidentally, if you do spend time with those archives, make sure you watch the video of Flower Silliman explaining how to cook Aloo Makala. I will never forget the first Friday night I was invited to join the Sillimans (who lived two floors down from us) for Shabbat, and I was introduced to the dish. Heaven. You don’t know what I’m talking about until you’ve tasted Flower’s Aloo Makala.

There’s enough evidence to suggest that we human beings are born storytellers; even in my generation we had stories that were passed on through the ages by people who knew how to tell the stories, accompanied by people who knew how to listen to the stories. Telling and listening, two sides of the same action. Every good storyteller is a good storylistener, that’s how good storytellers are made, in the same way that every good teacher is a good learner. Learning and teaching, again two sides of the same coin. You can’t be good at one without being good at the other.

Of late, you can’t go anywhere without being told about the importance of narrative, of the stories. Not surprising, because we spent time, decades, in a broadcast age where the interactivity of storytelling was broken. [The same thing happened with education, and I wouldn’t argue with the hypothesis that many other forms of discourse and engagement, like government, got broken similarly].

So it appears we’ve rediscovered the importance of storytelling, even if we still have some way to go to rediscover the skill and the art of telling/listening. But it will happen.

And when it happens, it will happen in new and magical ways, because we’ve discovered the ability to persist our stories and to make them available easily and cheaply. Vorsprung durch technik.

So when I see the efforts that people like Jael make on building these archives, I want to help, and I want to make sure that others who feel similarly can help as well. Expect to see a coda to this post explaining how to donate to this and similar archival causes.

Incidentally, the kind of internet and the kind of web conceived by people like the ones below was founded on principles of freedom, of democratisation and affordable access. [Three of my all-time heroes: Tim Berners-Lee, John Perry Barlow, Vint Cerf, all in one photograph, what more could I ask? ]

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Archives aren’t just about preserving our past, our roots, our stories, our heredity; they form part of the fabric of our present and our future, and today we have the ability to augment our storytelling and our story listening with web-based archives. Augment, not replace. Augment.

[Incidentally, my first foray into the Internet Archive was when I was hunting for something specific. Grateful Dead music. John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was one of the first documents I read that made me begin to understand what the two other people in the photograph above had wrought, with the help of many others].

I’ve been researching my own roots using the web, and for some years now I’ve been Reconstructing My Grandfather; I never really knew him, and I feel I will understand my father better by getting to know his father, albeit while remote in time and space. I recognise it’s a real privilege for me to be able to do that, a privilege made possible by the internet and the web. And by archivists. Worldwide.

We may not listen to archivists, we may not think they speak, but the archivists are some of the key storytellers of our age.

Talking about stories. I saw this via the BBC early this morning. I’ve been following Matthew Teller’s Tales From The India Office for a little while now, and really enjoying it. It’s an amazing set of stories, and just think of the convoluted route by which they got to me. Online via the BBC, informing me about a ten-year partnership (of working on archives) between the British Library, the Qatar National Library and the Qatar Foundation. Go figure.

In the past, history may have been written by winners. History today is being written by participants and made available by archivists. Storytellers.

I just loved the story of the Official Who Put “Love To Patrick” In Letters To His Boss. The obituary extract of this official’s predecessor is itself spellbinding:



This morning, as I read about Love To Patrick, my brain was still jangling with what Jael had written about. So on a whim I searched the British Library/Qatar archives for “Calcutta”.

And, amongst many other things, this is what I found:

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Full circle. The Basra Date Palm. Requested for the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. Basra, whence Jael and her antecedents came to Calcutta in the first place. It may even be that the person who sent the plants later decided to follow those plants eastwards.

One day we will find out what happened. One day we will find out who Patrick was. One day I will know more about my grandfather and my father.

One day. Because of the passion of archivists. And because of the vision of people like Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, John Perry Barlow, amongst many others.

Archivists, wherever you are, I salute you. Thank you for all that you do.

Let me know what you think

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