Eager to resume research from where I left off on Saturday, I arrived at the British Library bright and early at 9 am on Monday morning. However, it didn’t open until 9:30, so grabbed some Vanilla Roobois Tea with Soy Milk at the Last Word cafe in front of library. It was kind of fun watching the queue form of other researchers/writers ready to start their work.
Once opened, we locked up our bags in the locker room and I proceeded to the Asian and African Studies room with my clear plastic bag, only to discover on Mondays, this reading room doesn’t open until 10. (9:30 am the rest of the week). Took the extra minutes to peer down from the top floor, and also do a bit of wandering around. I discovered a Map room that I hope to further explore.
When the Asian and African Studies reading room finally opened, I had a chance to meet Margaret Makepeace, the Lead Curator of East India Company records, who I had connected with over twitter @UntoldLives. [Check out the Untold Lives Blog] She introduced me to John O’Brien, Curator of Post 1858 India Office Records, who had been of great help to me via email preparing for this trip. It was nice to finally meet in person and discuss my project.
I then got straight to work. During the early part of this week, I was largely been going through the yearly “Civil Lists,” where I had first located my grandfather’s name. These volumes are broken into quarters for each year. There is an index buried toward the end of each quarter, so I can look up “Narayanan” and find the listing of my grandfather, though the correct page number is not always provided. I’ve found that his name can be listed in several locations 1) Under Burma Engineering Service 2) Under the Geographic Division where he was stationed 3) Under Officers on Leave, if he had taken any leave.
I’m slowly making my way through his entire service record, compiling notes in a massive spreadsheet, tracking changes over time. I’m learning all the places he was posted, sometimes what project he was working on (i.e. lighthouses) changes in his salary, when he passed his Hindustani exam and received an ( h.) next to his name, when he passed his Burmese exam and received and (h.) ( b.) next to his name. I am grateful for each tiny fragment I am learning.
Equally as interesting is what is not contained in these records. I learned that from July 1929- August 1930, my grandfather took a 13 month leave of absence. Part of it was paid (A.P.- Average Pay), then H.P. (half pay), then unpaid. There were other leaves noted during his service, but none of this length. What did he do? Where did he go?
My father told me that my grandfather met Gandhi in Burma and that is when he decided to quit the British, give up his worldly possessions, and move to India to join the Freedom Movement. Gandhi visited Burma in March of 1929. At that time, my grandfather’s record said he was stationed in Rangoon “On Foreign Service under the Governing Body of the University College, Rgn.” Did he hear Gandhi speak at the University? Was my grandfather’s leave of absence influenced by this visit?
He returned to his post in 1930. Then in the first quarter of 1934, he is listed on leave until February 17 1934. The abbreviation “P.R.” is noted in the remarks. (Permitted to Resign) I am wondering if I can locate a copy of this resignation letter. A document that signifies his shift from engineer to activist; from civil servant to freedom fighter.
I am almost done making may way through these lists and envision converting my spreadsheet into a detailed timeline and map, marking his time and work in Toungoo, Rangoon, Akyab, Nyaunglebi, Palaw, Tavoy, Myitkyina, Tadagale Katha and Shwebo. I’m also pouring over scholarly records of this time period about Indians in Burma, about Gandhi’s speeches, about lighthouses, etc. to add more context.
I’m slowly settling into a routine here. The morning hours are spent reviewing the files requested the previous day. Then I’ll request more volumes and break to find vegan eats for lunch. (So far have tried vietnamese at Sen Viet, Naked Avocado Sandwiches at Pret A Manger, and assorted vegan eats at Planet Organic, and our favorite lunch spot to date the Mary Ward Center Cafe). The afternoon is spent pouring through the volumes requested in the morning, requesting records for the next day, and making request for photocopies before the copy guy cashes out at 4:30pm. I hope one day soon they’ll realize that digital photographs and portable wand scanners would allow for more efficient, convenient, cheaper, and safer copying of these records.
Time moves at a much slower pace here. Since the records have not been digitized (not even the catalogue), navigating the archives is a tedious, manual process of trial and error. I’ve been making small discoveries along the way. Working at this pace, makes each one feel like a big discovery. With each tidbit I learn, a narrative is slowly forming, yet more mysteries are presenting themselves. As I go through each year of record , I make note of all the new questions that arise, establishing the framework for the next set of research queries. Toward the end of the week, the slowness is starting to lose its charm. Anxious about my upcoming departure from London in a few days, I’ve returned to my New York state of mind. But I’m grateful to know that for now the India Office of the British Library is where I need to be for all the hours it remains available.
Each day before I return to the library, I say hello to the sculpture of Newton situated out front. Hi Newton. Like many of us here, he is hunched over, examining fragments, working toward understanding.
Read other posts from the British Library:
Dispatches from London: An Introduction to the British Library.
Deciphering Place in Numbers- A Rosetta Stone in Annual Budget Reports
Many thanks to the Jerome Foundation for a Literature Travel Grant to support this research.