Raj as life, bytes and pieces of India all come together
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Raj as life, bytes and pieces of India all come together

SOME old India hands were sitting in a cafe in Oxford in 2005, across from the university, marvelling at the news they had just heard. China had marshalled 4000 pages of digital archives chronicling important events and trends of its past.

Anyone working on Chinese studies now had instant access to a treasure trove of rare documents. ''Wow,'' the academics exclaimed in unison. ''Why can't India do the same thing on its colonial and post-colonial history.''

Any academic or researcher on India or south Asia who wants to ferret out documents, magazines or rare books has to arrange funding, fly thousands of kilometres to India, pay for a hotel and then toil through archives, often in remote places.

''The process is slow and expensive, that's why we decided to create a unique digital south Asia archive,'' said Boria Majumdar, one of the academics in the group and now adjunct professor at Monash University. He is also principal trustee of the South Asia Research Foundation.

He and his wife, Sharmistha Gooptu, also an academic, set to work.

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''Frankly, when we started, we had no idea what material we were looking for,'' says Professor Majumdar. ''All we knew was that we had to revolutionise the study of India.''

They groped around blindly at first, raiding the homes of private collectors and scouring rare book shops. Their first purchases, for about $4000, were from a rare book dealer in Calcutta, who instructed his ''peon'' (office boy) to show them around and ''take them to the bathroom''.

There they found brick shelves reaching to the ceiling, packed with documents, magazines and pamphlets, Professor Majumdar recalled.

''In the Calcutta heat, with no fans, we sat for days sifting through the fantastic information,'' he said. Over seven years, they discovered and collected a wealth of literary material. A British publisher, Routledge, funded digitisation of the lot.

The Routledge South Asia Archive, to be launched next week, comprises 5 million pages of journals, books, census reports, laws and regulations, travelogues and reports from the mid-18th century to 1950. It was also an act of rescue. In the monsoons, the couple would wade through flooded streets to reach a place someone had suggested, only to find the documents wet through.

''In India, there is little appreciation of the need to preserve history,'' Professor Majumdar said.

''No one cares that the tropical climate and humidity can ruin paper. We had to dry sodden documents. Some needed pest-control treatment.''

The same lack of a sense of history can be seen all over India. Centuries-old monuments are in ruins, or used as rubbish dumps or cattle sheds.

Space is also at a premium. The wives of collectors, sick of cluttered homes, would welcome them with: ''Please come in and take it all away.''

Bit by bit, after the initial confusion, the archive assumed a distinct shape in their minds. They knew what they were looking for. And they were stunned at the range and quantity of the material they found.

There were reports by civil servants minutely detailing everything under the British: population figures, cholera deaths, how many public latrines were to be found in Bombay, and how much fish rotted in Calcutta on a given day.

A former La Trobe University chancellor, Brian Stoddart, said the archive gave access to ''a huge array'' of important materials. ''The benefits will be enormous and will grow even more over time,'' he said.

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