Of ‘Babus’ and Sipahis: Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters

Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters, published in 1941, is said to be the only world war novel in Indian Writing in English. It is the second part of a trilogy – the other novels being The Village (1936) and The Sword and the Sickle (1942) – depicting the chequered career and life of its central character, Lal Singh or Lalu. In  Across the Black Waters, Lalu is a sipahi in the 69th Rifles. His regiment lands at Marseilles, is transported to Orleans, then to Wulvergham (Wulvergem), near Ypres (the Belgian town which was the site of some of the worst battles), before being deployed in the Battle of Festubert (May 15-15, 1915). While following orders to rush enemy trenches, Lalu receives a bullet in his leg, and is captured by the Germans (this is how the novel ends).

Soldiers of the 15th Sikh Regiment  with locals in Flanders, c. 1915. (Image Source: UKPHA Archive)

Soldiers of the 15th Sikh Regiment with locals in Flanders, c. 1915. (Source: UKPHA Archive)

To Lalu arriving in Marseilles, ‘the quay seemed to be drowned in a strange and incongruous whirlpool: Pathan, Sikhs, Dogras, Gurkhas, Muhammadans in khaki, blue-jacketed French seamen and porters, and English Tommies.’ A European war in an age of formal empires, the Great War inevitably became a global war (the First World War, at it later came to be known), dragging in countries like India. Recent research published on the occasion of the war’s centenary  commemoration has been something of a revelation for those of us  for whom the First World War was the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Wartime photographs in particular, published in books like Vedica Kant’s ‘If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?’: India and the First World War (2014) and made available online by researchers, libraries and archives, show the extent to which non-Europeans were a part of the war. Writing about about this new research in the Guardian, Santanu Das (author of Touch and Intimacy in First Wold War Literature) referred to the problem of constructing a non-European archive of the Great War since few of the one million Indians, or 140,000 Chinese, or 166,000 West Africans who participated left behind dairies and memoirs. ‘In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished.’

'A British soldier overseeing the work of two Indian clerks who are going through the mail. ' (Source: bbc.com)

‘A British soldier overseeing the work of two Indian clerks who are going through the mail.’ (Source: bbc.com)

David Omissi’s Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, published in 1999 and again in 2014, gives us extracts from the thousands of letters written by sipahis in France and England (where the wounded sipahis were hospitalized). These letters (or their extracts and transcripts), which otherwise would have lost to us, have survived in military archives because they wee scrutinized by censors for political references and for damaging and demoralizing comments. The sipahis, aware  that their letters were being read, resorted to using codes – and self-censorship. Also, the sipahis being illiterate, did not themselves write the letters but used  the services of scribes. The letters are thus highly mediated but, despite this limitation, Omissi explains why they are still important. He refers to the problem of writing history ‘from below’ given the absence of material generated by the subaltern classes themselves. ‘The significance of the soldiers’ letters,’ he writes, ‘lies partly in the simple fact of their existence: they allow us to read (admittedly at several removes) the words of the illiterate, and to hear the voices of those who were (at least from the point of view of historical records) normally voiceless.’

An illiterate soldier giving his thumb impression on the pay book. (Source: bbc.com)

An illiterate soldier giving his thumb impression on the pay book. (Source: bbc.com)

Sipahis’ letters may be the closest thing we have to an Indian subaltern record of the First World War but reading them is problematic. As Gajendra Singh writes in Testimonials of the Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars (2014), ‘authorial intent, reception, and meaning are uncertain …[and] any form of “resistance” was rarely overt and involved connection with colonial military discourse.’ He cites a letter written in September 1916 by Jemadar Hasan Shah recounting a fictional meeting with a dying British soldier:

I was on the battlefield accompanied by a sowar, and came upon a wounded British soldier. ‘Well friend,’ I said to him. ‘How are things with you? ‘Quite all right,’ he replied. ‘I am proud I was of service in the fight, but I am thirsty.’ I gave him water to drink and asked if he wanted anything else. ‘I regret nothing,’ he said, ‘except that I shall not meet my sweetheart…4 months ago she wrote and said in the whole world she loved only me and begged me to come to her soon.’ ‘My friend,’ I said to him. ‘May the All Merciful God satisfy the desire of your heart, and unite you with your beloved.’ ‘I am finished,’ he said. ‘And when my end comes, my one regret will be that when my love called to me I was unable to go to her.’ ‘My friend,’ I said, weeping with pity. ‘My condition is the same as yours.’ 

Though the censor may have viewed the letter as reflective of the Indian soldier’s affection for his British counterpart,  ‘the main purpose of the letter, however, seems to have been to use the voice of the British Private to express the fatigue and homesickness that the sipahi felt but could not openly admit.’ 

Singh writes that British military intelligence gave Kipling letters written by Indian soldiers so that he could write fictional ones for purposes of propaganda.  The letters Kipling composed, which were published in The Saturday Evening Post and The Morning Post, were intended to counter pro-Indian sentiment in the United States. Lalu, who unlike most sipahis is literate, writes a letter to his mother. It is too long to quote here. However, this letter and the ones Kipling wrote (cited by Singh) seem curiously empty when we remember Jemadar Hasan Shah’s letter. Anand and Kipling’s letters lack polysemy.

Punjab Recruitment Poster: Translation by Amarjit Chandan: Who will get this money, rifle and uniform? The one who will enlist in the army immediately. (Image source: War Battles Armies/Facebook)

Punjab Recruitment Poster: Translation by Amarjit Chandan: Who will get this money, rifle and uniform? The one who will enlist in the army immediately. (Source: War Battles Armies/Facebook)

In Across the Black Waters, the following passage gives us the socio-economic background of the sipahis and their reasons for joining the army:

…when they first joined the army, these legionnaires did so because, as the second, third or fourth sons of a peasant family, overburdened with debts, they had to go and earn a little ready cash to pay off the interest on the mortgage of the few aces of land, the only thing which stood between the family and its fate…

Sometimes a war was on somewhere, in a geography of which the family or the son had no conception, and he faded out into thin air, only to confirm his own and the family’s prejudice that all who went beyond the mountains or across the black waters were destined for hell…

But, occasionally, one man in a village returned, with a stripe on his arm or a star  on his shoulder, or a medal on his chest, and demanded a large dowry… And the young men of the village looked at him and soon the recruiting offices of the district became busier…

Mulk Raj Anand’s father was the head clerk of the 38th Dogra Regiment. In his memoir Seven Summers (1951), one of Anand’s earliest recollections of the cantonment at Mian Mir, where he spent his early childhood, is that of the road separating the white offices’ bungalows form the barracks in which soldiers lived.  But vis-a-vis the sipahis, his father was a privileged man:

He was the only literate man in the whole regiment of Dogra hillmen, to whom the sipahis brought their letters to read, from whom they requested the drafts of their petitions. The indigent sweepers, washermen, and bandsmen of the Mian Mir cantonment came to him for loans of money. And he was greeted with joined hands and the words, ‘I fall at your feet’, by our relations among the coppersmiths and silversmiths who came from nearby Lahore, or our home town Amritsar, or from various parts of the Punjab. 

Babu Khushi Ram, in Across the Black Waters, is an ‘exalted personage’ to the sipahis who both respect and resent him.

Anand was a child when First World War broke out; in Seven Summers he recounts how a family outing was interrupted by the news of the war’s declaration. So unlike Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (or the poems of Wilfred Owen), Across the Black Waters is not ‘witness’ literature.  Anand wrote the novel to honour his father with whom he was on bad terms (his father disapproved of young Anand’s involvement in anti-British protests) and because of his commitment to writing about the lives of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Anand sought to represent the feelings of Lalu on being confronted with the experience of the Great War, an experience that nothing could have prepared him for: ‘For a moment he was cut off from everyone. And he felt as he had felt once when as a child he had gone with his parents to a cattle fair and got lost and had run in panic, weeping salty tears, looking for someone he could recognize.’  He writes about the character Dhanoo who does not fear dying as much as he fears the impossibility of having the last rites performed on his dead body in a foreign land. And he describes the panic in the ranks when it is announced that the 69th Rifles would separate into two – ‘they had come accept to their togetherness as a law of nature and they had naively expected that they would all be put to fight side by side with each other.’

For, the son of the head clerk of the 38th Dogra Regiment was one of founders of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). The PWA, which had its first meeting in London in November 1934, was formed at a time when the epic struggle against imperialism in Asia and Africa and the fight against fascism in Europe were on.  It was a charged time when writers, artists and intellectuals felt they had a decisive role to play. In literature, the project involved writing about the basic problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. Anand went on to create Untouchable (and Premchand Godan), a novel about a latrine-cleaner, something unprecedented in Indian literature (and unique even today).

The PWA was a radical and counter-hegemonic movement. Most of its members were middleclass. Today their attempts may strike one as futile or naive. Spivak’s famous essay assures us that intellectuals cannot speak for the subaltern. Tabish Khair’s Babu Fictions (2001) argues that Indian Writing in English is incapable of representing the underprivileged, non-English sections (the ‘Coolies’) of the nation. However, it has been  pointed out that Khair’s argument that Anglophone Indians can never shed their compromised elite status repeats a colonial slur: earlier the British used to assert that indigenous speakers of English could never cast off their ‘Indianness’. (Khair’s use of the pejorative term ‘Babu’ is interesting.) It has also been pointed out that the idea that English in India is an expression of upper-class status is a reductive one.  In the 1934 London meeting, there were Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi writers present. That is why the PWA’s manifesto, first drafted by Anand, was in English.

O T Cutter’s Letters to Miles Bronson

When Oliver T Cutter came to Sadiya (with Nathan Brown) on March 23, 1836 to start a mission station there, he brought with him a small printing press. The press was requested by Francis Jenkins, Commissioner and Agent to the Governor-General for Assam.  Tea was being newly cultivated and the British were keen to ‘pacify’ the frontier tribes through Christianity and education. The printing press was seen as an indispensable aid in this process. Later, Jenkins gave the missionaries another press. He also donated five hundred rupees to buy fonts from Calcutta. For the missionaries printing was of course an integral part of their evangelical work.

Siva dol temple in Sivasagar , from a letter written to Miles Bronson by Samuel Whiting in 1852.

Siva Doul in Sivasagar , from a letter written to Miles Bronson by Samuel Whiting in 1852.

In July 1836 Cutter printed his first book, a spelling book in English, Assamese, and Shan. Cutter worked in Assam till 1853. During this time, he set up the American Baptist Mission Press in Jaipur (after removing it from Sadiya) and then in its final location in Sivasagar. Cutter printed the first books in Assamese as well as in Shan, Singpho, and Naga. He also printed the Orunodoi, the first newspaper and periodical in Assam.

Cutter is not a very visible presence in missionary records.  He was dismissed from service in 1852 on ‘account of immorality.’ (The exact reason is not specified in the records I have consulted.) Thereafter details of his life and work disappear from official records.  About the early part of his career, we know that he was based in Moulmein (Mawlamyine), Burma (Myanmar). The American Baptist Foreign Mission Society had begun its proselyting activities in Burma in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The Burma Mission’s printing presses in stations like Rangoon, Moulmein, and Tavoy brought out a large amount of religious and pedagogical materials. Cutter seems to have arrived in Burma in 1832: a report mentions that he brought to that country a press gifted by a church in New York. He also worked in a press in Rangoon for about nine months in 1833-34.

Four of his letters written to Miles Bronson have survived. They are in a brittle condition and Cutter’s handwriting is awful. But they throw some light on Cutter. Interestingly, they show that he continued to take interest in missionary work and maintained warm relations with his missionary friends until the end of his life.

The first letter is dated September 12, 1864; though the letterhead is that of the Military Orphan Press in Calcutta, Cutter was working as superintendent of the Government Printing Press at Hastings Street. (In October 1863, the Government had taken over the Military Orphan Press.) Cutter says that he is writing in haste to correct an ‘erroneous impression’ in the minds of Miles Bronson and others that he had expressed a wish to return to missionary service. What he had done (apparently in a previous letter to Bronson in Nowgong) was merely assured ‘my beloved friends that altho no longer enjoying the honor and privilege of being their associate’, he nevertheless empathized with them and could feel the joys and sorrows of the missionaries who were toiling in Nowgong. ‘But I never for a moment thought of proposing to return to the field, and I write at once to prevent your writing to any one that such was your impression.’

Abihijit Gupta has a nice little piece on the mournful sounding press whose stationery Cutter used. It belonged to a charitable organization founded in the eighteenth century to look after (as its name suggests) the orphaned or deserted children of British soldiers in India. The press was started ‘to train the first-ever cadre of press-workers in South Asia.’ Incidentally, its first three superintends, G H Huttmann, W Ridsdale and F Carberry, all died in harness. Huttmann was thrown by a horse; Ridsdale drowned, as did Carberry.

The next letter, also written when Cutter was the superintend of the Government Printing Press, Calcutta is dated June 11, 1868.  It expresses concern for Miles Bronson who fell seriously ill on the ship taking him to America. It also informs Bronson that Cutter’s wife, Harriett, has not been keeping well, and carries some news of missionary acquaintances.

Cutter’s next letters are more interesting. The third letter is dated July 27, 1880 and is from London where Cutter apparently settled after retirement. Though he prefaces his letter by saying that he ‘can scarcely hold my pen to write’, having fallen and broken his right leg, he ends up using three pages. He sends news of Mrs King, wife of C. D. King, the missionary stationed in Kohima, who is staying with a Mr and Mrs Stanton, awaiting the arrival of Mrs Ward (another Assam missionary) so as to accompany her to New York. Both Cutter and Harriet have visited her several times, he writes. To this letter, Cutter adds another, dated the following day. He explains that he had a visitor, ‘a friend who has seen much affliction come in and kept me past the posting hour’; then the son and daughter of Robert Robinson, former missionary at Dacca, came and remained till 9 o’clock. These references, and others like mention of a letter received from Mrs Bruce from Tezpur (probably the widow of the pioneering tea planter Charles Alexander Bruce), and his enquiries about various missionaries suggest that Cutter, far from severing his ties or being a disowned person, was part of a circle of missionary friends. He seems to have prized his friendships and visited, and was visited by, missionaries passing through London on their way to or from Assam. An elderly man of nearly seventy years, Cutter grows nostalgic as he remembers a tour he made, four decades earlier, with Miles and Ruth Bronson: ‘How often I think of that trip with you and dear Sister Ruth on elephants up the Naga Hills – those old Namsangias – the first time a white woman ever entered those Hills – how zealously you labored for them, and what privations and hardships you endured, and you heartily rejoiced in them all. Ah my dear beloved brother – those were happy days!’

As is the usual fate of printers, Cutter’s role is overlooked. He himself had no doubt about the efficacy of printing and in a rare report, written in the early days in Sadiya, he said:

Although the press is an invaluable auxiliary in this infant mission, and very little could be at present be accomplished without it, yet it is not kept in constant operation, like the presses in Burmah, neither will our small editions of 500 and 1000 compare with their editions of 100,000 copies. But we should not despise the day of small things. I look forward with no slight degree of interest to the time when the door shall be fully opened, that missionaries may travel from this to Ava, and distribute tracts among the numerous Shyans who people the districts, and also enter the Bor Khamti (Great Khamti) country, and scatter among its thousands, pages of truth…  I see no reason why we cannot why we cannot enter the provinces of China with very little difficulty. Then the importance of the printing department here, will be more extensively felt, and in a few years I hope to see calls made for tracts and parts of scripture in six or eight different languages. 

Cutter’s grand vision of printing leading to the Christian conversion of tribes on a pan-Asian scale did not of course materialize. Bronson and the other missionaries abandoned this impracticable idea in 1841 and began instead to focus their evangelical activities on the Assamese population. Yet in his last letter Cutter clings to the hope that animated the Assam (Shan) Mission in its initial years:

 What a splendid field you [Miles Bronson] have traced out! And if Assam, & Burmah, and China can be connected by a line of Missionary posts, occupied by a united band of devoted, hard-working laborers, what “glorious consummation”! I wish my dear wife and I were as well and strong, and as young as we were 40 years ago, and you were as well and strong as you were 30 years ago, how pleasant it would be for us to buckle on the harness, gird up the loins and enter upon this grand and noble work!

As the man who introduced print in Assam, Cutter is undoubtedly important. We ought to know more about him. Some of his other letters – with his terrible handwriting – may have survived.  I, for one, would love to read them, especially if they have something to say about his professional life as a printer.


The Children’s Tree: The Bronson Family in Assam

Harriette Bronson Gunn. I am grateful to Lori Walsh for sending me this photograph.

Harriette Bronson Gunn.  (I am grateful to Lori Walsh, a fourth great granddaughter of Miles and Ruth Bronson, for sending me this photograph.)

When the pioneering American Baptist missionaries came to Assam in the first half of the nineteenth century, they were accompanied by their wives who assisted them in their work as equal, or almost equal, partners. In fact, the American Mission  Board permitted the wives of Nathan Brown, Oliver Cutter, and Miles Bronson to call themselves missionaries (later, in a backward step, the Board was to disallow this status to missionary wives). Curiosity about the lives of these women missionaries and their children led me to read Harriette Bronson Gunn’s memoir of her missionary parents, In a Far Country: A Story of Christian Heroism and Achievement, brought out by the American Baptist Publication Society in 1911, and long out of print.  Harriette was the fourth of the seven daughters born to Ruth and Miles Bronson; she and her sisters spent a part of their childhood in Nowgong (as Nagaon used to be spelled). The details about the Bronson family in this post are mostly plundered from Harriette’s book.

My interest in the lives of missionary families was initially aroused by this stoical, single sentence entry in Nathan Brown’s journal (dated January 19, 1840): ‘Today we have discovered that one of our little boy’s eyes is diseased, and we fear, unless some remedy is found, he will soon lose his sight.’ I began to see how a missionary – by definition, a driven man – could subject not only himself but also his loved ones to the dangers and privations of living in a distant, unknown and even hostile land. When Eliza and Nathan Brown, Harriet and Oliver Cutter, and Ruth and Miles Bronson came to Assam the difficulties were considerable. The voyage from America to India would take eight months. Railway and steamer services had not been introduced, and diseases like malaria and cholera were rampant.  During times of political trouble, the danger to life was very real.

Reading In a Far Country, I found myself often thinking of the famous opening line of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ For, no matter how hard we try, we cannot now fully imagine the force of conviction that made missionary men and women leave their homes. The book has references to ‘dusky natives’ and heathens, and there is the inevitable Orientalist frame (the frontispiece carries an illustration, ‘The Most Famous Ghat in India – Benares’). However, what makes Harriette’s book likeable are the ordinary, human details like ‘the children’s tree’ – a peepal tree under which the Bronson girls played in their Nowgong home. Also, we can relate to such human feelings as the sadness of parents separated from their children or the happiness of returning, after a long journey, to a place one has learnt to call home.

Ruth, painted in Hamilton, NY by John Wilkie in 1836. (I am grateful to Mary Ann Titterington, a descendant of Sophie, for sending this image.)

Miles Bronson was a student at the theological seminary at Hamilton, New York. He met Ruth Lucas when he went to preach in the village church in nearby Madison. Ruth’s father, a storekeeper, initially opposed the marriage as he could not bear the idea of Ruth marrying a missionary bound for a distant land. A severe illness in which her life was despaired of resulted in John Lucas’s acceptance – he implored God to save Ruth in return for which he would ‘surrender his darling one to foreign missionary service.’ The couple arrived in Calcutta in April 1837 and journeyed by boat to Sadiya in Assam. They were not far from their destination when the missionary Jacob Thomas, who (with his wife) had been travelling with the Bronsons, died because a large tree fell on his country boat.

The Bronsons’ eldest daughter, Mary, was born in Sadiya. In March 1838 they moved to the new station of Jaipur to work among the Nagas. Sadiya was attacked by the Khamtis in 1839; they burned the station and killed the British political agent and dozens of others. An attack on Jaipur seemed imminent; however, the expected attack never came. After peace was restored, the Bronsons moved to Namsang village (in present-day Arunachal Pradesh). Miles Bronson prepared primers and tracts, while Ruth opened a school.  Harriette writes about a peculiar difficulty Ruth had to face in her school; every time ‘a chase went by after deer or other wild animals, without permission from their teacher, the dusky pupils would jump out of the windows to join the hunters. She was obliged to sit alone patiently until their return, which would be sooner or later according to the results of the chase.’ Harriette relates that an ayah was employed and given the responsibility of taking up baby Mary at the first sign of danger (‘the villages in this region often made raids on each other’). She promised to do so but when an attack occurred she forgot all about Mary and was instead found collecting her personal property, exclaiming, ‘My bustu! Oh, my bustu!’

Rhoda Bronson, Miles Bronson’s sister, inspired by her brother’s example, decided to join him in the Naga hills. (We know from other sources that Rhoda made the trip at her own expense.) It was then rare for a single woman to cross the ocean. She became an object of great curiosity to the Nagas, who flocked to see her. Rhoda died seven months later. She was of delicate health and from the beginning the food (rice three times a day) did not suit her.  She was buried in the English cemetery at Jaipur.

In 1841 the Bronsons left the Naga hills to establish a station in Nowgong. Here the family spent some of its happiest years.  There were six daughters: Mary, Maria, Eliza, Harriette, Sophia, and Frances. During the day, the little girls played under ‘the children’s tree’ in the mission compound. When evening came the sisters and their parents mounted on the back of an elephant and enjoyed a ride around Nowgong. Miles Bronson planted a tree to mark the birth of each daughter. When Maria returned to Nowgong twenty years later, she was pleased to see the trees had grown to ‘a goodly size.’

When a new missionary couple, Drusilla and Ira Joy Stoddard, arrived at Nowgong in 1846, the Bronsons decided to take their daughters to America ‘to be reared in a more healthful climate and receive the advantages of education in a Christian land.’ In October 1848, the family left Nowgong. (Incidentally, on this trip two local youths, James Tripp and Lucien Hayden, accompanied the Bronsons to America.) On doctor’s advice, Frances, who was only eighteen months old, was left behind in the care of Mrs Stoddard. Frances died during Ruth and Miles Bronson’s absence.  In America, the task was to find suitable homes for the girls. A Mrs Stokes of Philadelphia offered to take Mary.  Maria and Eliza were taken in by a Mrs Davis Cotes of Springfield, New York.  Harriette was adopted by a wealthy family in Philadelphia while Sophia was placed in the family of her uncle, Weston Bronson, Miles Bronson’s eldest brother, who lived in Hamilton, New York. (Later, Mary too was adopted by Mrs Stokes.) However, the Bronsons had second thoughts about leaving Harriette with a rich family to be brought up ‘in a worldliness of which they could not approve’ and so at the last minute they took her away and brought her back to Nowgong. During the return voyage, a child was born to the Bronsons but did not survive. Baby Martha (the seventh daughter) was buried in the English cemetery at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. (On a subsequent voyage, Ruth and little Harriette visited the grave.) After returning to Nowgong, the reduced family visited the grave of baby Frances. Ruth must have been thankful for Harriette’s presence for without her it would have been much more painful to return to Nowgong without her daughters.  In a letter to Harriette when she had grown up, Ruth described her as her ‘Benjamin, the last of my little flock left to me, and … such a source of comfort to my poor, lonely heart.’

Harriette was now without her sisters.  Years later Miles Bronson remembered a game Harriette played in her Nowgong home in which she set up an imaginary seminary: ‘This wonderful seminary was unique, having only one solitary scholar, who every morning put on her bonnet, took her satchel of books and umbrella, and bidding her parents good morning, went out of one side of the house and came back into the other!’ Since there were no white children for Harriette to play with, she was allowed to do so with Aitie, the daughter of one of the native preachers. Harriette had a pet cat as well.

Miles Bronson frequently made evangelistic tours by boat and sometimes he took Ruth and Harriette with him. Harriette writes nostalgically about these river journeys:

There were snug sleeping accommodations on this boat, but no room for culinary uses, so a cook-boat followed, where the native cook prepared the meals. When they were ready he pulled alongside the ‘budgerow’, or large boat, and proceeded to set the table and serve up a meal in a style amusing to an American. The repast ended, he removed the dishes and withdrew to the cook-boat, where he washed up and prepared for the next meal. At nightfall the native captain bade his boatmen fasten the boat to the shore, as it is not safe to travel after dark on these waters. A sandbank was usually chosen near which to anchor the vessel, and large fires were kindled to keep away the savage beast that lurked in the adjoining jungles … The boatmen cooked their simple meal of rice, and often on pleasant evenings a tent would be pitched in preference to sleeping on the boat, forming quite a rural encampment…

And if there was romance in this tenting out at night upon these Indian rivers, it was scarcely less romantic to travel by them by day. In places where the jungles had been cleared away, native settlements extended for miles in the midst of as beautiful scenery as ever met the eye. 

But there were dangers from wild elephants and tigers. One evening Miles Bronson went for a walk leaving the boat when he saw a mad elephant emerging from the depths of the forest. Noticing the boat, the elephant plunged into the river while Miles Bronson watched helplessly from the bank. Fortunately, the elephant decided to turn and swim off in the opposite direction, thus sparing the passengers in the boat. On another occasion, he had a narrow escape when the behaviour of his pet dog, Trusty, alerted him to the presence of a tiger.

Two of the sisters returned to Nowgong to carry on their parent’s work. Having completed her studies in Philadelphia, Mary arrived in Nowgong in May 1856. (As a child, she had been baptized in Nowgong along with some of the first Assamese converts.) Maria reached in March 1870 and took charge of the Nowgong girls school which was established by Ruth in 1844. A letter from Maria to Harriette reveals some interesting aspects of missionary life:

You see that we are again in dear old Nowgong, the home of our childhood and the scene of our loved mother’s labors.   Many things make this a sacred place, and I feel it a privilege to be stationed here…

I watch darling papa with a great deal of anxiety. He is better than we could expect, but I can see that the great sorrow tells upon him. I often hear him weeping and praying that God may help him to be submissive, and then he comes to us cheerful; but I can see he has had a hard struggle…

This is a pleasant home, dear ones. Nature has made it beautiful, and papa’s skilful hands have erected one of the most comfortable bungalows in the station. You would find us nicely settled and with all things in common… Indian housekeeping is very different from American. We often want to send all the brothers and sisters invitations to dinner or tea, but fearing you (sic) will not accept have to be content by inviting English neighbors. There are quite a number of them, so we are not without society. I do not feel we were in the wilds of India, for it is more civilized than I expected to find it. Sometimes I forget so great a distance separates us, especially when we are reading the papers from home. Letters and papers are the greatest comfort out here, and without them the separation from our loved ones would be almost intolerable … 

The uprising of 1857 was a very stressful time for Ruth, Mary and Miles Bronson. Because there were no British officers or officials in Nowgong, the Bronsons felt especially vulnerable. The previously respectful sepoys who lived in the barracks across the street from the mission compound now became insolent. Attempts were made to frighten the Bronsons at night.  Ruth and Mary learnt how to fire a gun. The family spent many nights in terror before heading for Gauhati (present-day Guwahati), leaving the bungalow in the care of the native Christians.  A dark night was chosen for the escape.  After three days the Bronsons reached their destination safely. There was a good deal of suspense as they approached Gauhati, not knowing if it had fallen, with an ill Ruth placed in the back of the boat, while father and daughter gathered their guns and ammunition in case they were attacked. The Europeans at Gauhati, including the missionaries, numbered about thirty; they drilled everyday in an attempt to cow down the sepoys. Eventually a steamer with armed reinforcements arrived from Calcutta. The Bronsons left for America soon after in order to recover from the strain of living in Assam during this period.

During this trip Mary married Cyrus Fisher Tolman, a student in Madison University. The Tolmans were deputed to Assam and left for Nowgong but Miles Bronson had not fully recovered his strength. So he accepted the offer of becoming pastor of the Baptist church in Springfield, NY.  This was a happy time for Ruth since she had the opportunity to see her daughters who were living with Mrs Cotes: ‘How Ruth Bronson’s heart treasured those hours when her darlings could be with her again, as in their happy childhood days, and again she seemed to listen to gay voices and merry laughter under the old tree near the mission bungalow.’

This lasted about a year. Then it was time for the Bronsons time to ‘tear themselves away from the clinging arms of their children and friends’ and return to Nowgong. The consolation though was that their daughter and son-in-law were there.  A letter from Ruth written after her arrival conveys her feelings of what Nowgong had come to mean to her:

Oh, this delightful November weather! It is nearly as perfect as weather can be.  The only drawback is now and then a foggy morning, which, however, is quite made up by the exceeding beauty of the sky as the fog melts away before the brilliance of the sun. I really think there is no more lovely spot on earth than dear, quiet Nowgong.

She kept herself busy running the school. Two of the girl students are mentioned by Harriette:  Junaki and Humptira, Ruth’s ‘Assamese daughter’. (Her father was the Bronson’s dhobi.)

Miles Bronson is known for his Assamese and English dictionary. A letter written in 1867 by Ruth to Harriette shows how the former contributed:

Could you visit your old home today you would find your room occupied by papa as study, where he is working hard all day on the dictionary. You would see in the center a long table, covered with green baize, on which are piled at long intervals large books and writing materials, in orderly confusion. You would see papa sitting at one side of the table, and on the other side three dusky pundits, assisting him in his slow work. You would see mamma’s rattan work-basket standing close by papa’s chair, where I sit near, ready to render him any assistance in my power – such as looking up references, synonyms, and definitions. I cannot give my time as fully to assisting papa as I did in Sibsagor, where I had no household cares to interrupt… Here I have school duties, housekeeping cares, and a thousand little things to attend to. I have aided him in the revision of the manuscript, which is now ready for the press. 

The strain of dictionary work had its effect on Miles Bronson’s health. The Bronsons decided to go to America, their departure hastened by news that one of their daughters was seriously ill. During the voyage, Ruth was thrown off the sofa on which she was lying by a sudden lurch of the ship. She recuperated in her daughter’s house in Chicago. Mrs Cotes was asked to permit her three adopted daughters to visit Ruth so that ‘there might be a family reunion for the first time in twenty years.’ Sophia, the youngest daughter, recently graduated from the Monticello Seminary, joined the family. Ruth however continued to be feeble and in spring she was taken to her home in Madison.  She was so weak that she could not attend Harriette’s wedding on June 29, 1869. Ruth was hopeful of recovering and even gave directions for her trunks to be prepared for the journey to Assam. But it was clear that she was dying. She was taken to Elmira, New York for a water cure; Mary and Maria arrived to look after her.  But she died on September 30, 1869. She had served for thirty three years as missionary in Assam.

Miles Bronson left for Assam on December 15, 1869 with Maria, the daughter who was still single.  This time the trip was made as much as possible by land.  They arrived in Nowgong on March 28, 1870. The older native Christians remembered Maria Baba and there were inquiries about Harriette Baba, the last of the girls to leave Nowgong. Miles Bronson married the widow of another missionary, AH Danforth.  The second Mrs Bronson however fell ill soon after and was advised to take a sea voyage to Singapore.  Maria accompanied her. But Mrs Bronson died on the steamer, on the return voyage, on February 3, 1874 and was buried at the missionary cemetery at Rangoon. Maria herself contracted cholera while returning to Nowgong and was buried in Goalpara.

Miles Bronson was moved to the mission station at Gauhati in 1874:

thus severing the long-cherished associations of the years at dear old Nowgong. There, all but three of his children had been born; there, lingered memories of the sweet wife of his youth, and those pioneer years; there, later, the devoted daughter, Maria, had lavished on him her love and care, and gazing sorrowfully at ‘the children’s tree’, which still stood beside the bungalow, he felt that no other spot could seem so much like home.

He married Mary Rankin, a missionary of Woman’s Foreign Society of the West, and a friend of his deceased daughter, Maria. A son was born to the couple and named Miles Bronson. Ruth and Laura, twin daughters, followed. Five years later Miles Bronson moved to his new headquarters, Dibrugarh. One day, soon after his arrival, he fell from his elephant. The resulting injury compelled him to leave for America in order to treat his leg and put an end to an active missionary career.

The Bronsons decided to settle at Eaton Rapids, Michigan where Sophia, the youngest daughter, and her husband lived – the later was the pastor of the Baptist church there. A house was rented near Sophia’s home.  The daughters now decided to buy their father a house. Miles Bronson attended various missionary meetings and gatherings. He died on November 9, 1883 and was buried in the cemetery at Eaton Rapids. His widow, Mrs. Mary Bronson, left with her three children, received a monthly pension from the Missionary Union; this with the rent from letting out a portion of her house was all she had to bring up the children. To support the family, her son (the young Miles Bronson) dropped out of school. Harriette writes that this was a disappointment to his mother as she had hoped he would ‘have a college education and perhaps take up his father’s lifework in dear old Assam.’ Miles joined his uncle in the railroad business. Initially he lived in Detroit with his mother; later a promotion took him to Cleveland, Ohio. Here Mrs Bronson was appointed church missionary, until failing heath forced her to resign. Miles again received a promotion – he was now appointed superintend of a branch of the New York Central Railroad. He moved to Yonkers, New York where he set up house with his wife and his mother. The sisters continued to live in Cleveland. Mrs Bronson contracted cancer, died in her son’s home in Yonkers, and was buried next to her husband in Eaton Rapids.

Harriette's hisband, William Campbell Gunn. (Photo courtesy Lori Walsh)

Harriette’s husband, William Campbell Gunn. (Photo courtesy Lori Walsh)

In her concluding chapter Harriette asks, ‘Was it Worthwhile?’  The question is a rhetorical one. For, as she notes, all the Bronson daughters became missionaries or wives of missionaries. We have seen how Mary married Cyrus Tolman. She and her husband worked among the Karbis. Recurring attacks of malaria compelled Cyrus Tolman to return to America. Mary stayed on for some time before following him with her two children. The Tolmans settled in Chicago, where Cyrus became district secretary of the Mission Union. Mary became one of the founders of the Woman’s Baptist Missionary Society of the West and its first corresponding secretary. Maria, who died in Assam, was one of the first woman missionaries appointed by this Society. Eliza (the third daughter) married Albert Robinson, pastor and associate editor of ‘The Gospel in All Lands’. Harriette married William Campbell Gunn, the pastor of the Baptist church in Springfield (where Miles Bronson had been a pastor for a while). Sophia (the youngest) married John Titterington, who served as a pastor in many churches in the Midwest (she also came to be known as a children’s author).

There is a fair amount of material on the well-known male missionaries who were active in Assam in the nineteenth century but little on the missionary women who did the same work, faced the same hardships and made the same sacrifices as the men. Harriette’s book gave me an understanding of the contribution of the Bronson wives and siblings. It offered me a glimpse into their interconnected lives and a sense of how the women shared and shaped missionary work. It also left me with the impression that perhaps, more than the men, it was the women who bore the brunt of missionary realities.

The Colporteurs of Nineteenth Century Assam

Bible societies  in America develpoed an extensive network of colporteurs.

Bible societies in America developed an extensive network of colporteurs. In Assam the missionaries used colporteurs though their numbers were small. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Soon after my trip to China (about which I wrote in my last post), I left for Pune to attend a book history seminar. My presentation was on the Orunodoi and I was hoping to meet other researchers working on missionary publishing and printing.  But there was only one other paper similar to mine. It was on the Bible and promised to be on its repurposing in India but the presenter, a gentleman with a long ponytail, chose to confine himself to the history of the Book in the western world. Luckily for me, the pioneering book historians Swapan Chakraborty and Abhijit Gupta were there to make made the seminar worthwhile. Professor Chakraborty delivered an erudite keynote address and turned out to be a mine of useful information. (I learnt that all the extant issues of the Orunodoi were digitized during his tenure as Director General of the National Library, Kolkata.) Dr Gupta gave a well-researched and entertaining presentation.

It is because I meet so few scholars interested in missionary publishing that the subject has come to acquire a private meaning for me. This has its pleasures but I do occasionally wish there were researchers I could compare notes with or just talk to. When I was in the US, I met book historians who thought I was working on an ‘interesting’ topic but who didn’t really want to dwell on it. I attributed their lack of interest to embarrassment since missionary activity was linked to colonialism. But it is less easy to account for the indifference of Indian book historians.

The book I carried with me to read on the plane was Faith in Reading: Publishing History and the Birth of Mass Media in America (2004) by David Paul Nord. This and Leslie Howsam’s Cheap Bibles: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society (2002) are the two books I know which do justice to the ambition and scale of missionary publishing and printing. Howsam’s book (which I feel has not received the attention it deserves) deals with the publishing activities of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) in the mid-nineteenth century. The BFBS did not involve itself in doctrinal issues. Run by evangelical-minded philanthropists, practical politicians and by savvy businessmen, the BFBS’s non-commercial publishing project concentrated on supplying the world with affordable or free bibles. A recent tweet (or re-tweet) by Howsam conveys its gigantic achievement:  ‘In 160 years, the British & Foreign Bible Society – a missionary group founded in 1804 – published 723 million Bibles in 829 languages.’ David Nord, in his book, writes about Bible societies like the American Bible Society (founded in 1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and the American Tract Society (1825) which made it their mission ‘to place religious tracts and books into the hands of every man, woman and child in America.’ These organizations, and the BFBS, were among the very first to take advantage of innovations in printing technology like stereotype printing and steam-powered presses.

The American Bible societies made effective use of colporteurs. In Europe itinerant sellers of books – chapmen, peddlers, packmen, and hawkers – had existed since the early days of the book trade and were not always regarded as respectable. (‘Colporteur’ is said to be derived from the Old French word ‘comporter’ and refers to the pack carried by the peddler or ‘porter’ over his ‘col’, that is shoulder or neck). The American Bible societies systematically developed a network of colporteurs to sell and distribute Bibles and tracts, especially in rural and remote areas. According to Nord,  in 1850 alone ‘the American Tract Society’s 569 colporteurs visited 505,422 families, sold nearly half a million volumes, and gave away 35 million pages of books and tracts.’

'Preaching in the Bazaar in Nowgong.' Illustration from a photocopy of Harriette Bronson Gunn's out of print In a Far Country.

‘Preaching in the Bazaar in Nowgong.’ (Illustration from a photocopy of Harriette Bronson Gunn’s out of print In a Far Country.)

In Assam (as elsewhere in India) the American Baptist missionaries not only wrote, translated and published books but had to improvise ways of delivering their Bibles, tracts and other printed material to potential readers. To do this they used colporteurs, though on a far reduced scale compared to the Bible societies in America.  In the missionary records we occasionally find the names of a few of the colporteurs: Biposu Judson (stationed at Guwahati), Babon Apinta (also at Guwahati), Kandura (Guwahati), Monroe B. Weed, Adiram, Besai, Adoniram, Modhu, Kolibor, and Ragmon (all Nagaon). They were paid a small salary for their work: in 1868, a (nameless) Garo man who had been receiving Rs 15 a month as a head constable was appointed colporteur (and Bible reader) on a monthly salary of Rs. 10. A colporteur was required to do itinerant preaching and had to write monthly reports to his missionary supervisor detailing the ‘tours, places visited, kind and number of tracts and scriptures distributed, and the conversations held with people.’

The colporteurs were converts from humble backgrounds. Kandura’s father ‘was a poor blind beggar, of the fisherman caste’; he was baptized by the missionary Ira J Stoddard when he was twelve. The Missionary Magazine, published by the American Baptist Missionary Union, carried an obituary of Biposu Judson in its September 1856 issue. Written by William Ward (the missionary who edited the Orunodoi from 1861 to 1873), it was preceded by an editorial note stating that ‘it should have appeared some months since, but was accidentally misplaced.’ The obituary written by Ward is a conventional missionary narrative of the power of the gospel to save a heathen soul (in this case that of Biposu) but it gives us a peep into Biposu’s life and character: the young widow and two little sons he left behind, his lack of education and his ‘good natural abilities, and [possession of] a candor and seriousness that commended him to listen.’ These colporteurs belonged to the hopeful phase of the Assam Mission, when the prospects of making converts among the Assamese still seemed bright.

A report written by A K Gurney in 1879 reminds one of the beginning of Homi Bhabha’s well-known essay, ‘Signs taken for Wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817’:

The Assamese seem willing to hear, and are respectful in their treatment of preachers. On a recent trip I was surprised at the eagerness of both Hindoos and Mussulmans to get hold of Christian tracts. We sold a large number in a short time, charging a pice each. Hereafter I shall adopt this custom of selling tracts instead of giving them away. One explanation for this great eagerness for tracts I believe to be a great desire to get hold of reading-matter of any shape.

We give a central role to the Orunodoi in our accounts of the emergence of a nascent public sphere in Assam but the print runs for the periodical are surprisingly low (in the 400-1000 range). The print runs for the tracts were much higher. Over a period of roughly forty years many thousands of tracts were distributed and apparently read by two generations of nineteenth century readers in Assam. The missionary call to pay heed to the Word of God was ignored by most of the population in the plains (the missionaries were to be hugely successful in their evangelical quest in the hills of the Northeast) but though the tracts did not succeed in their primary purpose they – and the lowly colporteurs – seem to have been instrumental in the formation of a readership in nineteenth century Assam.

Last summer I was at the Andover Newton Theological School, looking at old and fragile missionary letters and documents. One day the archivist put more than a dozen booklets from the Sibsagor Mission Press on my desk. They had been discovered, she said, during a recent reorganization of the library.  Among the tracts, primers, and catechisms there was a copy of Miles Bronson’s A Spelling Book and Vocabulary, in English, Assamese, Singpho, and Naga, published in 1839, a few of its pages still uncut. But it was a copy of Hindu Objections to the Christian Religion Answered (translated from the Bengali by A H Danforth) that thrilled me most. There on its first page, in fading ink, was the signature of Babon Apinta, colporteur. 

Kunming Diary

The Tezpur University delegation with our hosts.

The Tezpur University delegation with our hosts in Kunming, China.

It takes only two hours to fly from Kolkata to Kunming.  But because we had been waiting to catch our flight since our arrival at Kolkata airport from Guwahati in the afternoon, and had boarded our plane at midnight, I was a little groggy when we arrived at Kunming at five in the morning Beijing time (02.30 IST).  After breakfast we went to a branch of the Bank of China to change our dollars into yuan. I felt sorry for the teller, a girl, because on the counter there was a monitoring machine which allowed the customer to press one of three buttons – satisfactory, average, and unsatisfactory.  She seemed earnest enough but had two stars out of a possible five. Our delegation’s mission was to work out an actionable Memorandum of Understanding with the university we were visiting. I couldn’t help wondering how many stars I, or the Tezpur University delegation I was leading, would be getting.


Dining with our Chinese   hosts.

Dining with our Chinese

They don’t serve meals at the university guest house where we were staying, so for breakfast our hosts had gone out and bought a variety of breads and jams. They also brought milk in small cartons. The Chinese are like us in this – they press you to have as much food as you can. Lunch on the first day was a sumptuous affair. But all their meals turned out to be as lavish. A week in a country as big as China is too short a time for generalizations (Thurber noted that all generalizations are false, including this one), but Kunming’s cuisine seems to be about preserving the basic flavour of food, rather than smothering it with spices. In fact, having drunk green and pu’er tea (the dark tea produced in Yunnan province), during our week’s stay, tea with milk and sugar seems a little heavy to me now. (I can no longer relish my morning cuppa.) While the Chinese meals we ate had a lot of meat, there were enough vegetables, and so the vegans in our delegation were able to manage. With a little practice one can muster the art of using chopsticks and I regretted not having done so prior to my visit. In common with other great inventions, this instrument is simple, elegant, and practical.  All the restaurants we went to had dining tables with revolving centres on which the dishes were placed. Our Chinese colleagues reached out with their chopsticks to fill their bowls or plates with what they wanted. We of course had to ask for cutlery. After the first few meals, we pleaded with our hosts to order less food – there was an endless round of dishes – since we did not like to waste so much of it. I have a feeling the delegation may have disappointed our hosts by being poor eaters.

Only a great civilization could have come up with some of the dishes we were treated to. To recall just a few: wild mushrooms cooked in a variety of ways, a noodle-like dish which turned out to be radish (or ‘white carrots’, as one of our Chinese friends struggled to explain), steamed fish, steamed bread, and pork with pineapple. The fruits looked as good as the fruits you find in American supermarkets but unlike their American cousins they weren’t tasteless.


During an outing, we paid for our dinner. The next day our young minder – whom I shall call Z – had strict, or stricter, instructions not to let that happen again.  Later, on another trip, we saw a luscious looking fruit and, with Z’s permission, bought some. ‘Persimmon’, announced Z, after consulting her IPhone.  Z works as an assistant to the professor of the university who was instrumental in inviting us. She did a course in the UK but is still unsure of her English and so, during our stay, she relied heavily on her online English to Chinese dictionary.  (However, we learnt that Chinese school kids nowadays are being taught English at the primary level. A small boy who came up to us when we were visiting the university’s swimming pool spoke flawless English in an American accent.)  Z’s parents are both doctors. During the week she was busy looking after us she reached home at nine or later (driving back sometimes took a couple of hours, she said, because of the rush hour traffic at Kunming), only to wake up early the next morning so that she could be at the guest house to give us our breakfast at eight. Z wants to live near the university when she marries and acquires her own house. This would allow her to walk to work. Most Chinese families now have two or more cars and parking space is expensive. I asked Z about Chinese cars but she couldn’t recall the names, saying that most Chinese preferred to buy foreign cars. She herself likes Audis because they are easy to handle. Petrol was about the same price in China as it is in India. (Incidentally, she told me that driving a taxi wasn’t as paying as before, and taxi owners in Kunming preferred to hire their cars to hardworking migrants from the provinces rather than do the driving themselves.)  ‘Take rest,’ I said to her as we were leaving for the airport. The delegation gave her a few small gifts but the only way of repaying her and our Chinese colleagues would be to extend the same hospitality when they visit Tezpur University.


In a thoughtful passage in From Heaven Lake (1983), Vikram Seth attempts to answer a question he encountered in an economics textbook: ‘If you were to be born tomorrow, would you prefer to be born in China or India?’ He concludes that for a poor person China was preferable since the Chinese state had done a far better job of providing for the needy than the Indian. However, for a middle class person, who did not have to worry about his next meal, India was better because of its democracy (which Seth describes as halting, hypocritical, and hopeless). But I am not sure if it any longer makes sense to talk of India and China in the same breath. According to Souvick, our Chinese expert, Kunming’s position in a list of the top cities of China would be fifteenth or sixteenth. However, the city I saw, with its skyscrapers, wide streets, and well-designed public spaces, is far superior to any Indian city. We drove into the countryside and, as far as I could tell, the development seems even, unlike in India where a short drive away from the metros (themselves a mix of the developed and underdeveloped world) brings you to the Third World. As for Chinese faculty and students I met, none thought their lives were less free because they lived in China. One can of course say that the Chinese fear of disorder is very great and predisposes them to a certain view. But a nation which has achieved so unprecedented a rate of development, and has so impressive a record in ameliorating the conditions of its people, is bound to have a very grateful, supportive, and loyal citizenry.

Nandarani, our Education Officer who runs the Equal Opportunity Cell at Tezpur University, was invited to give a talk on ‘Equal Opportunities, Needs and Measures: Perspectives from India’. She had worked hard on her presentation, condensing a mass of materials, but was not certain how it would be received, given the Chinese unfamiliarity with peculiarly Indian terms like ‘Scheduled Caste’ and ‘reservation’. The presentation was well received by our Chinese colleagues, especially the social scientists. Listening to her explaining the history and ideology behind India’s own welfare schemes, it was difficult not to appreciate the idealism and the vision shown by our leaders, especially the early ones, even though it was painfully obvious to me that the Indian state had largely failed to deliver on its promises.


After we had our work, we felt we could do a little sightseeing. Photo shows Souvick and me at the St

After we had done our work, we felt we could do a little sightseeing. Photo shows Souvick and me at the Stone Forest in Yunnan.

Having accomplished what we had come to do, we felt we could indulge in a bit of sightseeing. Our hosts arranged for us to go to the Stone Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about a hundred kilometres from Kunming. The limestone formations there look like a ‘stone forest’, a landscape unlike anything I had seen. On the morning of our departure we were taken to Yunnan Minority Village. Tourist spots in Kunming aren’t as commercialized as those in the US but at the Minority Village we found quite a few shops selling curios and souvenirs which proved useful to pick up small gifts for friends and colleagues back home. We left Kunming at 11.50 pm and, thanks to the time difference, reached Kolkata at 11.40 pm. The huge, new airport at Kolkata had impressed me as being of global standards. Now it somehow seemed smaller and less plushy compared to its bigger twin at Kunming.

Remembering Batiram Das Peck

A mid-nineteenth century missionary report gives us a rare glimpse of the Sibsagor Mission Press, the first printing press in Assam. It was here that the Orunodoi, the first Assamese newspaper and periodical, and many of the first Assamese books were published. We learn that the printing department consisted of two printing presses, a bindery, three engravers, and a small foundry for casting type. Especially interesting is the report’s reference to thirty-three individuals involved in ‘printing, binding, and type-casting’ work.  These ‘men and boys’ are anonymous but from other sources we know the names of the two Assamese converts who were an integral part of the Mission Press: Nidhi Levi Farwell and Batiram Das Peck. At the time of the report they had recently been appointed as preachers and transferred, temporarily, as it turned out, from the printing press.

This illustration accompanied Nidhi's 'Death of Batiram' which appeared in the June 1853 issue of the Orunodoi.

This illustration accompanied Nidhi’s ‘Death of Batiram’ which appeared in the June 1853 issue of the Orunodoi.

Nidhi, the better educated of the two, wrote quite frequently in the Orunodoi. On the basis of his writings and the occasional reference to him in the missionary records, Maheswar Neog was able to write a small monograph on him, which was published by Sahiyta Akademi in 1985. Neog believed that Nidhi was the right-hand man of the Orunodoi’s first editor, Nathan Brown, and also of subsequent editors (Appleton H. Danforth, Samuel M. Whiting, William Ward and Edward W. Clark), and that he had an important role in the management of the Orunodoi. Batiram was the compositor and the foreman of the press but it is difficult to reconstruct his life and work with any certainty because he seems to have written very little, if at all. Neog thought that an article on the evils of opium in the maiden issue of the Orunodoi was written by Batiram since it was signed ‘Bd’ but we cannot be sure. Two brief obituary notices, one written by Nidhi in the Orunodoi and the other by Whiting in the Baptist Missionary Magazine, are nearly the only sources of information on him.


Nidhi’s ‘Discovery of Printing’ appeared in the March 1846 issue of the Orunodoi.

An 1846 report on the Sibsagor Mission Press mentions that the ‘the services of a native assistant have been secured, and others can be trained to the work as may be required.’ Batiram is referred to by name for the first time in a report of July 1849 which says that O.T. Cutter, the printer of the Mission Press, has fallen ill and that in his absence the responsibility of the press has passed on to Nathan Brown who has ‘found a most faithful and valuable helper in the native assistant Batiram.’ The Sibsagor Mission Press’s annual statements of printing show that its presses were in constant operation, producing a steady stream of religious and pedagogical publications. The press did some job work for the colonial administration and tea planters as well. We can try and imagine a day in the life of the foreman of this busy press.  The job, which put Batiram at the head of a team and at the centre of most activity in the printing department, seems to have required several skills. Apart from Batiram’s duties of composing the layout and supervising the actual printing of the sheets, which involved the proper mixing of inks to obtain the required colour and consistency, he probably also did some proof-reading, handled the preparation of fonts and types, ensured that the persons engaged in binding did so correctly, and had the completed work or volumes delivered to the Depository.

Batiram became the third (or perhaps the fourth) Assamese to convert when he was baptized on March 9, 1845.  Whiting writes that Batiram nearly died in February 1845 as a result of illness and that he accepted Christianity on recovering, saying he had been a secret worshiper for two years. Batiram’s conversion caused quite a stir in Hindu society for, unlike Nidhi, the first Assamese convert, he came from a high caste. In Batiram’s journal, which he kept from the day of his baptism, and which Whiting described as ‘worthy of publication, in Assamese if not in English’, he recorded the hostility he faced for having converted. One Sunday evening in 1849 he confessed in church that he had been ‘guilty of the sin of licentiousness.’ It seems to have been quite a dramatic event: ‘For more than half an hour Batiram poured forth his confession with groans and tears. There was not a dry eye in the room.’  That same year Batiram married Moina, a girl from the Mission’s school at Guwahati. In 1851 his appointment as preacher was regularized. Whiting writes with feeling about a twenty-eight day preaching tour he undertook with Batiram in January 1852 to Jorhat and its vicinity. Since the reaction of the people was either hostile or indifferent, Whiting wondered if the Assamese would ever become Christians. Batiram replied ‘that he did not think the older persons ever would, but many of the young people, being able to read and hearing from time to time about the Christian religion, would believe in Christ.’ During this tour Batiram told Whiting he did not think he would live long: ‘Something,’ he said, ‘whispers to me that “time is short.”’ Batiram died on May 28, 1853 after a month’s illness and was buried in the mission cemetery at Sivasagar, (as it is currently spelled).

Batiram worked in the Sibsagor Mission Press from 1846 till July 1852 and was unable to devote much time to preaching. His expectation that the younger generation of Assamese would convert to Christianity did not of course come to pass. The story of how missionaries like Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson contributed to the ‘resuscitation of the Assamese language’ is well known. The American Baptist missionaries did indeed bring about a fundamental change by their introduction of print culture and technology in Assam, though not on the lines they had envisaged. The nineteenth-century Assamese intelligentsia appropriated print and used it to create a public sphere. In time they were not only able to win official recognition for the Assamese language from the British administration but also construct, in a competitive colonial environment, a set of new regional, national, and modern identities.

An unsigned article on printing which appeared in the Orunodoi’s July 1849 issue had this illustration.

In Book History through Postcolonial Eyes, Robert Fraser notes that early European authors and publishers often did not bother to acknowledge the local help that made their work possible. He cites the example of Nathaniel Brassey Halhed who published A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778), the first book to be printed in Bengal, but failed to mention the contribution of Panchanama Karmarkar, the metallurgist who designed the Bengali font. The missionaries were no different; their proselytization rested on the same assumptions as colonialism. So we do not know the name of the Khamti youth whose skillful woodcuts were used for an Assamese version of Worcester’s Primer published in April 1838, or the names of the thirty-three ‘men and boys’ who were part of the Sibsagor Mission Press in the 1850s.  We make much the same mistake when as readers, critics, teachers of literature, and literary historians we ignore the role of printers, book sellers and other (often humble) intermediaries who make reading material available to us. Batiram is honoured in the small Assamese Christian community as an early church leader and composer of hymns but he should be more widely remembered for the contribution he made by keeping the mission’s presses rolling.



Two stamps and a little Naga and Mizo History

Last month the government shut down its telegraph service. The government’s postal service of course continues to be used by millions of our compatriots who still communicate through non-electronic forms. The Department of Posts however no longer has the importance it once did in the day-to-day lives of many Indians like me who now not only use email, social media, and mobile phones but also private, courier services. In fact, I can’t even recall the last time I licked a stamp.

Curiosity and a bit of nostalgia led me to the philately section of India Post’s website. I learnt that over three thousand stamps have been issued by the postal department since Independence. These stamps attempt to chronicle and celebrate the achievements of modern India. The range is epic, and the artwork often brilliant. The stamps of course tell the story of India in a particular way. The perspectives they present can be contested. I can’t resist commenting on two stamps (out of the thousands) that I saw.

Nehru as Naga leader.

Nehru as Naga leader.
(Image source: indiapost.gov.in)

The first is this stamp issued in 1967.  It shows Nehru as tribal chieftain, leading a group of Nagas. The stamp reminded me of Nehru’s disastrous visit to Kohima in 1951. The Naga insurgency was the first serious challenge to the idea of India. Nehru’s vision was multicultural and his concern for the welfare of tribals was genuine, if paternalistic. But the call by the Naga National Council (NNC) for separation made Nehru less sympathetic. During his visit to Kohima, a public meeting was scheduled to welcome him. NNC leaders, who were determined to attain independence from India, wanted to give him a petition reiterating their demand. However, the local authorities refused to let more than three persons meet Nehru.  They also wanted the petition to be submitted after the public meeting. When Nehru arrived at the venue (along with a guest, the Burmese prime minister U Nu), the Nagas left en masse, smacking their bottoms. This is the account Nirmal Nibedon gives in Nagaland: The Night of the Guerrillas. According to Ramchandra Guha in India After Gandhi, the Nagas bared their bottoms. There was a crackdown after this. NNC leaders went underground, and Nehru never visited the Naga Hills again.

The stamp gives no hint of Nehru’s actual relationship with the Nagas and vice versa. It shows Nehru dressed in his usual attire but wearing a Naga head-dress and carrying a spear. The Nagas appear in full tribal regalia. At first they look like stereotypical war-like Nagas but their demeanour is docile rather than hostile as they tamely follow Nehru, the prime minister of a new nation.

Commemorating the Mizo accord.

Commemorating the Mizo accord. (Image source: indiapost.gov.in)

Today, half a century later, ‘the Naga problem’ still awaits a solution that is acceptable to both sides. In contrast, the Mizo Accord was signed in 1986 and is generally acknowledged to have been successful. A stamp issued in 1999 commemorates the accord.  If the first stamp made me smile, this one gave me a small jolt. The stamp focuses on a handshake between two persons, one presumably a representative of the Indian state and the other of the Mizo National Front (MNF). In the background are a communications tower – and a passenger plane. By including these symbols of development, the artist was probably trying to convey the message that the Mizos had joined the national mainstream and had come closer to India and the world. Some time back I saw a news conference on TV in which P C Chidambaram, the then  Home  Minister, explained patiently to a journalist, who had asked if the government was considering using helicopter gunships against the Naxalites, that you do not machine gun or bomb your own people. But in 1966 the IAF did both: jet fighters strafed  MNF targets and carried out air raids on Aizawl and surrounding villages. That is why I found the aircraft jarring, even though I know it is a domestic airliner and not a fighter plane.

I never took up stamp collecting in my school days. This had something to do with the fact that our teachers urged us to do so. Stamps taught you history, they said, making it sound less of a pleasurable hobby and more of an academic exercise. That stamps  do indeed teach you history but in deeply ideological ways was something I came to understand much later.