IN THE 1990S, I spent many weeks in what must be, or at any rate should be, every Indian’s favourite city—Bombay, a city whose depth of history and richly lived (and intensely felt) cosmopolitanism is in such stark contrast to the even-tempered blandness of my own home town, Bangalore. I would go there twice a year, in February and November, and book myself a room in the Cricket Club of India. Every morning, I would walk across the Oval Maidan, dodging joggers and the odd flying cricket ball, and then skirt round the High Court to the side entrance to Elphinstone College, where, after climbing a staircase stinking with piss, I would arrive at the reading room of the Maharashtra State Archives. Three or four hours of work in the files was a reward in itself, though I often gave myself the further bonus of a Rajasthani thali at Chetana restaurant before returning for some more digging.
In those days, the Maharashtra State Archives were moderately well run (I remember in particular an experienced hand named Lad), and their collections were very rich indeed. Still, my warmest memories of research in Bombay are linked to a private archive that lay down the road, in Apollo Bunder off Colaba Causeway. This archive was housed in the third (and top) floor of a sturdy, stone building owned by the Indian Branch of the Oxford University Press (OUP), the world’s oldest (and greatest) publisher.
A British historian once said that being published by the Oxford University Press was like being married to a duchess—the honour was greater than the pleasure. My experience was otherwise. Not long before I began working in their archives, the OUP had published my first book. As scholarly books go, it was a work of art—set, using hot metal type, in an elegant Baskerville by the legendary PK Ghosh of Eastend Printers, Calcutta. The cover was arresting—a photograph by Sanjeev Saith of a Himalayan oak forest cut up by the designer to represent the ‘unquiet woods’ that the book documented. The prose inside, jargon-ridden and solemnly sociological in its original incarnation, had been rendered moderately serviceable by the intense (and inspired) labours of the book’s editor, a young scholar with a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.
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