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Literary Surveillance in the British Raj: The Contradictions of Liberal Imperialism

From: Book History
Volume 4, 2001
pp. 133-176 | 10.1353/bh.2001.0007

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Book History 4 (2001) 133-176


William Lawler made a most unlikely literary policeman. He was a librarian, a learned librarian, who looked out on the teeming city of Calcutta from the perspective of Roman antiquity and Victorian morality. Before him, spread out on a table, lay a huge sheet of paper divided into sixteen columns. Behind him, in endless rows of shelves, were books, a huge harvest of books from Bengal in the year 1879. Lawler's job was to fill in the columns.

The first columns posed no problem. They organized the information required for the registration of new books; and their printed headings conformed to Act XXV of the Governor General of India in Council for 1867: language of text, author, subject, place of printing and publication, name of printer and publisher, date of publication, number of pages, format, edition, press run, printing by movable type or lithography, price, owner of copyright. All this information had been supplied by the publishers, along with three deposit copies of the books to be registered. By recording it, Lawler conferred a legal existence on the books, because any unregistered publication was deemed to be outside the law, and its publisher or printer could be punished with a two-year jail sentence and a five-thousand-rupee fine. Once he had had his book registered and had paid two rupees, the publisher acquired a copyright for all of British India. Lawler used the deposit copies to build the Bengal Library into a great repository of literature. And the government of Bengal used the filled-out forms to keep a record of all the books published in the province. It printed them in the form of a "catalogue," which it issued four times a year as a supplement to its official gazette. The Indian Civil Service (ICS) tried to keep track of books in the same way that it compiled information on grain harvests, irrigation ditches, railroads, and cattle.

But books were different, because they could be explosive. The catalogues, despite their innocent-sounding name, were not available to the general public. They circulated secretly within the channels of the ICS--"A" matter deemed to be "confidential"--along with identical catalogues from the other provincial governments. Taken together, they provided the agents of the Raj with a running account of everything in the subcontinent that appeared in print -- or at least everything that printers and publishers submitted for registration. The catalogue entries from 1868 to 1905 cover about two hundred thousand titles -- more, by far, than the total output in France during the Age of Enlightenment. For Bengal alone, the catalogues from those years run to fifteen enormous volumes, each containing five hundred pages or more, each page covered with small print. Their scale is staggering: more than a million words, printed with precision in sixteen standard columns. They show the ICS talking to itself about the "natives," a discourse on literature by the colonial authorities at the high tide of imperialism -- or, to invoke Foucault, power being shaped as knowledge.

Lawler satisfied the discursive requirements of his job when he filled in the blank space under the last of the rubrics, column 16: "Remarks." He summarized the narratives of novels, poems, and plays in a way that would make their moral clear for his own readers, the men who ruled over the "natives" in the ICS. Thus his remarks on the Bengali epic poem Vana-Vihangini, or The Female Bird of the Forest:

The present work of eight chapters commences with a touching appeal to Mother India, whose sad lot is deplored, and the oppression at the hands of the Yavans (or foreigners) pronounced unbearable. The first chapter contains an account of a Brahmin who supported himself and his wife Sundari in a forest by alms, till one day a Nabab [provincial governor] of Bengal, who came on a hunting excursion, chanced to alight there, saw his wife, and during his absence took her away. The second describes the return of the Brahmin husband after the usual day's begging. In the third he finds his wife gone, and is in deep distress thereat. In the fourth chapter, advice is...

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