Cataloging from the Kitchen: The Luminous World of Arun Ghosh

On February 10, 2016 by admin

Arun Ghosh (CSSS)

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta

Arun Ghosh (1933-2015), phenomenal librarian and archivist who guided many humanities and social science researchers of Kolkata for over four decades, passed away last February unsung in death as in life. Arun-babu, as he was widely known, was the founder librarian of Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (Kolkata). Late in life he also built from scratch the Bhabani Sen Library of rare communist periodicals and books in Bhupesh Bhavan, the headquarters of the CPI in the city.

The Moments of Bengal Partition : Selections from the Amrita Bazar Patrika, 1947 – 48 is the outcome of Arun-babu’s meticulous research and offers a selection of news and  editorial articles from the Amrita Bazar Patrika, the leading ‘nationalist’ daily of the time, in the months immediately before the Partition and after. Towards the end of his life, Arun-babu was engaged in another significant compilation as he was editing a dictionary of Bengali terms associated with books, reading and library usage.

In remembering Arun Ghosh a year after his passing, I offer excerpts from a long interview with him that I did in 2012 for the golden jubilee archive of IIMC, Joka (reproduced with permission). Arun-babu had also served IIMC as a young librarian in its initial years. In the interview he came across as a great raconteur with an inexhaustible stock of anecdotes. These excerpts largely trace the extraordinary journey of a young man growing up in Calcutta in a refugee family in the late-40s and early 50s, who began as a worker at the Ichhapur Gun and Shell Factory, spent a few years working at the office of the Providend Fund Commissioner—spending much time browsing and reading on his own all this while—and finally chose to be a librarian for his love of books.


On his childhood and growing up, Independence and Partition

I was born on 24 July 1933 in a village in Barisal in East Bengal [now Bangladesh]. My father used to work in Kolkata, and we came away here. I distinctly remember that when I got admitted to school at the age of 5 or 6, my father had rented a house in Agarpara. This would be around 1939 or 1940. There was no school in Agarpara then. So I would have to commute by train daily to the nearest school. Now for a child of that age, commuting by train posed certain dangers. At this point my grandfather, who was a teacher in a school in Ulpur in Faridpur district of east Bengal, wrote to my father, saying, if you send the boy to me, he can stay here and study in my school. So at age 7 I was admitted to class III in that school. When I was in class IX my grandfather was taken seriously ill. My maternal uncles brought him to Calcutta and I accompanied them and began living with my grandfather in a rented house in Dakshineshwar. That was 1946. Partition came within a year.

I was admitted to a school here in 1947 in class IX. On Independence Day I heard that one could travel free in buses coming to Kolkata, and that they would take you to Fort William. Along with a few of my classmates I came to Kolkata and took the tour. I remember it distinctly. But the euphoria vanished within a year. In 1948 when Gandhiji was assassinated, I was thinking a bit differently, perhaps I was getting to be politically aware. I remember, when the news came to Dakshineshwar I fasted the whole day. Maybe I had thought that bereavement could also be expressed through fasting. This reaction was very spontaneous.

Another memory that haunts me to this day is the memory of refugees coming from East Pakistan in hordes, including several of my very close relations. They were gathering in the vicinity of our house, and looking for places for shelter. I was seeing all this. And then gradually I lost the feeling of joy that I had about Independence just a year ago. I was seeing my own close relations suffer. I was seeing refugee life in Sealdah station. It was terrible. I was reacting to all this happening around me and I could no longer concentrate on my studies. I somehow took my Matriculation in 1949, and just managed to scrape through.

My younger brother and sisters were all in school. Some of my close relations from our native place were staying with us in that small one-roomed house, some were shacking up in the verandah, and some were putting up in accommodations in the locality. My father just had his small income to support all of them. I initially got admitted to a college for my Intermediate. It used be IA then. We had moved to Sodepur during this time. My father told me, ‘I won’t be able to afford your IA expenses. You’ll have to buy books, commute from Sodepur to the college. Since you are a Matriculate now, why don’t you look for a job? I’ll try to look around too.’ I was only 16 years old then. I had to quit college and look for a job. Highly qualified individuals from east Bengal were also looking for jobs, and they were taking up any job that came their way. They were even taking up jobs of labourers, or some small odd jobs in shops, or even working as domestic help in rich families, so that shelter and food would be provided for.


Checking gun parts for a living and studying at night

Anyway, I registered my name in the Barrackpore Employment Exchange. I was called for a job interview of a ‘Viewer’ at the Ichhapur Gun and Shell Factory. The job title was rather showy, but my job was to measure the separate components of the rifle to check whether they were of the correct size. So I was basically ‘viewing’ whether the shapes and sizes of the gun parts were okay or not. This was my job. My salary was Rs 80, with a one rupee annual increment. I joined towards the end of 1950. With this I could help my father with about Rs 60 every month. My railway monthly ticket cost Rs 20 and I ate in the factory canteen. It was a great help to my family.

Meanwhile, my sister managed to clear Matriculation, giving tuitions to small kids all along the way. Then she joined Victoria Institution near Sealdah for her IA. This was when I thought why don’t I too resume studies for my IA, using her books and notes? I had not given up my reading even when I had to take up a job and quit college in those turbulent times during 1949-1950. I was a regular at my neighbourhood library and went there as a library hand.

Now I started looking up my sister’s books and got myself admitted to an evening college. I would reach the factory around 7.30 in the morning, eat in the canteen, take a train to Sealdah around 4.30 pm after factory hours, and head for the evening college at Bangabasi. The most interesting part was that Bangabasi College was a college for boys during the day; but the evening classes were started by the college authorities in a co-education mode in order to accommodate several young refugee boys and girls who were engaged in some work during the day, but wanted to continue with their studies at night. I got admitted for my Intermediate in 1956. And all my college-mates in the evening section of Bangabasi College were girls and boys around 22-23 years of age, because all of them had quit after Matriculation and could join college only after getting a foothold after four or five years of work. All of them—I don’t remember the exact figures now—were from refugee families.

There were quite a few girls too. We boys had comparatively fewer responsibilities. But these girls had to manage a job, manage household duties, and then come to college. They had to work in three different capacities.

By and by I passed IA and BA from Bangabasi College. Around this time, that is 1960, a circular was issued by the government stating that all employees who had enhanced their educational qualification since taking up jobs, were free to take no-objection certificates from the factory authorities and try for better jobs through the employment exchange. Several of us availed of this opportunity and registered with an employment exchange in Kolkata.


Poignant memories of years at the Providend Fund Commissioner’s

I got a call from the Providend Fund Commissioner’s Office. In 1951 several trade union groups forced the government to pass an Employees’ Providend Fund Scheme Act. An office of the Providend Fund Commissioner was set up in Park Street, whose responsibility was to check whether every factory was routinely depositing providend fund of their employees. This accumulated with the employers’ contribution and remained deposited with this office. My responsibility was to settle the dues of the factory workers who retired, or retrenched from service, or died.

Some memories of claim settlement remain etched in my mind to this day. There was a file that contained providend fund details of the tea gardens owned by British companies. When a worker died, or retired, or was retrenched, the respective companies sent us a form, with a request to settle providend fund dues. I had to once settle dues of a brother-sister, Budhia Oraon and Budhia Oraoin. They would go with their parents to collect leaves from the forests and as they were child workers they would get weekly wages of fifty paise and seventy five paise respectively. For the brother who was twelve years old, the reason for termination of service indicated in the form was ‘taken by tiger,’ and for the younger sister it was ‘drowned in a stream.’ I remember to have sent something like eight rupees or ten rupees by money order to their parents. It was a terribly painful experience.

There was another interesting case. The periodical Basumati used to be edited by Barin Ghose in those days. Barin Ghose, the revolutionary terrorist and Aurobindo Ghose’s brother. The authorities at Basumati had sent in a claim settlement after his death. The norm was to ascertain the nominee, if any but I figured out Barin Ghose had no nominee. In such cases I would have to tell the police to conduct an inquiry and tell us the name of the inheritor. I would then have to write to the inheritor formally. So I referred this case to the police. The police report stated that Barin Ghose had married a widow late in life. His wife, a school teacher, had two sons by her first marriage. They were at that point of time grown up and well settled and their mother had also passed away. So Barin Ghose’s stepsons were his legal heirs.

When I wrote to one of the sons, he sent back a reply to my office saying that, ‘when our mother left us and went away with Barin Ghose, we had severed all ties with her. Hence, we won’t accept this money, even though it legally accrues to us.’ As per rules, the money reverted to the government suspense account.


Towards becoming a librarian

Through all these years, however, I kept up my habit of reading. It was reading at random, but I was reading voraciously. I was thinking of doing a course in librarianship or journalism. Calcutta University had started evening classes for both these subjects. I chose librarianship also for pragmatic reasons. In the Second Five-Year Plan period I noticed that the government was planning to develop district libraries as part of the public library movement which would create openings for librarians. So I enrolled myself in Calcutta University for a one-year diploma course.

It was here that I met someone who would be my life partner and wife later. We were batch-mates in that librarianship course. Her father had passed away and she was looking after a large family. She would give tuition, and that is how she supported her family and raised funds for her own studies. Somewhat like me. Then she did her graduation, and subsequently while teaching at a school, came to the university on a deputation to enroll for librarianship. We met around 1960. Later she went on to becoming a school librarian.

As for me, as soon as I got my diploma, one of my teachers, Bimalendu Majumdar, who was in charge of the Ramakrishna Mission library in Gol Park, made me an offer. I readily agreed as I loved this kind of work though I knew I would be earning much less than at the Providend Fund Commissioner’s. And there would be no government pension too. After a year of work in the Ramakrishna Mission library I came across an advertisement in The Statesman for recruitment of cataloguers at IIM, Kolkata. This was towards the end of 1963.  The job of a cataloguer would be to study a book and identify its category and classify it as well. I sent in my application. They had wanted a minimum of a year’s experience. I had just a month to complete a year in my job, but applied, nonetheless.


Jibananda Das and the IIMC interview

IIM was quite a daunting proposition—I had heard that Americans teach there, then there was some collaboration with the Ford Foundation and MIT. Anyway, I somehow mustered up courage to face the interview board when I was called. Ashok Mitra, the economist—fresh from the World Bank, who later became our finance minister—and Indu Sukhtankar, the IIMC librarian were on the interview board. Indu Sukhtankar asked me questions on librarianship and Ashok Mitra was listening very attentively to my answers. Then he asked me, ‘Where was your native village?’ I answered, ‘Barisal.’ The next question was: ‘Can you name any of the famous poets of Barisal?’ I said, ‘Yes, Jibanananda Das.’ Then he asked if I knew the name of any his books. To that I replied, ‘Most people will say Banalata Sen; but I’ve also read his Dhusar Pandulipi.’ I could make out that the economist was rather pleased with my response. I came to know later that he regularly wrote literary essays in the periodical Chaturanga and he was a keen lover of poetry. Much later I formed a deep friendship with him, which remains intact to this day. There have been differences with him on political grounds and we have had spirited arguments but I have tremendous admiration for his literary sensibilities and his use of language.

Anyway I got the job and joined IIMC in their old campus on B T Road. It was 1964.  It all began in that old building called Emerald Bowers. The library was housed in that building which is a historic one because this is where Bankimchandra had met Rabindranath. I spent ten years there and my responsibility was to study a book carefully, classify and catalogue it.

What I liked most at the outset was that the professors, all of whom had been educated abroad—highly qualified individuals—some were Americans, who had come as visiting professors—what I liked about them was the cordial manner in which they talked to us, ordinary library workers. They would call each other by first names. There was no tradition of calling someone ‘Sir’ or standing up when he entered—something that we notice in Indian office establishments or universities. This was something that I really liked. The fact that ordinary library workers like us would be treated as peers by these erudite professors touched me very much.

Among the faculty members, Shiv Gupta, Barun De and Ashok Mitra would help us most to select books. Barun De used the library extensively. He had come from Oxford to teach economic history and he had a wide range of interests. So he would suggest a wide range of books for the library. We would often visit booksellers and publishers with these professors. They would choose books and we would accompany them. They would tell me, Arun-babu, please order this book, we’ll need this; to which I’d ask, why do you think this is an important book. And then they would explain in detail. It was a great learning process. Gradually we built up a very rich collection of books and a vast array of journals.


Setting up library in Jadhunath Sarkar’s kitchen

After a few years I was contemplating a change. Not that I was seriously doing anything about it. It was a pure coincidence that one day Barun De, who was actively associated with the creation of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, told me, ‘I would be needing a librarian at the Centre. Would you be interested? There is no library. You’ll have to start from scratch.’ I told him that I liked the idea and he asked me to apply which I did. I still remember the interview board: Surajit Sinha, Barun De, probably Bhabatosh Dutta who was the Chairman, and several other luminaries. I was selected and I started in Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s kitchen, with a table and a chair [CSSS started in Sir Jadhunath’s house which was gifted to the government of West Bengal by his family]. For 20 years I gathered books one by one, occupying the entire ground floor and also the first floor of that building. Just as I hadn’t gone to the new IIMC campus before I left, at the Centre too, I left before they moved to the new campus. The new campus eluded me in both places.

But I learnt a lot in both places. At the management institute, I was cataloguing, ordering, filing and doing the rest of the routine work, but here, where some of the greatest minds were engaged in research—there was no provision for teaching—I was assisting them in their research. And in so doing, I was learning every single day. In my twenty years at the Centre, I’ve benefitted in two ways. I used to get a salary every month. And with it, I used to calculate how little I knew last month, and how much more I know now. This gave me enormous satisfaction and I feel it deeply.


Acknowlegement: The interview was transcribed and translated from Bengali by Sudeshna Banerjee. 
Sarmistha Dutta Gupta is an independent scholar, literary translator and a feminist activist. She is also the founder-secretary of Ebong Alap, a Kolkata-based organization that engages with critical pedagogy and gender-sensitive citizenship.12633704_10153999228664101_4935550743199822830_o

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