The Archives: Day Zero
By: Nishant Batsha
When asked to write about my experiences in the archive, my mind ambled back towards that first day – that first breath of the stale, air-conditioned air of the National Archives of India. Of course, every history has its pre-history; before I could breathe in that de-humidified air, I needed to establish myself as some sort of scholar. I wish I could say that this transformation from student to researcher had, couched within its metamorphosis, some celebration of academic liminality. Instead, it was more akin to a check-list of administrative banality.
Did I have my letter of introduction from my department? (Tucked into a folder in my laptop bag) Photocopies of my OCI card and passport? Passport photos? After a week of traversing the scorching Delhi heat (this was June, after all), and ensuring that all my paperwork was in order, I was ready to enter.
An explosion of gesticulations and loud, snappy quips with auto-wallahs followed. “Archives, archives, yeh archives kya hai?” (Archives, archive, what are these archives?) They doubted the veracity of the archives as a Real Place – something I now take as a refreshing reminder that the archives may not have been as hallowed as I thought. After one shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about a fare being a fare, I finally arrived in Janpath. I registered myself with the archivist. I put everything I had – minus my laptop – in a locker. I situated myself in the reading room.
And I had one clear thought: “Shit.”
I entered a room with two rows of maybe fourteen desks with perhaps twelve eyes behind them (all trained on me – who’s the new guy?). Sweat was already trickling down my back from the 41-degrees-celsius-plus-humidity outside, so thankfully no one could notice the cortisol-induced beads that joined in. The walls were lined with short bookshelves containing hard-bound indexes, organized by department. Each volume referenced a document that an archivist could fetch from the building above. I grabbed an index at random. Home Department. What the hell was the Home Department? What did it have to do with my search? How was all of this organized?
Where was the newest computer? I needed a digitized database to search. I would have even settled for the Dewey Decimal System or at least open stacks – anything that would seem remotely familiar. Panic settled in relatively quickly after this. What was I doing here? I clearly had no idea what to do. Perhaps I should have listened to my parents – training to operate on brains would be easier than this, right? Right?
Misery may thrive on Company, but I have a feeling it tends to simply seek out Reassurance. I would have been comforted by the reality that most, if not all, historians feel this kind of archive-induced sense of inadequacy. Nicholas Dirks, an eminent historian (and full disclosure, one of my academic advisors), wrote, “the first time I entered the archive, I panicked. My historical zeal inexplicably vanished as I desperately stemmed a welling desire to exit immediately and search for the nearest pub.” (I suppose Misery may also love Alcohol.) The question-mark of unfamiliar organization too hung over his head: “I tried to imagine which index to consult, what department to decipher, how best to control the chaos of what seemed an infinite chain of documents.”
In the end, I wasn’t going to turn around and go home (I couldn’t, my return ticket wasn’t for another month-and-a-half). Stockholm Syndrome flooded my nerves: it was time to open one of these large, heavy tomes. And after a few hours, I finally had a list of documents that seemed somewhat interesting and maybe even appropriate for my research. I filled out the requisition slips and walked over to the archivist. As I placed it them in the inbox, he looked up:
“The last requisition for the day was at 2:00. It’s now two-fifteen. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow after 9:00 to receive these documents.”
The feeling that I sought – that of history sitting in my hands – would have to wait.
[For those interested in the Nicholas Dirks essay quoted above, see: “Annals of the Archive: Ethnographic Notes on the Sources of History” in Brian Keith Axel, ed., From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures (Duke University Press, 2002). And for another take on the National Archives of India, see the 'Delhi Walla's' account.]
Nishant Batsha (http://nishantb.tumblr.com) is a perennial student and sometimes writer. He divides his time between being a graduate student in history and attempting to write creatively.