THE FOLLOWING ARE SOME delightful and inspirational excerpts from Acharya Jadunath Sarkar’s personal reminiscences on how he built up his personal library. Calling it a “personal library” is an understatement of epic proportions. In reality, his library arguably rivalled that of full-fledged universities and professional libraries. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Do the full piece! The original is titled How My Library Grew Up, published in 1958, a few months before the Acharya joined the ranks of the immortals.
When I was a schoolboy in the 5th class (now called the Seventh Standard), we had to read a little Greek history. Our text-book was a charmingly written American work, Peter Parley’s Universal History, as simple and pleasant as Little Arthur’s History of England. The style and the stories lured us to read it through, and we had to give our answers in Bengali, so that we understood the contents. In the next higher class we read the chapters on Roman history from the same volume. Thus I came to know of the battles of Epaminondas and Alexander, Hannibal and Cesar.
How I longed to visualise those battles! Just then came my opportunity. In the days before the Suez Canal, the British officers who came to serve in India, often passed fifteen or even twenty years here before taking furlough home. Most of them, therefore, brought with themselves a collection of good books to beguile the time during their Indian exile. Wellington, when he came to India as a Colonel (1798) brought a fairly large library in his ship. So also did Elphinstone and others.
At the time of their retirement they used to sell their furniture and libraries, and the Indian grandees of their last stations used to buy them, My father as a zamindar in Rajshahi (North Bengal) used to buy the books of the retiring Magistrates and Judges of that district. His passion was for History,—fiction and poetry being his aversion. I found among his books a copy of the History of the Art of War, by Baron de Jomini (a former General of Napoleon), which was a standard text-book in the military colleges of England.
Here were the battles of Epaminondas illustrated by plans I could now visualise this antique hero’s famous oblique attack and marching en echelon, or Hannibal’s encircling tactics at Canne. In the Fourth Class, geometry was introduced into our course, and I began to draw oblongs and semi-circles to illustrate the military movements I had read of in dear old Peter Parley. Thus the microbe of military historiography entered into my brain and I was doomed to become a military bore (civil division) when I grew up.
Then, after passing the Matric examination (in 1887) I first read Tennyson’s Ode on the Burial of the Duke of Wellington, where I came upon this passage:
“This is he that far away
Against the myriads of Assaye
Clash’d with his fiery few and won.”
Ever since then I have been intrigued by the question—How did it happen that a fiery few could defeat myriads who were not cowards or weaklings, when both sides fought with firearms?
From that time it became my passion to buy rare books on Indian history,—at first those written in English and relating to the British period only. My educational expenses were paid by my father and I was free to spend all my own money from the first grade scholarships which I enjoyed throughout my college life, on these “India books.” The second-hand book-sellers of Calcutta found in me their most liberal (and gullible) patron, and thus the rare books on indian history discarded by the European clubs, barracks and private owners (like Prince Ghulam Husain, the last, grandson of Tipu Sultan, who died in Calcutta) were first offered to me.
I thus laid the foundation of my historical library, but when I passed the Premchand Examination (1897) and undertook orignal research, my library grew and branched like the proverbial banyan tree. I discarded my Calcutta suppliers and began to give large orders, year after year, to the famous second-hand book sellers of England,—Luzac and Trubner, Francis Edwards and Blackwell. George’s Sons of Bristo were my first and most copious agent in England (from 1898 onwards). After thirty years this stream stopped through fullness of collection and also the demands of my new love,—original research with the help of Persian, Marathi and English MSS. and records. The saturation point in printed English books had now ben reached.
To be continued
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