Writings from the past

An upcoming auction of rare books and manuscripts by a city-based auction house digs out stories from the early colonial period.

Charles Ball’s The History Of The Indian Mutiny contains extensive accounts of sepoy movements that had rattled colonial India in the late 19th century. The American correspondent, who, incidentally, happened to be in the subcontinent during the first wave of fight for independence, records an interesting account. “On page number 176, he talks about the Nawab of Bareilly. He was a Muslim nawab and was against British occupying India. So he talks to Hindu maharajas and princes, and proclaims that if the two communities join together to kick the British out of the country since they were damaging the two religions, then the Muslims will give the same reverence to cows as Hindus have,” narrates Sunil Baboo, a proud owner of the rare book. “It’s very peculiar how they were ready to give up eating cow to preserve their religion and communities, and exist without any problems created by the British,” reveals Baboo before adding that the book along with 60 other rare books and prints from his collection will be up for an online auction by a city-based research auction house Prinseps.


The auction, which is scheduled for next week, will see some of the rarest and unique books and prints – mostly from the early colonial period – going under the gavel. As a history enthusiast, Baboo has been collecting books since 1982, and the auction catalogue boasts of the books that he has now acquired over several decades. In what is a highlight, one can find John Zephaniah Holwell’s much contested first-person account of the 1756’s infamous Black Hole tragedy in Calcutta, published in the The Scots Magazine in the auction. Another gem in the collection is A Dictionary of English and Hindustani by John Shakespeare, whose genealogy can be traced back to the playwright William Shakespeare, gives a peek into the British perception of then colloquial Indian languages like Zaban-i-Urdu, Rekhta, Hindi, Hindustani and Dakhani. Other collectibles include Munier William’s Sakoontala and De Vita Caesarum or The Twelve Caesars, a biographical chronicle of the Caesars of Rome among others.

Indrajit Chatterjee, the founder of the auction house, has carefully curated the collection by taking into consideration certain factors that deem a book ‘valuable’ or ‘collectible’. “The content of the book, the author, and where it was published, are extremely important. Further, Baboo has ensured that the conditions of the books are superb,” he says. What further adds value to the books are their provenance and previous ownership that adds marks of history to the books. “Earlier, the books were printed out and bound specifically to the requirements of the end buyers. So some of these books have coat of arms of the end buyers and even some barons, subsequently they have been in other libraries, which makes it very interesting,” adds Chatterjee.

The most expensive in the collection is a six-volume set of one of the earliest editions of the seminal text The Works of Sir William Jones. William Jones was not just the founder of the Asiatic Society of India, but also a noted chronicler of the country. “Jones was quite a scholar, he knew Persian, Hindi and wrote in Sanskrit. These books talk about India as a country, its various regions with cultural aspects, and talks a lot about the geology of the places,” he says, before adding that soon after there were two supplementary copies that were also published which are also in the collection.

In a bid to highlight how remarkable and unusual stories are often found in such rare books, Baboo narrates one from one of the supplementary book. “If you go through it, there is a sadhu doing penance. He is sitting with his hands raised towards the sky, never bringing it down. So you could imagine him relaying to the writer his journey that he starts from Allahabad, to Kanchipuram, then to Colombo and then Gujarat. He then moves to Pakistan, travels all across the Middle-East to Egypt, Jordan, and goes all the way to Moscow. All because he was basically finding and locating Hindu communities across the social geography, and all the time his hands were in the air,” he concludes.

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