The serendipity of the archive

August 20, 2017

Discovering a 100-year-old legal record of our own history -- a copy of The Punjab Record -- on the footpath of Lahore’s Mall Road

The serendipity of  the archive

The process of doing archival research, as most historians and researchers engaged with historical records would know, involves something called the serendipity of the archive. You begin looking through a set of documents or records, following threads and traces of history and you end up encountering something entirely different from what you envisioned when you opened that bundle of papers.

I have encountered this in the dank and dark corridors of library stacks in the West, but when I set foot back on the streets of Lahore, I encountered a different serendipity: I found a 100-year-old legal record of our own history lying on the footpath of Lahore’s Mall Road.

I first encountered this archival chance after an instructor teaching anthropology of Islamic law at Columbia University hurled me into the deep end by suggesting I begin looking at 18th century criminal law records in East India Company territories. I spent long hours at the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library rummaging through these records. In order to look through them, I was consigned to a special glass-walled room with supports for the old books, whose 19th century dust would brush off onto my skin as I turned the pages of our history.

Later, on a fellowship in London, I continued this legal-historical research at the Asian and African Studies reading room of the British Library, which houses the India Office Records. I was struck by the fact that most of our historical records are not only preserved there in pristine form, but that evidence of colonial violence and anti-colonial struggles was also made available to the public at large at the click of a button.

Perhaps it might be a stretch to say that 70 years after partition, Pakistan itself has become an archive bearing residues of colonial violence and its after-effects.

No doubt, these records of their inquest wouldn’t even exist if they hadn’t recorded and preserved them in the first place. When the British took control of various territories in the subcontinent, they brought along their peculiar European archival sensibilities of census, record, archiving, and historical preservation - "rule by record," it came to be called.

The British must have thought their record-keeping sensibilities were lost on the native subjects altogether. Not too long after the British conquered Lahore, they held a Punjab Exhibition in 1864, which became institutionalised in the Lahore Museum - overnight the past became historicised as an archeological record of what had preceded the colonial moment.

In 1914, Colonel T. H. Hendley, in an article titled ‘Indian Museums: A Centenary’ records the history of Western museum institutions in the subcontinent; a history of historicisation, to be exact. "Undoubtedly, the prevailing idea in the East," writes Hendly in high colonial, orientalist fashion, "is that a museum should be a house of wonders. This is the meaning of the popular name Ajaibghar." After fantasising over what possible "wonders" the native subjects must gape at in these archival institutions, he laments that "a museum in the East, which ignores the display of curios, or which neglects so-called attraction" will leave the masses dissatisfied.


A hundred years have passed since these words were uttered, and while we must resist Hendly’s essentialist colonial gaze, we are still confronted with the fact that the Lahore Museum lies in a decrepit state - we have preserved the institution itself, while ignoring the artefacts inside.

Wandering not too far from the Lahore Museum last year, a bout of archival serendipity struck me without warning. As my friend was showing me the Sunday book bazaar on the Mall, my eyes suddenly became fixated on an uncanny object of the archives - a book binding from the colonial era that was all too familiar to me from the stacks in New York and London. What was preserved and kept under lock and key over there, was lying on the footpath of a major thoroughway of Lahore.

I asked Zafar, the old book street vendor, to show me the book and dusted it off. No doubt, it was a copy of The Punjab Record, a reference book for civil officers printed in Lahore in 1915. Though it was still relatively not as old as the records I’m used to studying, I mused over the fact that it was still almost exactly a century old.

Unsuccessful in concealing my enthusiasm I pretended to haggle with Zafar, and agreed to pay him an arbitrary price Rs500 for a fragment of our collective histories. I asked Zafar - the postcolonial archivist - where he was able to collect such mementos of our legal history and what this specimen was doing on the footpath. He told me that he, like 300-400 others involved in the old book trade in Lahore, go every week to the kabar khaana (junkyard) where they get books by the tora - one tora (sack) has about 400 books that he then sifts through, and later separates the law books, among others.

On Sundays they lay them all out on the footpath. "It is very hard work" he told me, saying that he doesn’t believe in wasting books. However, he tells me, the old book business is very slow these days.

Zafar learnt the trade from his father and has been doing it for the past 15 years. He has a storage godown in Purani Anarkali, where he took me a few days later - it was a small dark and dank room with walls covered in books. Though, I realised that while Western archives are preserved in pristine libraries and reading rooms - in which we have to get special permission to view the same books - our archive exists between the kabar khaana, people’s old book collections, vendors like Zafar’s godown, and inevitably the footpath. Colonial law volumes laying bare on the streets of Lahore bear testimony of what can only be dubbed the postcolonial archive.

Of course, I didn’t find anything of academic interest in Zafar’s old book warehouse, and the thought of sifting through his godown was akin to seeking a needle in a haystack. However, as luck would have it, I had already found an archival treasure trove in the Volume L. of The Punjab Record that I purchased from Zafar earlier. An old law book for a historian or an anthropologist could either be worthless, or it could be infused with all the significance of a life-world. This particular record may very well have been meaningless, littered with cases of civil litigation, land disputes, et cetera - historical data, no doubt, but not historically significant, at least for me. However, once I flipped to the "Criminal Judgments" section of the book, I stumbled upon an uncanny case very unique and untimely - a testimony to how many twists and turns our history has taken and the ways in which it has shaped us as subjects.

The criminal appeals case, Balmokand and others versus Crown, of 1914, was related to a "conspiracy to murder" Europeans, particularly Britishers and government officials in a bomb attack on a Christmas dance widely attended by colonial Lahore’s European inhabitants - dubbed the "Lahore bomb outrage" in the case.

The plotters of the attack had supposedly conspired in Lahore and Delhi "and other parts of British India" at some point between 1913 and 1914, while also conspiring to distribute "seditious" material dubbed "Liberty pamphlets". The majority of the case dealt with laws of evidence relating to the conviction of extraneous people complicit in the plot; and how it could be proven that they were conspirators when they were spread across British India and were planning to murder no one in particular, at no given time.

As I read the case, the words "terrorism" and "anarchism" - levelled by the Crown’s prosecution against the alleged conspirators - popped out of the page. How uncanny was it to find a "terrorism" case in a book I had randomly stumbled upon?

On the one hand this fragment of the archive bears witness to the frontlines of our very own Azadi struggle leading up to 1947, on the other hand it has echoes, from 100 years past, of our very present problems of terrorist bombings. To find this printed evidence of a conspiracy to conduct a terrorist attack on Europeans in the struggle for independence on a road that is frequently the target of such attacks is no doubt an eerie find.

Alas, I did not find this historical thread in a colonial archive in a Western institution, I found it in the postcolonial archive of the streets of Lahore.

Perhaps it might be a stretch to say that 70 years after partition, Pakistan itself has become an archive bearing residues of colonial violence and its after-effects. However, the state of the archive in terms of record-keeping and preservation is still a question that looms on the dusty roads.

Rarely if ever are our very real concerns of the political present linked to our deeper history, which is forgotten in regular bouts of cultural amnesia. To quote the French philosopher Jaques Derrida: "The concept of the archive shelters in itself, of course, this memory of the name arkh’. But it also shelters itself from this memory which it shelters: which comes down to saying also that it forgets it".

The serendipity of the archive