The dubious book collector
Sinha spent a lot of time writing and reading at the British Museum Reading Room, and someone from Scotland Yard usually followed him to see what he was up to.
According to Scotland Yard, there was once a dubious bibliophile named Sasadhar Sinha who travelled from Shantiniketan to London in 1925. After finishing his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, he began a bookshop in 1935 at 2 Great Ormond Street. Rather grandly, Sinha named his bookshop ‘The Bibliophile’, and it specialised in selling “books and pamphlets which are prohibited in India.” The following year he moved his bookshop to a more profitable location, 16 Russell Street near the British Museum.
Sinha spent a lot of time writing and reading at the British Museum Reading Room, and someone from Scotland Yard usually followed him to see what he was up to. One report remarked, “Recently he has been reading books of a revolutionary nature, after confining his studies for a long time to books on pure philosophy.” The Yard also reported that many Indians, also of a “suspicious” nature, seemed to make his bookshop a frequent rendezvous point. Though, peculiarly, none of them left with any of the “extremist books and pamphlets displayed for sale in the window”.
‘The Case of the Dubious Bibliophile’ is part of Graham Shaw’s epic study of censorship during the British Raj, which you can find in the excellently titled book Founts of Knowledge, the third book in the Indian book history series edited by Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakaravorty. The first two, Print Areas and Movable Type, were published by Permanent Black; this one, published by Orient BlackSwan, broadens “the landscape of book history scholarship in India”.
Included also are Ulrike Stark’s fine exploration of book entrepreneurs in colonial Benares and how they brought printing to the sacred city, Rochelle Pinto’s examination of the “complex history of Konkani print culture”, and Nandini Chandra’s study of children’s periodicals in Hindi and their influence on childhood imagination. To return to the story of our ‘dubious bibliophile’: the Yard was right about Sinha, who was now frequently seen in the company of Indian activists; he had also begun to play a leading part in the Indian Progressive Writers Association.
In November 1941, the Yard reported a dip in his fortunes: “…intends closing his bookshop… owing to a lack of business and financial difficulties. His present stock of books etc is valued at no more than 20 pounds (!) and he recently had to sell his typewriter in order to meet his immediate debts.” Special Branch continued to keep tabs on his bookshop, where Indian extremists often congregated, though the report adds, “few of them feel obliged to buy any literature”. Sinha aspired to also print revolutionary pamphlets but nothing came of it.
It is thanks to the burgeoning field of Indian book history that we now learn about remarkable but otherwise obscure individuals like Sasadhar Sinha and their role in our cultural history. “What, then,” ask the editors in the introduction, “is the utility of a series such as Book History in India? We feel that it serves two major purposes: first, to draw attention to the fact that there are not one but many histories of the book in India… the second reason for the continuing existence of the series is to welcome into the field those who are not strictly ‘book historians’, but have increasingly begun to employ the methods of book history to enrich their own work. In this collection, there are at least three contributors who are not paid-up ‘book historians,’ as it were… As with any other cross-disciplinary pursuit, book history cannot afford to be the sole province of the ‘book historian’.”
Abhijit Gupta, who also has a wonderful essay here, told me: “We are very happy with the book. It took longer than we thought but we were determined not to hurry it. We also wanted to encourage long essays (Stark and Shaw, for instance). It has always been a pleasure and an education to work with Swapan (who was once my teacher) and whose attention to detail is extraordinary, and a salutary lesson. There will be at least one more volume in the series, if for no other reason than the privilege to carry Graham Shaw’s work-in-progress: he believes there will be two more parts.”
Founts of Knowledge is primarily aimed at scholars and while it is an invaluable resource for them, I would think it would be just as rewarding for the intrepid bibliophile to engage with it as well. It isn’t always easy to find your way through these essays: though I am quite invested in book history, I found it tough going at times; some essays are more accessible than others, but all of them shine a light into a corner of our bookish, intellectual past as seen through the activities of our early printers and how (and what) they printed.
The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.