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Harvard PhD student transcribing 15,000 documents, letters of India’s grand old man

mumbai Updated: Dec 09, 2011 01:44 IST
Reetika Subramanian

“My dear Dad, I met the South African Mr Ghandhi (sic) last summer. I found him an extremely interesting and a sincere man. He simply worships you. Ever yours affectionately, Gosi.”

The above letter, addressed to freedom fighter Dadabhai Naoroji by his grand daughter, Gosi, in 1910, will be part of a a collection titled ‘Dadabhai Naoroji, Selected Private Papers’, to be published in February 2012.

“Naoroji wrote letters even at the age of 90 and retained carbon copies of all the letters in his collection,” said Dinyar Patel, a PhD student in Harvard University’s history department. Patel, who is in the city to research Naoroji’s Mumbai link, is co-writing the book with Sri Ram Mehrotra, a Shimla-based history professor.

“Transcribing the letters written in English, Gujarati and Persian has helped unravel the life and relationships of Naoroji, who was the first Asian to be a member of the British Parliament in 1892,” added Patel.

The collection also includes a 1906 letter from freedom fighter Bhikaji Rustom Cama, known as Madame Cama, to Naoroji just after he had lost the last parliamentary election he contested in Britain. Cama signs off by inviting Naoroji to a “Parsee lunch”.

In London, Naoroji was considered to be a local guardian by Indian expatriates. “For new expats, Naoroji was their one-stop solution for setting up their lives in London. From accommodation to food, job vacancies to details on local events- Naoroji had an answer for all,” said Patel. “There is one letter written by a police officer from Vine Street Station asking Naoroji to bail an Indian charged for drinking in 1891. Even local officers knew him at a personal level,” said Patel.

The documents, which have been preserved at the National Archives of India in New Delhi, are in a “deplorable condition”, according to Patel.

“In the 1960s, there were more than 60,000 documents in all, including Naoroji’s laundry bills, personal notes and letters. Today there are just 15,000 documents that have survived owing to poor ventilation and insects,” rued Patel.

“Transcribing the letters was like solving a jigsaw puzzle without a few pieces. Several events in Naoroji’s life will remain unknown owing to the missing documents,” he added.