Portal to the past

Ali Bhutto explores the wealth of material available at the Sindh Archive in Karachi - a treasure trove of imperial paperwork

Portal to the past
A faded, brittle manuscript titled “Secret Department”, signed “H. Pottinger” and dated “3rd February, 1832” quotes Mir Ali Murad Talpur. “‘We know nothing’, said His Highness, ‘about accounts, or traffic, or writing. We hardly know that two and two make four. We all trust to Hindoos to bring us what we want from abroad, and our business is to fight amongst each other, which we do daily.’” Pottinger’s handwritten letter, addressed to the Governor-General’s secretary, details his day-to-day conversations with the ruler of Sindh eleven years prior to conquest. The letter goes on to provide an “Outline of a treaty sent to Meer Moorad Ali Khan on the 2nd of February, 1832”, under which the Indus was to be opened up for ‘trade’.

This is a sample of the treasure waiting to be dug up in one of Old Clifton’s tamarisked dead-ends. The Sindh Archives building lies tucked away behind Federation House and Park Towers, in Karachi. It contains correspondence and reports, the earliest of which date back to the 1830s, providing first-hand accounts of life in colonial Sindh - in the kind of vivid detail not found in history books. It also hosts a collection of old maps and rare books.

One of the more rare images of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Miss Fatima Jinnah, to be found at the Sindh Archives
One of the more rare images of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Miss Fatima Jinnah, to be found at the Sindh Archives

Built in 1988, the complex has an unfinished feel to it. Perhaps the way Karachi felt in its early days. Or the way parts of the city still feel

It is these very records that British historian David Cheesman accessed during his PhD research, which formed the basis for his work Landlord Power and Rural Indebtedness in Colonial Sind 1865-1901 (1997, Curzon). Recalling his experience of the archives, Dr Cheesman tells me “In 1976-77, when I carried out my PhD research, the records were stored in the Commissioner’s Record Office, which came under the Commissioner of Karachi. Access was at the Commissioner’s discretion. I had to convince him that I was only interested in people who were long dead. The records staff used to bring me my dusty bundles of old papers from the nineteenth century while they got on with their main business of filing modern records. Because the work of the Karachi administration was going on around me, it really felt as if I was in the old ‘Sind Commission’.”

“What I found especially fascinating” recalls Dr. Cheesman, “was that they still had stores of unsold official publications and so long as they had sufficient copies in the archive, they were very sensibly selling off the unwanted duplicates - at the original prices. So, for example, I got the 1933 guide to ‘Sind Government Records’ for 12 annas (i.e. Rs 0.75), the 1954 Bund Manual for Rs 5 and various British settlement reports. Selling them was certainly more cost effective than the alternative, which would have been to destroy them. When I came away clutching the 1918 settlement report for Thul, Kandhkot and Kashmore, for example, I really felt time had stood still!”

Old records of the commissioner in Sindh are filed under the following classifications: revenue, judicial, administrative, political and miscellaneous. In addition, there are the proceedings of the September 1929 session of the Legislative Assembly of India (the same assembly that had been bombed by Bhaghat Singh and BK Dutt six months prior), the proceedings of the Bombay Council from 1919 onwards and Bombay Government Gazettes from as early as 1850.

The reading room at the Archives complex
The reading room at the Archives complex

It is the records of the British - who left no stone un-surveyed - that largely make up the archives. However, according to historian Hamida Khuhro, “Prior to the British period, a lot of people in Sindh who engaged in scholarly pursuits valued their manuscripts. There are families that have a collection of handwritten manuscripts: written by their ancestors, or by someone who would write on their behalf. Therefore, there was a tradition of collecting old material.” The Sindh Archives have a 450-year-old Persian manuscript and more in Arabic.

While it is the archives that are the ‘treasure’ and not the building itself, one cannot help but wonder whether its architect anticipated it as a blank canvas on which you could build your historical imagination. Built in 1988, the complex has an unfinished feel to it. Perhaps the way Karachi felt in its early days. Or the way parts of the city still feel.

Architect Navaid Husain says, “It is a naive building. I was young when I designed it. At this age I am of the view that it should have been a historic building.” Yet, somehow, its appeal lies in the fact that it does not demand appreciation. The wide-open spaces and a lack of theme are filled up by images of the history you uncover in the archives. You associate the smell of the building and the old documents with the period under study.

Colonial administration in Sindh and elsewhere left quite the paper-trail - invaluable today to researchers, historians, lawyers and general enthusiasts
Colonial administration in Sindh and elsewhere left quite the paper-trail - invaluable today to researchers, historians, lawyers and general enthusiasts

Hamida Khuhro argues, “The building is very badly placed. It’s near the sea; it is humid and absolutely destructive of paper. It should be shifted to KDA or even further away. The weather is better there, believe it or not.”

The manuscripts are fumigated, chemically treated, bound and stored in acid-free boxes. The stack area is the only area I’ve seen in Karachi that is furnished with a functional (waterless) fire safety system. It is air-conditioned and the temperature and humidity are strictly monitored every three hours. Old newspapers, stored in another room, are undergoing preservation.

Akash Datwani, a qualified archivist and stack area in-charge, is highly efficient in facilitating researchers. He is the man to go to when carrying out research at the archives. Datwani has provided training in archival management to the Sindh Coastal Development Authority and to students of Karachi University’s MA program in Library and Information Sciences.
Colonel (retd.) Hassan Imam is convinced that "Somebody has tampered with the Blue Book of Larkana District"

Sakhidad Kachelo, who worked at the Sindh Archives from 1979 until his retirement as an assistant director in January 2016, is a part and parcel of the relics found in the archives. “Part of the record used to be stored in Hyderabad,” he recalls, “and while it was there, a significant portion of it disappeared, or was stolen. The record was shifted to the current building in 1992. In 1993, Martin Moir, former deputy director of the India Office Library, gave us six months of training in record management.”

Three lanes down, the British Council library has re-opened its doors. The Sindh Archives - a ten-minute walk from there - may not have a cafe, but it does have the first edition of Joseph Davey Cunningham’s controversial A History of the Sikhs, published in 1849 by John Murray. A faded handwritten note in its front matter section reads “The rare first edition - suppressed upon publication on account of certain passages which gave offence.” On another shelf lies the first edition of Alexander Burnes’s Cabool, published in 1842 by John Murray. Its endpaper contains the signature of its first owner, dated May 1842. Nearby, is the first edition of Charles Masson’s Narrative of Various Journeys through Balochistan, Afghanistan, The Panjab, & Kalat, published in 1844 by Richard Bentley. There is also the first edition of the 7th Earl of Dunmore’sThe Pamirs, published by John Murray in 1893, with a silver Buddha embossed on its cover. Eye-catching titles such as, ‘The Indian Alps and How We Crossed Them by A Lady Pioneer’ and ‘A History of the Thugs’ cannot be missed.

However, the rare book collection - already in delicate condition - is located in a space where sunlight, heat, dust and humidity can wreak havoc on it. The rare books have been put into the same room as regular books, near large windows that are left open. It is evident that the adjustable open shelves on which the rare books are placed are not contributing to their preservation and are, if anything, damaging their covers. As the shelves are open from the sides, some books lying on the edge are leaning outwards.

When I first visited the Sindh Archives in 2007, the rare book collection was kept under lock and key in a windowless room specifically designated for it. A visitor needed permission to be able to view it. After Naeem Daudpota became the librarian in 2010, the collection was shifted to its current location. Daudpota, an MA in Library Information Science as well as History, explains, “It doesn’t make sense to keep rare books locked away and hidden from public viewing. On the contrary, people must be made aware of their existence and be encouraged to come and read them.” While such intentions are promising, accessibility must not come at the cost of preservation. The rare books must be shifted to an air-conditioned room, devoid of windows, where temperature and humidity are closely monitored - as is done in the stack area.

Referring to the personal collections in the library of the Sindh Archives, Hamida Khuhro opines, “I don’t think it is right that books in a library be organised under personal collections. They should be organised according to subject. Otherwise it is not helpful to researchers.”

The lone researchers that are seldom found in the corridors of the archives are either lawyers - compelled to visit for work - or foreign historians, or simply those driven by a carnivorous curiosity for an accurate picture of what was.

Colonel (retd) Hassan Imam, who has carried out research on his grandfather Wadero Ghulam Kadir Dayo, a landholder of Ratodero Taluka, tells me he is convinced that “Somebody has tampered with the Blue Book of Larkana District. The photocopy of the Blue Book preserved in the Sindh Archives is different from the one preserved in the Sindhology Institute, Jamshoro.” In my own research, I did notice that certain entries in the copy of the Blue Book in the Sindhology Institute were missing from the one in the Sindh Archives. According to Imam, “The pages covering the years 1901 to 1926 are missing. Furthermore, some entries that bear the signatures of different Collectors are all in the same handwriting. Whoever had an interest in destroying this record has deliberately done so.” According to Dr Cheesman however, “The handwriting may or may not be significant. Security was surprisingly lax in those days compared to now and, before photocopiers, even sensitive documents were frequently transcribed. You would probably be able to tell a lot from the style of writing - modern handwriting is very different.”

The past, encapsulated in the archives, is relevant, as are its missing pieces. Factual specifics, although limited, are more revealing than any vague, romanticised fable. Sensibilities and perspectives uncovered in old manuscripts relating to Sindh can provide history-lovers with a fresh perspective of the present: a new way of ‘seeing’ and understanding their current reality.

The writer is a freelance contributor