One of the most turgid documents in the archive of the Delhi Criminal Investigation Department from the 1930s is a record of the protocols to be followed by undercover agents who would report on post-namaaz meetings at the Jama Masjid. It begins with a tediously detailed consideration of the question of agents taking notes during the gatherings: a bad idea, it concludes. It goes on, however, to suggest that a desperate dash across town lay in store for any unfortunate spy assigned to this surveillance task. For, a record of the proceedings was to be committed to paper in the office as soon after the meeting as possible.
The regularity with which this combination of the banal and the comedic occurs in the colonial record is a reliable source of diversion in even the most tedious of archival excavations.

Hidden nuggets

Thinking back on my research about the history of real estate in colonial Delhi over the last 10 years, it has been hilarious nuggets as much as big ideas that have kept me returning to the archives. The feel of each of the archives has varied: from the rat-harbouring rusty, dusty shelves of Town Hall in Chandni Chowk to the hushed pencil scratchings of the British Library. The record series too have had distinct voices: from the pointillist blizzard of detail in the Municipal proceedings to the Olympian surveys of Chief Commissioner’s annual reports. What has remained steadily true, however, is that the significance of any document, for the purposes of historical research, unfolds slowly and often in unexpected ways in the research process.

During the research itself, I found that the preliminaries were a struggle against impatience. I’d often have to remind myself that the dreary task of creating my own index of the records would be time well spent.  Even after the files arrived, there was more waiting until I’d marked down the absences – a colleague once created three binders worth of these rejected requisition slips – and receipts. Once you opened the files, you would likely as not discover "vocabulary malfunctions" in their subject lines.

Early in my research at the National Archives in Delhi, I remember ordering a set of files about “entertainment of sweepers”. I could not have been more excited – were these about benefit concerts for the worst paid municipal employees? What fascinating micro-histories of caste and colonial culture might lie down this rabbit hole? It turned out, however, that the word was simply being used as a synonym for hiring: file after file contained nothing but a record that such and such office had appointed sweepers for its needs.

Lather, rinse, repeat

It was only after clearing such hurdles that the work could begin. The first flush of excitement as you started to take notes, eventually settling into a wearier confidence about having identified the key themes from a series of files, but pushing on towards nailing them down. For myself, I created my own private "index of excitement" based on how long I might snooze after lunch – the trickiest hour of all at the archives in my opinion. As a side note, I do believe that the strongest alternative candidate for this measure might be the length of the lunchtime adda with fellow researchers but I do welcome all suggestions. But then, every so often, you might return from your break to find a new line of thought emerging from within the bureaucratese, and that set off the cycle again as you followed this thread: new files, more of them, more familiarity, more weary confidence. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The effervescent joys of initial discovery flowing steadily toward the more sedate pleasures of deep familiarity.

Ventriloquist ambitions

But this hard-won familiarity with the archive must next be resisted: it is surprisingly easy to lose your own voice to the ventriloquist ambitions of the dead bureaucrat. It is often easier to spot the tendentiousness of words like "city riff-raff" and "rowdy element" than others like, "honourable", "respectable", "dependable", which slip unobtrusively into second drafts. There is a different challenge here: of finding a vocabulary appropriate to your subject, separating your own judgements from those of the files, sifting through contentions and contradictions, sorting defensible well-founded claims from your own initial hunches. Even more difficult than this, as I began the process of writing up my doctoral thesis, was putting my finger on what precisely I was contributing to the larger picture of Delhi’s development that had already been sketched by historians. I found that some of the very books that got me interested in researching the city now became sources of frustration. Here, after all the effort, was the distinctly disheartening moment of finding that they’d already said everything worth saying. The culling of discoveries that came in train with these thoughts was brutal; all the more difficult for the distinct memory of grandiose, field-changing ambitions when the files had first arrived. Like most historians, the anecdotes left out of my thesis were some of my favourites; but maybe new projects lie there.

Even in what was included, however, effort hardly seemed commensurate with the product. The research for my first chapter took up a full year of my four year PhD, but ended up being the shortest. This, however, might be the most puzzling delight of the entire process, best epitomising the absurdity of archival research: the reduction of five pages of notes to a single sentence in your final piece. Ah! but what a sentence – one whose sturdiness will probably never be registered by anyone but yourself. A solipsistic elation, if ever there was one and yet one that is only realised in obscure concert with the community of readers.

Connecting the dots

The length and colourfulness of a file, then, is rarely a reliable guide to its place in the final product of your research. That boring file about protocols to record meetings in the Jama Masjid, turned out to underscore the greater reliability of CID reports about the meetings from other mosques around the city. The Anjuman-e-Mahafuzz-e-Qaboor (Graves Protection Association), which I was trying to track happened to hold meetings in mosques in Jama Masjid as well as Paharganj. In turn, reports from those other meetings painted a fascinating picture of the nature of the leadership and rank and file of the movement. The Anjuman was one of a number of organisations seeking to protect graveyards from being swallowed up by private house construction in late 1930s Paharganj. That episode, in turn, was an element of my own contribution to thinking about the relationship between sacral spaces and commodified space in the city. At each stage of this process, the content of the original files was transmuted into something quite different.

When Sugata Bose, a leading historian and biographer of Subhas Chandra Bose, suggests that the recently declassified files contain "nothing substantially new about Netaji" he is quite simply pointing to the process of compression and sifting that I’ve just outlined above. Lots of colour and lots of content needn’t mean lots of significance. From the sound of it, most of what might be interesting about these files has nothing to do with Subhas Bose at all. Where Sugata Bose suggests, however, that "the central government should declassify forthwith all old files that are still under wraps", he is pointing to the frustrating barriers to a free-flowing research process thrown up by the Indian state at every level – from the national down to the municipal. In the name of furthering knowledge and defending the fundamentally weird pleasures of archival research, I cannot but agree that these must be lifted.

Anish Vanaik is Clinical Assistant Professor at Purdue Honors College.