A village elder in Bibhutibhusan's Ashani Sangket is hard put to answer the query of a fellow villager about the location of Singapore, which, according to the village gossip, has recently been captured by the Germans. Various guesses are made - is it in the district of Jessore or Khulna or somewhere in the vicinity of the neighboring village of Mamudpur? No less ingenious is the guess ventured by the elder himself - since the place is on the sea coast it must be in the district of Midnapore near Puri. And he is supported in his view by the learned village pundit. What is significant here is not so much the villagers' ignorance about Singapore as their ignorance about the districts of Jessore, Khulna and Midnapore or their neighboring village of Mamudpur. Here they have lived and died for generations. Here they will go on doing so unless swept away by famines and floods or some other calamity either natural or man made.
A master artist that he is Bibhutibhusan avoids the melodramatic, yet in his seemingly artless style depicts the horrors of the great Bengal famine of 1943 to the life. What amazes his readers most is the utter helplessness of the villagers. Their very survival is at stake and steeped in superstition and ignorance they do not know the cause of the crisis and they passively suffer. This poignant tale of human tragedy shows how abysmal is the ignorance of the villagers about their own native place. The root cause of the famine is remote no doubt and beyond their control, but it would not be far from the truth to say that their helplessness is due not to a small degree to their ignorance. As a rational being man's goal is not mere survival but a civilized existence, decent and comfortable both materially and spiritually. Knowledge about the environment coupled with his ingenuity make the achievement of this goal possible for him. For betterment of the conditions of his existence he deliberately adjusts himself to his environment by suitable patterning of his behavior and controlling the environment wherever possible. Instead of being fatalistic his attitude and outlook is possibilistic.
We have come a long way since the days of that cataclysmic event in our history and our ignorance about our immediate environment may not be as abysmal yet it is still quite pervasive. We know a great deal about great many things but we very often know very little about things that concern us most - our home, our village, our district, our own little society. In the words of Rabindranath, we travel long distances at great costs to see mountains and oceans but rarely bother to enjoy the simple beauty of a dew drop on the blades of a grass at our doorstep.
It is here that gazetteers can be of great help to us. The British are said to have acquired an empire in this country in a fit of absentmindedness but at the hour of its consolidation they were wide awake and alert. Once the heroic deeds had been done they did something very prosaic indeed yet immensely useful. Good shopkeepers as they were they now settled down to take stock of their new acquisition which was a totally unknown entity to them. It was a sort of inventory preparation item by item. They surveyed its myriad aspects in order how best to administer it to their own interest. In the process they produced a genre of literature called gazetteer which was entirely new in this country. Geographical descriptions of our country are strewn in our ancient and classical literature but they are neither systematic nor comprehensive. Only Abul Fazl's Ain-I-Akbari, compiled during the reign of Akbar, is a crude approximation to a gazetteer.
The purpose of the gazetteers compiled by these foreigners was to acquaint themselves with an alien land and its people. It was to be a kind of a manual or handbook which the administrators could carry about their person and consult as an aid to their administrative work. And the compilers were the administrators themselves. Not only gazetteers but also many other scholarly works on various aspects of the place of their work and its people were produced by these bureaucrats most of which remain standard works of reference to this day. Such works appear to have been viewed as a mark of distinction in the service and received official encouragement. The Secretary of State for India by an order of 12th November, 1885, directed that particulars of "any literary work of a public or official character undertaken by an officer" should be duly noted in the History of Services maintained to record the performances of the officers. Every district and sub-divisional office had a small library of its own where gazetteers and allied literature were easily available. In fact the gazetteer was the field officers' Bible. And the government took steps for their wide distribution. Today things have changed so much that the district gazetteer has become a rare commodity in the district itself. A couple of years ago the Collector of a district ' found the only available copy of the gazetteer in a dilapidated condition in the Bar library' of his district and had to make twenty copies of it 'for the posterity'. Such being the state of affairs the question which one once asked, "who reads your gazetteers, anyway?" does not appear to admit of any very satisfactory answer.
Though their utility was purely official these gazetteers also came in handy to those who cared to know and satisfy their intellectual curiosity about a particular geographical area. But the number of such non-official users has always been very limited ' mostly scholars and academicians. In the matter of such use of gazetteers the position in the post-independence period has sadly not remained the same, it has become worse. And outside this exclusive circle, very few amongst the common people are aware that such things as gazetteers exist or they are of any use to them. The chief reason seems to be that the linguistic medium of their compilation has remained English making them inaccessible to the common man. The result is that the common man's mental picture of his district or subdivision or block has remained hazy and a matter of guesswork, if not as wild as that of the villagers of Ashani Sanket.
There are people indeed who may scoff at the gazetteers yet their usefulness cannot be over-emphasized. From ancient times the district, known as Bishaya in the time of Ashoka, for example, has been the basic unit of administration in this country and a synoptic knowledge about its geography, history, its people and their socio-economic conditions has always been an essential requirement in a successful administrator. As a geographical unit many Indian districts are larger than some states elsewhere and the number of souls the former contain is more than the latter do. This is what O'Malley had to say about the district of Midnapore about a century ago: "The largest and the most populous of the Bengal regulation districts, it has an area of 5,186 square miles and contains, as ascertained at the census of 1901, of 2,780,114 persons. Its area is, indeed, nearly equal to that of the Patiala State or the kingdom of Saxony while it contains more inhabitants than Berar, or the kingdom of Denmark." With the devolution of greater powers of governance, both administrative and financial, to the Panchayat bodies we have to take serious notice of the districts as administrative units not in the older sense - a district officer reigning over it as a guardian angel ' but in the modern sense - the common people at long last taking things in their own hands and deciding their own fate. They need information for identification of their needs and aspirations, planning for their realization and for assessment of their achievements and failures. They need facts perhaps to argue their case before the State Finance Commission over allocation of resources, or before the State Election Commission over questions of delimitation. Instances could be multiplied where a gazetteer is an immensely useful manual. The compiler's aim should therefore be to best serve this practical purpose.
About the kind of information that should be collected and compiled in a gazetteer opinions may vary, but it is generally agreed that it should cover as many aspects of the area as possible within a short compass so as to present a fairly comprehensive picture of that area - its physical aspects, its history, its inhabitants and their social, economic and cultural life etc. In doing so the compiler cannot undertake original research or field survey. He has to depend on the published works of various scholars and authorities, reports of organs and departments of governments, publications of reputed educational and research institutions and relevant literary works. His motto should be to make the compilation as authoritative as possible. Limitations of time and space of course do not allow him to go into great details. For extensive and intensive information on any specific matter the reader will have to consult the scholarly works on the subject. He should avoid all controversy and give a succinct account of all the relevant views on the contentious issues. In this respect a gazetteer is also a kind of bibliography for a thorough study of the area. In the collection and presentation of his materials the compiler has to be selective. For, metaphorically speaking, every district has a personality of its own - certain peculiarities which are unique and uncommon - and it should be the endeavor of the compiler to bring out that personality. And his motto should be, in the words of Lytton Strachey, "to preserve a becoming brevity - a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant." He however need not sacrifice the uniformity or general plan which is essential to facilitate comparison between districts.
Another thing the compiler does rather unwittingly. He writes history - the history of the district of his time. Much of what he includes in his gazetteer will most probably perish with the files in government offices or periodical publications of the time, but they will definitely live on in his compilation. We do not know if any such pretensions were harbored by Hunter or O'Malley or their likes but the fact remains that today their works partake of the character of history. Many eyebrows may be raised at such a presumptuous claim, but if one wants to know how a Bengal district was a century ago one will have to consult the gazetteers of Hunter and O'Malley. Posterity will similarly view the gazetteers of the present. This fact devolves a great responsibility on the shoulders of the compiler. He must be scrupulously objective, for he is a historian in spite of himself.
Those who are reluctant to accept this claim for the gazetteer in general will certainly scoff at the idea of re-issue of old gazetteers and consider it a waste of public money. They may dispute the claim that all history is contemporary history or it is the elucidation of the present by the past, yet they may do well to heed what Trevelyan has to say on the matter: "Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life-blood of real civilization - the appeal of history is imaginative. Our imagination craves to behold our ancestors as they really were, going about their daily business and daily pleasure." In a modest way gazetteers satisfy such cravings of ours. It must however be admitted that what an old gazetteer gives is a photograph - a skeleton of the past. In order to see the past in flesh and blood one has to seek elsewhere like the great historical novels of Scott or Tolstoy and others.
Finally, the compiler should have no pretension to originality, for what he does he does it by taking materials in bits and pieces from others. At his worst he is a tinker or a mechanic and a drudge. At his best he is a florist who makes a beautiful bouquet with other men's flowers. He has a chance of success if he is diligent and intelligent. If his sources fail him, or he is lazy and careless he is doomed to failure.