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Asia’s first journalist was also the first champion of press freedom. A fine retelling of the story of James Augustus Hicky attempts, yet again, to rehabilitate the “scurrilous, wild Irishman”

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: June 9, 2018 1:01:32 am

Book name: Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: the Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper

Author: Andrew Otis

Publisher: Tranquebar

Pages: 317

Price: Rs 899

Though the printing press reached Goa in the 16th century and Tranquebar thereafter, journalism made landfall in India much later, in late 18th century Calcutta. The printer James Augustus Hicky, diddled of the proceeds of a contract to upgrade the East India Company’s military paperwork from handwritten documents to printed forms and rulebooks, turned in desperation to journalism. His weekly Bengal Gazette, probably Asia’s first newspaper, was a combination of Craigslist, bulletin board, scandal sheet, chapbook for satirical verse and drama, and fearless journalism calling power to account. Hicky encouraged readers to write in (the origin of the term ‘correspondent’) with news from beyond the pale, from Black Town (some old maps of Calcutta explicitly labelled it ‘civitas negra’), to tell of civic issues and the lives of ordinary people. Hicky’s correspondents included disgruntled subalterns who gave him the low-down on military misadventures and corruption in the army, arming him for his campaign against Warren Hastings, governor-general and plenipotentiary at large.

Andrew Otis’ account of the Bengal Gazette, subtitled ‘the untold story of India’s first newspaper’, intends to rehabilitate Hicky, who was vilified in his time as a scurrilous, wild Irishman, and to establish him as the first defender of the free press in India. These are the only defects of an extremely well-written book. Hicky’s story is not ‘untold’, for historians of colonial Calcutta are generally agreed that the combative printer set the direction for India’s press, which has been so vigorously free that the trammels it occasionally suffers are visible embarrassments, like self-inflicted wounds.

In his telling, Otis covers the same ground and refers to more or less the same material as the extraordinary P Thankappan Nair, who came to Calcutta from Kerala as a student in the 1950s and stayed on for the better part of a lifetime. In the introduction to Hicky and His Gazette (2001), Nair wrote: “It is our endeavour to rescue Hicky… from the malicious propaganda unleashed by imperialistic historians in this part. Hicky should not be viewed with jaundiced eyes, though he indulged in some amount of yellow journalism… it is our earnest endeavour here to give a portrait of Hicky as the pioneer of journalism in India.”

So, this is not an untold story. But Nair was published by the S&T Book Stall located at 11 Presidency College Wall. Otis is published by a mainstream publishing house and his work will travel widely. And Hicky’s story, which once had international implications, is worth retelling. His journalism led to Edmund Burke’s impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings and Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of India. On trial, represented by these worthies, were corruption, conflict of interest and the arbitrary exercise of power that Hicky opposed all his life — and literally with his life, for the Company broke him. Referring to the Rohilla war and Hastings’ treatment of the Begums of Oudh, Hicky also questioned the ethics of imperial war-making. He was almost two centuries before his time — the UK abolished the office of Secretary of State for War on All Fools’ Day, 1964.

While Otis focuses closely on Hicky’s epic battle with Hastings and Impey, Nair’s book, which was about 100 pages shorter, largely collated official sources. It was livened up by sensational stories published in the Bengal Gazette: “A few Nights ago, four men Armed entered the House of a Moor-man near Churingee (Chowringhee) and carried off his Daughter, a very handsome Moor Girl whose Husband is now at sea.” And, “…a great fire broke out in the Suba-bazaar (Shovabazar)… the noted place of residence of the black Ladies of Pleasure, one of whom was much burned… She is the mother of Santhee Ram, the famous Dancing Girl. It seems that several of our English Seamen were on a visit there to some of the sooty Beauties…” Upon being rescued, the ladies promised them “an entertainment of Dancing, and Singing, a good Supper, plenty of Grogg and a night’s Lodging gratis.” That was city reporting in the 1780s, and look at it now: dreary sagas of clogged drains, potholed roads and dengue outbreaks.

Actually, Hicky pioneered the civic genre too, relentlessly campaigning for better infrastructure, public health and fire safety. Fire was a serious threat in Calcutta, where houses were mostly thatched at the time. It had been a prominent urban issue ever since Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and his municipal officials discovered that scorched earth was valuable, renewable real estate. Both Nair and Otis cover this aspect very well, and the former offers vivid accounts of freelance Indian pyromaniacs at work.

Over a span of 50 years, Nair became the unofficial chronicler of India’s colonial capital. It was said that Calcutta’s corporation used to call him in before they started digging, because he knew the layout of the old gas mains and pipelines better than them. Otis, on the contrary, is an occasional visitor who faced considerable difficulties in using the archives. But his book is highly readable because he storyfies the material into living accounts of some of the most sensational legal proceedings of the late 18th century, from the slapp suits which destroyed Hicky, to the impeachment hearings which brought down Warren Hastings. And he succeeds in painting a living picture of the early colonial era under John Company, an unhealthy cocktail of politics and commerce, when high officials operated as scalpers gouging huge margins, and war was made for the primitive motive of booty.

But it’s a wonder that Hicky could focus on serious, adversarial journalism, given the distractions that Calcutta offered. Consider this brief from Saturday, June 17, 1780: “Last week a remarkably large Alligator was carried about the streets in a hackery alive.” Could a story on the excesses of Warren Hastings possibly trump this?

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