Books from the almirahs. Credits: Sayantani Chakraborti & Antara Mukherjee
In January 2016, following a keynote lecture given by Dr Ian Magedera at an international conference organized by the Chandernagore College’s English Department, Assistant Professor Antara Mukherjee began a hunt for references in Bengali sources to the French and French culture during the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. During that time, despite several interruptions by the Royal Navy and British Army, ‘Chandernagor’, as it was known in French, was a trading post governed from France. Today’s Chandannagar is a busy town situated 35km upriver from Kolkata, a megacity of fourteen million people.
Though Chandannagar has an Indo-French Institute and its French language learners are served by the Alliance française du Bengale, French influences there are not as obvious as in Pondicherry (Puducherry) in South India. Dr Mukherjee has found traces in domestic architecture, but another thread led her right back to her own college library and to books that had been donated by the French-speaking Bengali philanthropist and historian Hari Har Sett in the 1930s. As well as containing several unique items, these hitherto neglected ‘almirahs’ are a time capsule of books its donor considered important to hand down to Bengali students of French.
‘Almirah’ is a word that has come into Indian English from the Portuguese armário and from Latin armarium (while still also used in Hindi अलमारी (almārī) and Urdu الماری (almārī)).
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