Le Petit Bengali: A newspaper that offers a Franc look at the past

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A good newspaper will tell you the day’s news. But only a great one can sound newsy 140 years later. Browse through the pages of Le Petit Bengali, a French daily first published in 1880 in West Bengal, and you’ll find how little has changed. An 1883 issue has Durga Puja announcements, debates on caste, colonialism and regional politics, letters pointing out cultural faux pas.

The paper was published by Charles Dumaine, the first mayor of Chandernagore (now Chandannagar), a French colony on the bank of the river Hooghly that was governed as part of French India until 1950. The old issues were discovered by Paris-based neuroscience researcher Sharbatanu Chatterjee, entirely by accident. “I am very interested in how cultures respect and represent their dead, so I make it a point to visit mausoleums and cemeteries in whichever place I happen to visit,” he says.

In France, that meant the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where industry pioneer JRD Tata, and the family of an old magistrate of Bengal were interred. Chatterjee began researching the crematorium, and found references to the newspaper. Actual copies were preserved at the National Library of France, with digital copies available to peruse.

“The earliest copy in the library was from August, 1883. It mentions that the newspaper is in its fourth year,” he says. In addition to reports from French India, British India, metropolitan France and other French colonies are advertisements, school results, declarations of births, deaths, and marriages, poems, and jokes.

Neuroscience researcher Sharbatanu Chatterjee discovered the French newspaper Le Petit Bengali by accident, during a visit to Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
Neuroscience researcher Sharbatanu Chatterjee discovered the French newspaper Le Petit Bengali by accident, during a visit to Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

But what really stands out Chatterjee says is how the French language incorporated sounds from Bengali and Tamil for names and events. One issue mentions “les vacances de la Dourga poudjah auront lieu cette année du 6 au 17 Octobre”, which of course refers to Durga Puja vacations. French spellings of Bengali names sound closer to the way they’d be pronounced locally: Pourno Chondro Boïragui, rather than the English way, “which always seemed too Sanskritised,” he points out.

Colonialism and racism are part of the reporting too. “There were articles in 1883 discussing the heated debate in India about the Ilbert Bill under Lord Ripon, regarding the right of non-European judges, where the distinction between races was vociferously defended,” says Chatterjee.

The letters section shows Europeans struggling with nuances of Indian cultures. An enraged reader from Karaikal writes in pointing out that the paper “has confused the lingam, which denotes Civa (Shiva) and the saligram, which denotes Vishnou,” says Chatterjee. Another letter, from a reader in Chandernagore complains how the place has become almost a colony of Pondicherry.

More than 140 years on, the old newspaper offers more than the news. It helps people like Chatterjee connect their own history to that of the wider world. Our French connections are often eclipsed by our British ones. And even in France, it’s not easy to find plaques marking associations with India. “I haven’t seen anything apart from a tiny plaque in Versailles designating it as the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s house at one time, put in place with the help of the present Indian government,” he says. “However, I did find the newspaper, which tells of the colonies and how the metropole was viewed from there.”

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