I should explain that Baptist Mission Press is one of the best known private printing presses in the country. It would be no exaggeration to say 'the Far East,' although there was an American Baptist Mission Press in Rangoon. This Press ceased to function when the Japanese Army invaded Burma. All the machinery was taken over, dismantled and shipped to Japan.
The Calcutta Press was established in 1818 and over the years a vast range of languages was built up: more than 40. And very many more if the total includes dialects and minor languages using the same script.
Some people have an impression that BMP, as it was best known, was a pioneer Press. This is not so. (1) It was a missionary enterprise that first brought printing into prominence in India. Probably the first book to be printed from moveable type was 'Conclusoes', produced in Goa, on the west coast of India. Roman Catholic names have been known since 1561, and one name that recurs is that of Ziegenbalg, one of two Germans who responded to an appeal by the King of Denmark for someone to go out and alleviate "appalling suffering" in India. Ziegenbalg became a famous Tamil scholar. A printing press was captured by the English at Pondicherry and another Tamil scholar, Fabricus, was placed in charge. He lived at Vepery, Madras. That press became the Diocesan Press, the oldest Mission Press in India, but with a broken history.
The purpose of BMP in Calcutta was primarily the production of Christian literature, which naturally took priority over commercial work. To the dismay of many evangelicals in British churches, BMP produced commercial work. All Christian literature is subsidised and the 300 men who worked at BMP, many of them highly skilled, could not be paid their wages out of Christian literature alone. Such British critics also lost sight of the fact that, mainly through the printing of University examination papers in the security press inside the press, £12,000 to £15,000 could be given to the BMS for redistribution to the India field, so that evangelists, teachers and nurses could be paid. There was nothing to apologise for. Those same critics seemed to consider it wrong for a Christian run Press to make a profit. In the 20 years I was at the Press I helped to raise more than £200,000 in hard cash - again, mainly from commercial work, in competition with other big presses in Calcutta.
Suresh Babu was entrusted with the entire organization of the Confidential Department. The fewer the number of people who knew the ins and outs of that department the better. When I read the final print-order proofs of examination papers, I had not the faintest idea which university they were intended for. I met the registrars when they came to the Press but all details as to which papers we would handle were left entirely to Suresh.
It was only when the bills went out that I saw the name of the university.
Suresh was responsible for the exact amount of paper used. Every sheet had to be accounted for, so there could be no question of a 'leak'. Every box that was packed was checked, wire-bound and lead sealed. The box-maker delivered wooden boxes by the handcart load. We were his chief customers.
It was a wonderful system. In all that Suresh did he was a model of integrity because he had been brought up in a Christian-run Press from the age of fourteen. Everyone trusted him, from the management to the most skilled men and right down to peons and coolies. I relied on his advice.
The Confidential Department was a self contained Press of which visitors were unaware. The entrance was a thick, wide, heavy wooden door. Nothing more than that. Through that door passed not only the manuscripts of thousands and thousands of university examination papers but the men whose work was to convert them into print, without blemish.
When proof-reading, if a scholarly question-setter had set a question that was too involved and ungrammatical I could consult our head proof-reader, Mr Laxminarayan, who was a barrister by profession. He was another man on whom we could rely implicitly. How the Press found men of such quality in the first place, I do not know.
The Confidential Department supplied universities all over India and was the most profitable part of the Press. I am aware of no occasion when there was any question over its integrity. The system worked perfectly.
To quote from the 1964-65 report to the BMS: 'During that year, the Press distributed or sold 74,771 pieces of Christian literature, for BMP, the BMS, Scripture Gift Mission of India, and Calcutta Christian Tract and Book Society, the latter owing to the Press Rs7,057' (we used to convert Rs14 to the £).
Included in the list of general work completed was a 664 page book, 'Animal Gametes' for the Zoology Dept. of the Government of India, and the 'Life of Sir Arthur Cotton' (564 pages, 18 illustrations and a dust jacket in four colours). The latter book was out of print in England and was reprinted by the Institute of Engineers; it is a classic for engineers in India. The Sara New Testament, in international phonetic script, was delivered, with three key publications in Lushai: 'The story of the Hebrew prophets'; 'The history of the Hebrews and their religion'; and 'The Work of the Holy Spirit', reprints being ordered almost at once. 'The Gospel of Mark' in Kui demanded the cutting of special characters and that edition went with the production of 'I Corinthians' in Bengali, 'Ananda Sangit' in Bengali, Kumaon parables, Nepali parables, 'In the beginning, God' in English, Oriya, Hindi and Gurmukhi (separate editions), 'St Matthew' and 'The Book of Genesis' in Tibetan. Work continued on the Anal hymnal for Assam. A 212 page text book on Nanpung algebra, for a customer in Manipur State, was an unusual piece of work. The Press received regular print and block orders from Christian organizations elsewhere in Manipur and when the Annual Report was being prepared, the Press was producing passports for the Government of Bhutan - the country which Dr William Carey hoped to include in his work, early in the last century.
The Press was responsible for printing - and helping with the editorship - of the 'Himalayan Journal', with its worldwide circulation among mountaineers. Printing was completed, as usual, of school magazines for Woodstock (Mussoorie), St Paul's (Darjeeling), Sherwood College (Naini Tal) and Modern Girl's High School (Calcutta), the latter in English and Hindi. Various books were sent to the National Book Exhibition, in Delhi, and to the Publishers' Exhibition, Bombay. The Press reprinted Bevan Jones 'People of the Mosque'. The cost of the paper was covered by a generous gift from the managing director of a Brisbane firm of printers, in appreciation of 'Service Forum', the Christian quarterly printed by BMP for the National Christian Council of India and distributed to 30 countries. The readership was intended for the benefit of Christian presses and publishing agencies and was unique to the extent that when the editor, a member of staff of the BMS, retired, a successor simply could not be found.
When Christian organisations, such as the Bible Society, entrusted work to BMP, they received 40% discount. This was always the arrangement, so that the Press received little financial profit from any Christian literature work. Our best customers, in the sense of smooth working arrangements, were Scripture Gift Mission, run by two retired lady missionaries, one a doctor, in Bangalore. We did most of their language setting.
One of the oldest scientific organisations in the far East was the Asiatic Society, founded by Sir William Jones, and later to become the Royal Asiatic Society. Not only did the Press handle most of their scientific publications but there was a tradition, whereby the Superintendent of BMP was invited on their Publications Committee, on which there were leading scientific writers, all Indian.
There were other organisations which valued BMP and its long-standing service to India: Calcutta University Press Advisory Committee; School of Printing Technology; West Bengal Government Press Production Committee were only three. There were so many other committees, chiefly connected with the Church, from work among Telegus to theology.
It provided so many opportunities to meet people whose own Christian experience would have daunted thousands. One vivid example concerned a young Hindu who was given a tract, by a few South Indian Christian young men who held meetings in an old house not far from the Press. He read it, in his own language, Bengali, asked for instruction, was converted and became a well-known translator. One day I was invited to the opening of a new church, at Park Circus. The pastor was the converted Hindu young man, Roy Choudhury. He visited USA, where he was asked to stay; he toured Britain, Germany and Italy. And came back to Calcutta, to minister to his own people. I knew him very well; a quiet, cheerful young man who brought his own particular skills and knowledge to his pastoral work. Tracts should never be despised, as a means of communication.
In 1966, the workers who had given me so much trouble for three years, insisted that before we left for the UK, on retirement, there must be a group photograph. I was told that no-one could remember the time when a retiring superintendent had a photograph, but some said a Mr Thomas who had been so honoured 50 years earlier. I remember seeing a photograph of a venerable English gentleman, complete with beard. And an elbow resting on a Bible, as he sat.
When we drove off to Howrah station, the Press workers stopped their machines and stood at the doors of their departments, in silence.
That gives a good idea of what the Press did.
(1) I think if my father had read John Clark Marshman's book his view might be different. The book is very rare and there was not a copy at the Press that I am aware of.
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