Almost two and a half centuries ago, in the month of February, Governor-General Warren Hastings was standing in front of a group of very powerful British officials in London.
He was an English statesman and first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal), the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and thereby the first de facto Governor-General of India from 1774 to 1785.
Hastings was trying to do a curious thing. He was holding a printed book in his hand and was literally pushing to sell it.
The name of the book was "A Grammar of the Bengali Language, written by English Orientalist and Philologist Nathaniel Brassey Halhed in 1778."
The book was the first to ever be printed using Bangla movable type fonts. Some claim it to be the first Bengali grammar book, however, many insist it is actually the second, claiming the first was written by a Portuguese monk and published three decades earlier in Lisbon.
Twenty-seven-year-old poet and company staff Nathaniel wrote the book intending to help the British colonial administrators. Later, the book had the biggest influence in Bengal, because it shaped the fate of the language of the land.
On that February day in 1778, Warren Hastings was standing in front of the India Board – a body responsible for managing the activities of East India Company and British government's interest in India.
Two decades after the Battle of Plassey, it was still a rough time for the company administration and the situation of Bengal was volatile.
The so-called "Revolution of Bengal" was over. But the nightmares of the great Bengal famine of 1770 was still lingering.
Two years after taking office, Hastings himself was facing unrest and wars on many fronts.
In this backdrop of events, the first Governor-General of India placed a fragmentary specimen of the book before the board and sought its approval and patronage.
Hastings recommended that the project of printing a book on Bengali Grammar was "highly meriting" in the council's "countenance and patronage".
As the writer Halhed and printer Charles Wilkins had already spent a fortune on the project as well as "great labour and assidity", the government should buy the entire lot of the proposed book, totaling a thousand copies, at Rs30 each, he said.
Hastings sought advance payment for the writer and printer. He also proposed that the books be distributed to the servants of the company and others at the same price.
The Board agreed to buy five hundred copies in advance and the book got printed at the second leg of the same year (on 11 Sravan, according to the printer's line of the book). The writer and the publisher got Rs15,000 as advance.
Nathaniel Brassey Halhed did not know Bengali. Salimullah Khan, noted researcher and social analyst pointed out that Halhed used a bunch of Sanskrit pundits, who led him to shape the Bengali Language in light of Sanskrit.
Halhed came to Kolkata in 1772 and took a job in the East India Company as a Persian translator. He was a close friend of famous Orientalist scholar and philologist Sir William Jones.
Governor-General Hastings had a very high opinion on Halhed's pedantry.
Another key contributor of the book was the printer Charles Wilkins. He was responsible for the movable Bengali fonts used in the book. Some expert point out that a craftsman named Panchanan Karmakar should be allowed to share the credit. Both Halhed and Wilkins were exceptionally brilliant men. They remained life-long friends.
Acknowledging the far reaching effects of the book, Salimullah Khan was still very critical about the colonial objective of the project. He said, "The book was a product of European Orientalism and is a reactionary attempt to introduce communalism. They were propagating discord among Muslims and Hindus of Bengal or, for that matter, India. The book claimed that Bengali was the child of Sanskrit, which was destroyed by infiltration of Arabic and Farsi vocabulary."
But whatever colonial purpose the book was intended to serve, Halhed's Bengali Grammar was to Bengali publishing industry what the first Indian railway had been to the subcontinent's economy. It foresaw a barrage of Bengali books and magazines pounding the streets of colonial Kolkata. This ushered in a flow of knowledge and the rise of nationalism which in turn brought about the fall of colonial rule.