Far East meets Midwest in Minnesota library on South Asia

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2013 - 3:52 PM

A little-known Minnesota library, which draws scholars from all over the world, was a gold mine for an author who was researching the history of India.

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Sujata Massey held “The Sleeping Dictionary,” her historical novel set in India. Though fiction, the book is heavy with facts that Massey uncovered in the University of Minnesota’s Ames Library of South Asia, a place many scholars consider the best resource for information about India outside of India.

Photo: Photos by Tom Wallace • twallace@startribune.com,

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When author Sujata Massey decided her new book would be a historical novel set in India, the first place she went was a library in Minneapolis.

The Ames Library of South Asia is “one of the foremost Indian libraries outside of India” said Massey, whose book “The Sleeping Dictionary” is set between 1925 and the end of World War II and marks a departure for the author, whose mysteries have won nearly every award in the genre.

Tucked into the basement of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota, the Ames Library holds more than 250,000 books and documents, some of which are the only ones of their kind in North America. Massey called it the ideal place for “treasure hunting,” which is how she described her research process.

“I’d wander through the stacks and pull out books to see what they are,” she said. Sometimes she’d get so excited by what she’d found that “I’d just sit down right on the floor and start reading.”

Although she has spent most of her adult life in Baltimore, Massey, 49, grew up in the Twin Cities area, where her father, Subir K. Banerjee, recently retired from the university as a geophysics professor. She has returned to town to see her parents, do a reading at Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis on Tuesday evening and revisit the place that provided the foundation for her novel, a contribution so important that the novel’s acknowledgments include an entire paragraph about the library and its librarian, David Faust.

Massey even based one of the book’s characters on the library’s founder, Charles Lesley Ames.

At the turn of the 20th century, Ames became fascinated with India and started collecting everything he could, including government reports prepared when India was still under British rule. They offer a perspective not available in history books.

“These reports provide a fascinating look at colonial experimentation while it was still going on,” she said.

They also are chock full of minutiae. Although the novel is fiction, it’s based on facts — thousands of them in the form of tiny details.

“I like to hang the story on truth as much as possible,” she said. “How much does it cost [for the characters] to do something? If they were going from one place to another, would they take a tram or a bus?”

Like her mysteries, the story is seasoned by cultural influences. The term “sleeping dictionary” originally applied to young Indian women who served as paramours and tutors for British officials who were trying to learn the ways of India. Massey story focuses on one such woman who uses her insider status to spy for the freedom fighters who are working for the country’s independence.

The book offers a little bit of everything. “It’s a love story, it’s a mother-daughter story and it’s a political story,” she said. She even has an addendum titled “A Taste of Old Calcutta” that includes period recipes.

Many books, many tongues

Ames spent his life working in the family business, West Publishing Co. His father, Charles W. Ames, was very active in promoting education, including founding St. Paul Academy. The Ames Library opened in St. Paul in 1946, and the family transferred ownership to the university in 1961.

While the library continues to add books every year, it’s Ames’ early collection that sets it apart, Faust said. Lots of libraries buy new books as they’re published, but some of the material Ames collected no longer exists outside of India or does so in very limited quantities.

“We have an 1822 atlas of India that there are only two copies of in the country,” he said. “We have one, and the Library of Congress has the other one. Ours is in better shape.”

The books and reports written by the British colonists are in English, of course, but there’s a wealth of other languages represented, about 20 in all, he estimated. It’s not unusual for exchange students or professors from the East — Massey’s father among them, she said — to drop in just so they can read something in their native tongue.

Another reason scholars are drawn to the library is that the information is so accessible. “If you go to India, you’ll spend half your time negotiating just to get in,” Faust said.

Massey emphatically seconded that. After finishing her research in Minnesota, she went to Calcutta, where she was greeted with anything but open arms at the National Library of India.

“It was crazy,” she said. “I’d written them several times and gotten together every document I could think of, but they still wouldn’t let me in. Finally my cousin and my aunt — my aunt’s a real powerhouse — went with me and managed to convince them to give me a pass.”

She also went to London hoping to explore the India Office archives in the British Library. That turned out to be almost as difficult. “They finally let me in after I proved that I’d had a book published in Britain,” she said.

She isn’t done using the information she got in the Ames Library. While writing “The Sleeping Dictionary,” she realized that she had the makings of more books.

“Toward the end of working on the book, I felt very much like telling more about the other characters and what happens to them next,” she said. “I’m fascinated by Indian political history and the history of women in India. I’d love to do something combining those two.”

That most likely will involve even more trips to the Ames Library. “I love doing research,” she admitted.

  • related content

  • Massey spent many hours in the library’s stacks, often just pulling books off the shelf and paging through them. “I don’t like doing keyword searches” on computers, she said. “You miss too much that way.”

  • Sujata Massey based one of the characters in her book on library founder Charles Lesley Ames, who worked for West Publishing Co. He became fascinated with India at the turn of the 20th century and started collecting everything he could, including government reports.

  • A reading from ‘the Sleeping dictionary’

    What: Sujata Massey reads from her novel “The Sleeping Dictionary.”

    When: 7 p.m. Tue.

    Where: Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Minneapolis.

    Admission: Free.

    More information: 612-870-3785. http://onceuponacrimebooks.com.

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