This volume, the jacket flap tells us, is the latest in a series devoted to ‘book history in India’, the subtitle of this edited work. One expects a chronological account of the history of book production and then one realizes that this is not a history of the book in India but book history in India—a capacious category. I am puzzled initially by the juxtaposition of an essay on the recording of a 14th century Sufi oral discourse and an essay on a colonial reading of Kipling’s Kim in which an otherwise unknown reader interleaves the pages with photographs and writes comments in the margins. It’s cultural materialism, stupid, I tell myself, and carry on reading. And find myself drawn into the varied and various book issues presented here—reading, publishing, censorship, compiling, authorial presence. Let me give the gist of each. Pankaj Jha’s ‘A Table Laden with Good Things’, the opening essay about the Sufi text of a saint named Sheikh Sharafudin Maneri, demonstrates the way in which ideological biases render a disinterested rendering impossible;

it is impossible, says Jha, to get at the thrust of the Sheikh’s ‘original’ when the compiler-disciple, who is recording an oral lecture with interventions from the audience, sifts, remembers, and makes a selection from a mass of utterances.

At the heart of producing the malfuz (record of the spoken word) is the glorification of the Sheikh whose moral voice is paramount; other voices are noted only to elicit his responses. One thinks of Plato’s Dialogues. But who, apart from Matthew Arnold, ever said that an Olympian disinterestedness is at all possible? All history being historiography, this essay too, under the rubric of history, surely engages in the sifting selecting process, much like the malfuz in question (or indeed this review).

Rumi Chatterjee’s essay on British publishers and copyright in India from 1880–1935 raises the question of whether translations are original works in themselves. The tussle between publishing companies like Macmillan and OUP on the one hand and Indian translators and editors of British classical texts on the other, the appeals to the Directors of Public Instruction and university boards to prescribe certain texts and not others, legal battles under a vague copyright law—the subject generates much illuminating heat familiar to anyone who has served on a Board of Studies. The difference between a judge like Justice Farran, sensitive, in his words, to the conflict between ‘the intellectual interests of the persons for whom the translations are intended and the caprice or possible pecuniary interests of the proprietor of the copyright’ (p. 35), and the fulminations of Phillip Lyttleton Gell, Secretary to the Clarendon Press, which is really the OUP under another name (‘we continue to be harassed by the most squalid little pirates . . . the position of the law being so unsatisfactory’ (p. 41) makes delightful and interesting reading.

Alexis Tadie’s ‘A Kipling Reader’ discusses, as its subtitle indicates, ‘modes of appropriating books in colonial India’. The colonial filter through which a man called John Cresswell reads Kim, the mental editing that lets him see an ‘eternal India watched over by the Raj’ (p. 84) demonstrates the process by which readers create their own worlds and thus become authors themselves. This not very enlightening essay comes with photographs of pages from Cresswell’s copy to show how the private experience of reading can shed light on a social context. Graham Shaw’s ‘On the Wrong End of the Raj’ deals with censorship and how it was circumvented by nationalists who used the princely states outside British India to distribute proscribed literature about, and destined for, India. This despite the compliance of the princely states with British authorities. The essay, well researched as it is, provides many lists and is a trifle long.

Avinash Kumar’s ‘Nationalism as Bestseller’ deals with a specific issue of a woman’s journal called Chand, an issue with the title ‘Phansi Ank’. The author refers to the ‘thriller’ aspect of its production and distribution, which latter was ensured by secretly sending out copies three months before permission for publication was sought from colonial authorities. Strongly anti-government, its pages are apparently full of aggressive emotional propaganda against capital punishment for political prisoners. The very first page of the issue aims at raising revolutionary fervour through rhetoric, asking readers to study death (mrityavaad) in order to conquer it (mrityunjaya). We are told that Bhagat Singh contributed several articles to the issue under different pseudonyms and was paid a fair amount of money, a sum of seven hundred rupees to be exact, for his work (p. 176).

The study now turns south with an essay on the first Tamil encyclopedia, Kalaik-kalanjiyam, a title that can make even a Tamilian like myself falter. The entire project spanned 21 years, 1947–1968. A wealth of information and an old-fashioned approach innocent of ‘theory’ differentiate this essay from the others in this volume. Apparently the famous naturalist M. Krishnan, one of a thousand contributors, wrote half of the material on birds and beasts, and T.P. Meenakshisundaram wrote about 2 per cent of the entire encyclopedia. By the time the last supplementary volume came out in 1968, the political climate in Tamil Nadu had changed very considerably, the anti-brahmin movement had succeeded and the process of de-sanskritisation well and truly begun. Criticism of the (brahminical) Sanskrit-based terminology led the Dravidian ideologue K. Anbazhagan to favour English words over Sanskrit words. ‘The Kalaikkalanjiyam’, says the author Venkatachalapathy somewhat regretfully, ‘came, willy nilly, to be identified with the Indian nationalist vision of Tamil’ (p. 216). Sadly the encyclopedia, unable to hold its own in ‘the high noon of Tamil identity politics’ languishes today ‘on the shelves of old libraries’.

By far the most sophisticated essay in the volume and one calling for concentrated attention while reading is Sukanta Chaudhuri’s ‘The Writer’s Hand: Authorial Presence in Print’. The argument takes its cue from Derrida’s undoing of oppositions, ranges across scripts and print practices from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, and writers from Ben Jonson to Marianne Moore. Formidable indeed. Distinguishing between written manuscripts and their printed versions, Chaudhuri suggests that, if we were to consider the matter, we might think of manuscripts as permeated by the authorial presence (individuation), and printed scripts as alienated from the author (socialized for the reading public) The printed form presents a depersonalized artefact in a social context from which the author has virtually disappeared; by contrast, marginal comments and changes in a manuscript declare the writer. Having set up this distinction, Chaudhuri proceeds to dismantle it.

Chaudhuri says that in print form the opposition between individuation and socialization looks drastic but in fact they coexist and permeate each other. A ms. may have been a private production but when the text appears in print with a personal epistle or address to the patron, it carries the authorial presence, creating a ‘new individuation’. Practices common to manuscripts are carried over into texts that are unequivocally ‘socialized traffic’. He adds a third function, participation, which links the two, participates, expands, adds creative inputs, makes for a total circulation in which individuation and socialization commingle. One thinks of Ben Jonson’s lines addressing the reader under the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare (This figure that thou here seest put/It was for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .), setting up yet another circle in the personal/public ripples.

Chaudhuri offers a splendid discussion of Variorum editions in which, to use his words, ‘a small island of text floats in a sea of commentary’. Thinking back to my use of the Variorum edition of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene years ago in 1963, I had some idea of what he meant, but few libraries in this country would have them, amazing as they are. His point is that even as highly public and socialized a work as a Variorum edition meant for a huge readership, containing as it does contributions from so many, rests on numerous authorial identities. In other words, the author in print form, while apparently less visible than in the manuscript, is to be found everywhere. The script/print opposition breaks down. He goes on to anthologies and commonplace books, to issues of intertextuality, and then ‘e’ texts, where the presentation is so complex, the opportunities for individuation, socialization and participation so enormous, that I cannot even begin to summarize. Certainly an essay that makes one see what one had not seen before. My one point of dissent is that the opposition that he sets up between manuscript and print seems to be a little contrived, perhaps not in need of such elaborate dissolution.

A book meant for scholars and scrupulously edited, I wish there had been a longer introduction to guide the reader through these unchartered seas.

Suguna Ramanathan, who taught English Literature for many years at St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, is the author of critical studies of C.P. Snow and Iris Murdoch (Macmillan), and has written on the culture of dalits in Gujarat (Stree). She has also translated modern Gujarati poetry into English (New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi) and published a novel called The Evening Gone (Penguin).

Review Details

[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_5a8fda89081be” show_label=”yes” el_class=”customlable”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_5a8e671abaeb3″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_5a8e675bbaeb5″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_5a8e67d9baeb8″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_58ad1f992ca85″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_5a8e673dbaeb4″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_5a8e67a9baeb7″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_58ad1fbd2ca87″ show_label=”yes”]
[acf_vc_integrator field_group=”15222″ field_from_15222=”field_58ad1fcd2ca88″ show_label=”yes”]