India’s first ‘bibliomystery’ in English is about a unique manuscript by Sir Richard Burton

Booklovers will love Pradeep Sebastian’s novel, which is all about antiquarian books and the people who live with them.

“What do you know about Richard Francis Burton, Ms Anbuchelvan?”

Kayal wasn’t expecting to be addressed, much less queried. “Well...” she responded, “I guess what everyone knows: Translator, explorer, Arabian Nights, first white man to take the Hajj to Mecca, his troubled quest for the true source of the Nile – that sort of thing. Oh, and also that he spent some time in India.”

“The most crucial years, Ms Anbuchelvan, the most crucial years!” bellowed Whitehead, growing visibly excited. “Arabia, Africa and England feature strongly in any discussion on Burton, but little is said about his India experience except as a footnote. The seven years he spent in India, from 1842 to 1849, in his early twenties formed Burton. This country made him the Burton the world knows and admires. This is where he discovered his gift for languages, his abilities as a translator, his love for libraries, his passion for and curiosity about other cultures, his interest in Arabic and Islam. This is where he entertained the idea of trying out disguises in order to ‘go native’, received his first exposure to a variety of sexual practices and developed his lifelong anthropological interest in this area.”

There was a brief silence as Whitehead paused to take a sip of water. And then, shifting his piercing gaze back to Kayal, he asked, “And what do you know about me and my connection with Burton?”

“That you collect him fiercely,” answered Kayal, refusing to be intimidated.

“But I’m not just another Burton collector, Ms Anbuchelvan! I’m the second biggest collector of Burton material in the world – something your employer should have told you about me before our meeting.”

“Come now, Nallathambi, you were being so coy about this meeting to begin with!” Neela protested feigning indignation, but suppressing a grin. “You didn’t say it had to do with Burton, did you?”

Whitehead ignored her and resumed. “You see, Ms Anbuchelvan, among private collectors, only the collection of Viscount Pilkington truly rivals mine. I might also add that with his collection and mine put together, we’ve long surpassed the achievements of the great Burton collectors of the past, such as Quentin Keynes, Edward Metcalfe and Burke Casari. Of course, the Burton holdings with institutional collectors like the British Library and the Huntington Library beat us all. But that is as it should be; institutions and museums have resources and funds that private collectors lack. In any case, a great part of the Keynes and Metcalfe collections are now at the British and Huntington libraries, while among private collectors, I own the scarcest Burton material in Asia. Now, I hear you are making a little trip to Ooty and this is where I’d like you to assist me with something.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Mr Whitehead.”

“Good. There’s a fellow up there who says he has some Burton material from the Indian years, something he thinks no other collector could possibly have. He isn’t willing to tell me what it is. He wants to show it to me, instead.”

“What Burton material could he possibly possess that you don’t already have?” Neela wondered aloud.

“It could be a number of things. Surely you didn’t think I’d finished with Burton entirely, did you, my dear Neelambari? I may have all his books in their first and variant printings, but I don’t have several of his manuscripts.”

“Yes, but how is he so sure you don’t already own a copy of whatever it is he has?”

“Because he – the chap’s name is Kenton Selvaganesan – claims that no one in the world could possibly have another copy. It’s a Burton manuscript, apparently.”

“And he didn’t even hint at what it might be?” Neela asked.

“This is how it all began. Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Kenton Francis Selvaganesan – the Francis was a nice touch, I thought – a history teacher at the Beardsley School in Ooty. He said he had some Burton material on him that he was in a terrible quandary about. He didn’t know what to do with it and wanted my counsel. My interest was immediately aroused and I asked him to tell me more – and, before that, to also tell me how he knew of my interest in Burton. He said he had chanced on newspaper references to my last great Burton acquisition – well, you’ll remember the news stories – talking about how an Indian collector had paid the highest price ever offered for that fairly scarce Burton pamphlet – ”

“The 1853 Bayonet Exercise,” Neela volunteered, nodding.

‘Yes, A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise. Satisfied that the man wasn’t wasting my time, I asked him to tell me about the Burton material he had and how he came to own it. Apparently, a family Burton had known while he was recuperating in Ooty has had it in their possession all these years – that means, for more than a century. He listed two of the three items: two books that had belonged to Burton, with his ownership signature and annotations in the page margins – a very common feature with Burton – and a letter Burton had written from Karachi, after he returned there, to a woman he had known in Ooty. Nothing unusual in that; Burton was always writing letters, except that it’s the first I have heard of one addressed to someone he knew during his stay in Ooty. All this was very well, as I’m always interested in adding books to my collection that contain Burton’s scribbles, as well as his letters. But what was the third thing, I asked. He had mentioned three.”

Whitehead paused to wipe his brow.

“There was silence over the phone, even some hesitation,” he went on. “Then the voice on the other end said, ‘It’s a Burton manuscript.’ I was, as you can imagine, riveted by this piece of information. But he regretted that he was not at liberty to reveal what the manuscript was at that moment. Was he a crank, after all, I asked myself. Someone out to make quick money from me? With Francis as a middle name? When I asked him about it, he said his mother had apparently been some kind of devotee of Burton’s and had stuck her son with that name. He was really quite tired of people asking him about it. After I had gathered my wits, I said a manuscript would be special, but why did he think it was so unique? ‘From the time this came into my possession,’ he answered, ‘I have been researching Burton enough to be convinced of its singularity.’ And then he suggested I come down to Ooty and look at it myself; he would rather not describe it or reveal more.”

“And you told him, of course, that you could not travel and that he should bring the Burton material here to you,” prompted Kayal. Whitehead suffered from severe gout and the only travelling he was capable of was confined within Chennai. It had been years since he had travelled anywhere out of the city.

“Hmm,” Whitehead grunted, annoyed at being interrupted, “but the schoolteacher said he was unable to make a trip to Chennai any time soon – his mother was recovering from a stroke and he could not leave her unattended. To bait him, to draw him out, I said that if the material was, indeed, as unique as he claimed, and if it could be authenticated and its provenance verified, I would pay more for it than any Burton collector he could think of offering it to. But he remained firm. It would have to wait. And now you see, Neelambari, why I jumped at the chance of Ms Anbuchelvan checking on him when she’s in Ooty. I’ve rung him since and told him that someone from Biblio might look in, adding that the bookshop was the nearest thing I could think of that would serve his best interests and mine; a knowledgeable third party, with expertise in these matters that could also remain objective and perhaps even serve the best interests of Sir Richard Francis Burton himself!”

“Hmm...certainly intriguing,” remarked Neela, “and worth looking into. Come on, Nallathambi, what’s your guess about the Burton he has? He’s from Ooty, remember?”

Neela was grinning now, because she knew what Whitehead must be thinking.

“I admit I would be overjoyed if it were the Pilpay manuscript,” he replied, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes, as if making a wish.

“Yes, of course, Pilpay’s Fables,” said Neela softly. “The first thing Burton ever translated.”

When he opened them, Whitehead’s eyes were twinkling.

“But how do you think he – this Kenton – came upon it? How would it come to be in Ooty?” asked Kayal, watching them both closely.

“Because, young lady, Burton was in Ooty. Admittedly, not for very long, but he was there.”

“Ooty? I thought he was stationed in Bombay.”

“Not at all!” snorted Whitehead. “He was never stationed in Bombay – though he did land there and often went there later to write his language exams. He was posted to Baroda and then to Sindh – Karachi, specifically. In 1846, Burton was asked to take a vacation to convalesce from sickness and fatigue. He went to Goa, Calicut and then, finally, to the Niligiri hills, to a sanitorium in Ootacamund. He quickly grew bored and restless in the hills and set down to learning more new languages. By now, he already knew Hindustani, Sanskrit, Gujarati and Marathi. On his return to Sindh, he would learn Punjabi and Sindhi. But now in Ooty, using a local tutor, he began learning Telugu and Toda. Oddly enough, there is no record of him learning or even attempting to learn Tamil.”

Whitehead paused as the waiter began laying out their food: Lemon linguine (without the garlic) for Neela, aglio olio peperoncino (without the cheese) for Kayal and a large piece of tiramisu for Whitehead (even though he had begged off ordering lunch, murmuring something about a diet).

Spooning out a creamy layer of the pastry, the collector continued. “But something else Burton did in Ooty, while recovering from a bad eye infection, is of particular importance: He made his first foray into translation – a Sanskrit text of the Hitopadesha, retranslated in Hindi as the popular fables of Pilpay, something like an Indian Aesop. Burton discovered that he liked translating; enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he knew that’s how he wanted to use his genius for language. However, he didn’t complete the entire translation there. He returned to it later and finished it in 1847. The Pilpay manuscript is in the Huntington Library now. And, rather strangely, this first Burton translation was the very last of his works to come out in print – it would be published for the first time in book form only in 2003.”

He now looked imploringly at the two women. “But I hope both of you can also see why part of that early translated manuscript – or a version of it – may have been left behind in Ooty? As to how this man, Kenton Selvaganesan, came to acquire it – if, indeed, that is what it really is – I do not know and cannot say. And this is where you come in, Ms Anbuchelvan. If you can coax him into at least telling you what the manuscript is, even if he won’t show it, it will give me sufficient incentive to pursue it. If it is a holograph copy of the Pilpay fables, I cannot wait; I must have it.”

Excerpted with permission from The Book Hunters of Katpadi, Pradeep Sebastian, Hachette India.

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