Book review

Can a novel about books be too much about books (and too little of the story)?

Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters of Katpadi might have been better off as a work of non-fiction.

Of the Victorian adventurers, travellers, and eccentrics of all stripes traversing the far reaches of empire in the nineteenth century, few were as prolific as Sir Richard Francis Burton. In 1853, he was one of the first Europeans (disguised as an Afghan) to make the hajj to Mecca; he was part of an East African expedition to discover the source of the Nile, preceding Henry Morgan Stanley by over a decade; a polymath and lifelong scholar, he had produced 69 books by the time of his death in 1890, including translations of A Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra.

A master of disguise and occasional spy, Burton was said to have “gone native” during his early twenties when a stint in the army of the British East India Company led to postings in Gujarat and then Sindh from 1842 to 1853. The India years set the course for the rest of Burton’s career. Here, “Ruffian Dick”, as he was nicknamed, “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.”

So expostulates Nallathambi Whitehead, one of the characters in Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters of Katpadi, an ambitious novel claiming to be India’s first bibliomystery – that is, fiction combining the plot of a crime or detective story with a decidedly bookish setting. A fringe subgroup of hardboiled fiction (how many mysteries, after all, can be constructed around bookshops and libraries?), the bibliomystery has occasionally been rendered by big literary names in imaginative ways.

Umberto Eco interwove serial murders with the search for a rare manuscript in a Benedictine monastery; Carlos Ruiz Zafon imagined a Cemetery of Forgotten Books guarded by a sect of librarians in Barcelona; even Dan Brown’s Inferno, with a plot tenuously connected to Dante’s epic poem, dabbled with a pulp take on the genre. At its core, the bibliomystery is a self-reflexive genre that recognises the capacity of books themselves – as texts but also as tangible, enigmatic objects – to excite a reader’s curiosity.

Everything you wanted to know about antiquarian books

The eponymous book hunters in Sebastian’s novel are antiquarian book collectors chasing an apocryphal document authored by Richard Burton during his India years. Facilitating this hunt are Neela and Kayal, a couple of bookwomen running the first antiquarian and rare books dealership in India from a posh address in Chennai. While there is an overarching narrative about the search for this rare fragment of “Burtoniana”, the novel is really a paean to the art of books and the obsessions they inspire.

Sebastian’s exposition of the antiquarian book trade is detailed to the point of pedantry. The hunting of books, as it were, is incidental to lengthy discourses delivered by the two women and others on how to spot a first edition by its binding, the virtues of letterpress printing, the coming of movable type to India, the etiquette of book auctions, and so on. Neela’s shop, Biblio, with its enviable antiquarian stock is a bit of wishful fiction, but the novel is crammed with factual anecdotes about book collectors, antiquarian societies, heritage bookshops, and fabulous bibliographic discoveries.

It is not just the contents of books that matter, Sebastian insists in nearly every chapter, but the rare or beautifully made book-object with its own complicated, unique history. It is a point well appreciated by archivists and scholars, but for the reader who has picked up Katpadi drawn by the promise of a mystery with a bookish twist, the minutiae exhaust the attention and stall the narrative.

All this information, but where’s the story?

During a brief apprenticeship at an antiquarian bookstore that doubled as a stationery shop, Pradeep Sebastian discovered that “the antiquarian booktrade is the last resort of the Indian eccentric.” The proprietor of that store, who would smuggle expensive purchases from the stock into his personal collection, features in Katpadi among a number of “types” peopling this bibliophilic world. There is the self-taught fine binder, the histrionic auctioneer, the savvy small-press operator, and “hunters” of rare books from across the subcontinent, each personality providing perspective on yet another aspect of the trade.

The problem with Katpadi is this very expansiveness; it is uncertain what genre of book it wants to be. Sebastian’s encyclopedic knowledge of bibliography and antiquarianism may have better served in a memoir or work of specialist non-fiction. The Groaning Shelf: and Other Instances of Book Love (2010), a collection of short articles by the same author, is a more enjoyable read because one gets what one expects – engaging ruminations on book collecting, buying, reading, and all things bibliophilic – while Katpadi leaves you flipping through chapters impatiently for the advertised mystery.

The historical intrigue subplot is underwhelming; in the end, Burton is so inessential that he could have been substituted with any swashbuckling nineteenth-century adventurer. On the other hand, there is so much tantalising information (and gossip) about him in this book that cannot help feeling Burton himself would make an excellent subject for an adventure romance novel. If Katpadi inspires such a novel, or further contributions to the “books about books” subgenre, it will have done its bit.

The Book Hunters of Katpadi, Pradeep Sebastian, Hachette India.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

People who fall through the gaps in road safety campaigns

Helmet and road safety campaigns might have been neglecting a sizeable chunk of the public at risk.

City police, across the country, have been running a long-drawn campaign on helmet safety. In a recent initiative by the Bengaluru Police, a cop dressed-up as ‘Lord Ganesha’ offered helmets and roses to two-wheeler riders. Earlier this year, a 12ft high and 9ft wide helmet was installed in Kota as a memorial to the victims of road accidents. As for the social media leg of the campaign, the Mumbai Police made a pop-culture reference to drive the message of road safety through their Twitter handle.

But, just for the sake of conversation, how much safety do helmets provide anyway?

Lack of physical protections put two-wheeler riders at high risk on the road. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. Nearly half of those dying on the world’s roads are ‘vulnerable road users’ – pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. According to the Indian transport ministry, about 28 two-wheeler riders died daily on Indian roads in 2016 for not wearing helmets.

The WHO states that wearing a motorcycle helmet correctly can reduce the risk of death by almost 40% and the risk of severe injury by over 70%. The components of a helmet are designed to reduce impact of a force collision to the head. A rigid outer shell distributes the impact over a large surface area, while the soft lining absorbs the impact.

However, getting two-wheeler riders to wear protective headgear has always been an uphill battle, one that has intensified through the years owing to the lives lost due on the road. Communication tactics are generating awareness about the consequences of riding without a helmet and changing behaviour that the law couldn’t on its own. But amidst all the tag-lines, slogans and get-ups that reach out to the rider, the safety of the one on the passenger seat is being ignored.

Pillion rider safety has always been second in priority. While several state governments are making helmets for pillion riders mandatory, the lack of awareness about its importance runs deep. In Mumbai itself, only 1% of the 20 lakh pillion riders wear helmets. There seems to be this perception that while two-wheeler riders are safer wearing a helmet, their passengers don’t necessarily need one. Statistics prove otherwise. For instance, in Hyderabad, the Cyberabad traffic police reported that 1 of every 3 two-wheeler deaths was that of a pillion rider. DGP Chander, Goa, stressed that 71% of fatalities in road accidents in 2017 were of two-wheeler rider and pillion riders of which 66% deaths were due to head injury.

Despite the alarming statistics, pillion riders, who are as vulnerable as front riders to head-injuries, have never been the focus of helmet awareness and safety drives. To fill-up that communication gap, Reliance General Insurance has engineered a campaign, titled #FaceThePace, that focusses solely on pillion rider safety. The campaign film tells a relatable story of a father taking his son for cricket practice on a motorbike. It then uses cricket to bring our attention to a simple flaw in the way we think about pillion rider safety – using a helmet to play a sport makes sense, but somehow, protecting your head while riding on a two-wheeler isn’t considered.

This road safety initiative by Reliance General Insurance has taken the lead in addressing the helmet issue as a whole — pillion or front, helmets are crucial for two-wheeler riders. The film ensures that we realise how selective our worry about head injury is by comparing the statistics of children deaths due to road accidents to fatal accidents on a cricket ground. Message delivered. Watch the video to see how the story pans out.


To know more about Reliance general insurance policies, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Reliance General Insurance and not by the Scroll editorial team.