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The Book, The Reader and The Reading

Suguna Ramanathan

Edited by Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakravorty
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 260, Rs. 595.00


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 ...

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