The Book Hunters of Katpadi By Pradeep Sebastian
Hachette, 432 Pages, Rs 599
The Book Hunters of Katpadi by Pradeep Sebastian delves deep into the world of antiquarian book collection, joining a select range of works that focus as much on the physical vehicles of literature as on the author or writing.
Touted as India’s first bibliomystery, the book is centered around Biblio, an antiquarian bookstore tucked away in a corner of Chennai, and its staff — protagonist Kayalveli ‘Kayal’ Anbuchelvan — and her mentor-cum-shop-owner, Neelambari ‘Neela’ Adigal. The two are approached by a longtime associate and collector of rare books, Nallathambi Whitehead, after rare material apparently belonging to British Orientalist explorer and writer, Sir Francis Richard Burton, surfaces in Ooty.
Kayal is sent to meet Selvaganesan, the man in possession of Burton’s material, who claims to be a descendant of the British explorer. Selvaganesan further reveals he holds a portion of the ‘Karachi Papers’ — an “unholy grail”, which the bibliophiles believe will shed light on Burton’s “downfall” in India. At nearly the same time, a cache of rare editions from the library of a legendary bibliomaniac — Richard Heber — practically lands on Biblio’s doorstep. The former plot thread, and to some extent, the latter, act as the narrative’s backbone, though only in a technical sense. The book takes its time to explore the antiquary world – there’s a chapter on binding here, one on auctions there.
The book’s triumph is largely due to the anecdotes scattered within it in abundance, with scarcely a few pages passing by without some interesting nugget of information cropping up. The illustrations by Sonali Zohra bring to life tantalising elements such as the entrance to Biblio or even an antique iron hand press.
However, this depth in one aspect of the novel results in others taking a few steps back. The characters barely come into the spotlight at any point in the book, instead being chosen only as and when a particular topic needs to be expounded upon, or, more uncommonly, when a plot point needs to be taken forward. The narrative has little patience for any facet of a character that lies beyond their antiquarian aspect. When one considers that the plot shares equal “screen time” with (if not less than) the explicatory nature of the narration, the book can come across as more of a walk-through on antiquarianism than a fictional work. This is largely offset by a deft hand when it comes to setting the pace of the narrative, as well the fact that the author’s passion is almost tangible, seeping through the pages.
However, certain segments, particularly the flashbacks in the second half of the book, do get a little heavy without momentum to keep the pages moving. The book’s focus lies firmly on every component of a book and the history tying it all together. When it comes to the minds behind the obsession, however, it offers little more than glimpses. This does not take away from the book’s considerable achievement in the area it defines for itself, but there is a sense of a lost opportunity.
Neela and Kayal’s journey to bibliophilia is beautifully elucidated, but both belong more to the “scholar-book dealer” category. Where would something such as the “humblebrag” or bibliokleptomania fall on the spectrum? How does this avarice become enough of an obsession for it to potentially be seen as an impediment to daily life? A bit more focus on the characterisation of antiquarians could perhaps have shed more light on this aspect, though the last few chapters do offer food for thought.