Title: The Book Hunters of Katpadi: A Bibliomystery
Author: Pradeep Sebastian
Price: Rs 599
Columnist Pradeep Sebastian’s first novel, also purportedly India’s first bibliomystery (meaning a mystery involving the world of books), ‘The Book Hunters of Katpadi’ shows immense promise. Built around the peaceful setting of a Chennai-based store specialising in rare or antiquarian books called Biblio, and its amicable owner Neelambari Adigal (Neela) and her young associate Kayalveli Anbuchelvan (Kayal), this mystery has schools, children’s books, rare volumes, book collectors and sellers, book auctions and libraries galore.
Straight up they are commissioned by a known book collector Nallathambi Whitehead to track Kenton Francis Selvaganesan, a history teacher from Ooty, who claims to possess some missing material belonging to the famous British explorer Sir Francis Richard Burton, who Kayal is sure, “…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 long-deceased Burton’s colourful character is invoked heavily throughout the novel to lend much of the excitement, but given that hardly anybody remembers him (at least not me), it is difficult to have readers stay invested in major portions of the account, to care enough for the secretive nature of the material that could explain a scandal related to this ‘great’ Oriental expert. There are other missing books to recover, minor mysteries to sort—the one involving a celebrated bibliomaniac Richard Heber is my favourite—and there is a huge opportunity completely ignored by keeping these segments short.
Overall, the most vital elements of a mystery, namely drama and the build-up of suspense are sorely missed in the context of the hardback. Where is the drama or the urgency for a resolution? Even the promised adventure is suspect and the baddies are just that—bad; not really villainous in the true sense of the term.
The sole focus of the book is everything that goes into making books and some writers. There is nothing to entice the readers and, more essential to this book, scant characterisation whatsoever of even the key sellers and collectors. Even after reading the book thoroughly, you don’t know what made Neela and Kayal fall in love with books in the first place. In the last few chapters, you do get a rare glimpse at Neela’s journey to becoming an antiquarian book lover. A simple question such as why does a book collector collect a certain book is not addressed.
Just like over-salted fries, there is a too-liberal sprinkling of biblio-related anecdotes resulting in a distinct sense of rambling even if some of the yarns are remarkable. The second half of the novel wore my patience paper-thin.
While the craft of the author is evident in the way he stirs up the feel (especially of first editions), sight (a lovely trip to Ooty by train), and taste of books and food (don’t miss the various trysts Kayal has with food, especially the pairing of coffee and books), the novel lacks in depth, as characters forever play second fiddle to books and their histories. It feels less like a work of fiction than a montage of several to-read booklists and the interesting incidents related to them. While you feel the author’s passion through and through, you miss being inspired to feel the same way.
Other than books, the author’s love of Chennai, one-time Madras, and its various landmarks is delightfully brought out and makes your heart long to pay a visit.
The writing manages to hit the spot with straightforwardness and the delicate, old-world pen-and-ink illustrations by Sonali Zohra breaks the wordiness quite endearingly. Never-ending passages of information dressed as dialogues, about the chosen subject of antiquarian books (even when it tips you on how to judge books by their covers, title page, etc.), overpowers the narrative. Of course, you cannot deny the brooding sophistication in the stunning black dust jacket and the matching silk ribbon bookmarker of the volume. It makes me want to run over and pay my grandmother’s bookrack a visit.