Friday, July 9, 2010

A Few "Unknown Unknowns" From India's Rare Book World

Thiruvananthapuram Padmanabha Swamy Temple Complex.

 Sreekumar (no other name provided), a resident of Vanchiyoor, a neighborhood in  the ancient  city of Thiruvananthapuram, the capitol of the Indian state of Kerala, has a rare book he'd like to sell.

It is a copy of The Book of Psalms translated into Malayalim, one of the languages of Southern India., spoken by six million people.  Printed in 1848 by the Church Mission Press in Kottayam (the first town in India to achieve 100% literacy, in 1989) for the Madras Auxiliary Bible Society, it is one of the old and rare books bequeathed to him by his father.

The Legislative Museum.

He tried to sell it on eBay. No takers. The market for copies of The Book of Psalms in Malayalim is, apparently, small to non-existent. In the West.

He has a few other old books. About five hundred. They are not cataloged. One, Vrikshayurvedam, prescribes methods to change the characteristics of a tree.

“I have heard that using the methods in the book, one can change the shape of a leaf or can get the desired colour of cotton from a cotton plant,” Sreekumar said.

 City View.

He took it to Indian scientist N. Gopalakrishnan, who informed him that this book was  rare and of value. And - word got around - a Japanese academician found out about it and requested a photocopy, which Sreekumar was kind to send to her.

Another Indian rarity in his collection is Kakshapudam, which is about black magic.

“It has almost all black magic methods," Sreekumar, age 51, said, "including Uchchadanam, both in Sanskrit and its translation. One can easily perform black magic using this. However, I never tried,” he quipped.

His father, an avid collector with, apparently, the means to collect, died when Sreekumar was six years old. Sreekumar, an avid reader, has been trying to care for the books ever since. Not too successfully.

“I try to keep them away from dirt and insects. Still, I lost many of them,” Sreekumar said. “Once, I saw an article by [local journalist] Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan, which refers to a souvenir released during the shashtipoorthi [wedding ritual] of Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer. It said there were only 100 copies of it. I had a faint memory of seeing one of its kind. When I checked, it was all damaged in moisture. It was disheartening."
The Royal Palace at Thiruvananthapuram.

Thiruvananthapuram's climate is deadly to books, and is in a perpetual state of identity crisis: Is it a tropical savannah or tropical monsoon climate? It can't decide so it doesn't bother with seasons.

The mean maximum temperature is 93 degrees F. That's the mean, not average. Half the time it's higher than that. The mean minimum is 69 degrees F. Humidity routinely hovers above 90%. Basically, it's Nature's schvitz bath, great for the skin, perhaps, and a natural way to rid the body of toxins. Poison, however, to paper. During summer, the entire state of Kerala is prone to gale force winds, storm surges, cyclone-related torrential downpours, occasional droughts, and rises in sea level. Batten down the bookshelves.

A building in one of the city's "Technoparks."

 A bit of background. Thiruvananthapuram is located on the southwestern coast of India and is ringed by low, lush green mountains. Gandhi referred to it as "The evergreen city of India." It has a rich cultural background, has libraries all over, is an academic hub, and center for IT R&D; it's one of India's Silicone Valley cities. Literacy is 89.36%. It is one of India's major media centers. It is the capitol if India's most literate and socially developed state. Its population is 779,000.

But no one seems to know much about these books and their market, as opposed to scholastic, value. And it is disconcerting to know that, despite twenty-five years of working with rare books, I have no idea what these books are, and have not been able to find a trace of them in the usual (and a few unusual) reference sources; I'd never even heard of them until yesterday.

The only saving grace is that, up until recently, the entire rare book trade in India and its rarities fell into  Donald Rumsfeld's black hole of intelligence, "unknown unknowns."

 "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting 
to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; 
there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; 
that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns -- 
the ones we don't know we don't know."

Now, at least, its trade and a few of its rare books are "known unknowns."

Meanwhile, Sreekumar wants to sell his Book of Psalms in Malayalim. He'd like to use the proceeds to help with his copying shop and finance the preservation of his father's collection of rare books.

Padmanabhaswamy Temple Tower during the LakshaDeepam Festival.

Good luck to you sir. Perhaps you can sell it through Infibeam, India's answer to, which is soon introducing rare books to its mix.

More to the point, how do we find out more about these books and, at least, some of the other  rare "unknown unknowns"? Indian occult, Indian  botanical science, Indian in-translation Bible lit.  An intriguing start.

Thanks to India for the lead.

1 comment:

  1. Only a tiny side note -- there may be no other name provided, because, like a lot of South Indians, he has only the one name (which could be expanded with "son of X, from caste Y, from town Z," of course). The psalms in Malayalam are not in and of themselves special (purely as Malayali psalms -- uniqueness in binding or publishing aside, of course, as none is mentioned), as Christianity and Christian texts have been there since at least the 600s and arguably much earlier. (My Sanskrit professor as a joke had us translate some pages from Genesis out of a 17th century Sanskrit Bible, without telling us the text -- fun identification challenge!)

    The library at the palace in Thanjavur (Tanjore) used to have an excellent bookbinder/conservator doing his best to combat the weather (climate control generally not being a feasible option in that part of India)... don't know if he's still around, though...


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