By Dr Sanjeev Chopra
Valley of Words will be privileged to host a unique exhibition, first presented under the auspices of the SAMHiTA (South Asia Manuscripts History and Textual Archive) initiative of the India International Centre, New Delhi, with the support of the Ministry of External Affairs from 13 to 28 September at its seventh edition on 16/17 December in Dehradun.
Evam Vadati Pustakam: ‘So, Says the Book’ (Manuscripts Tell Their Story) is true to its name for words have the unique ability to transcend time, space and geographies. This offering showcases select manuscripts from South Asia covering a rich and varied field. All of these were hand-written, reflecting not just the personality of the author but also of the patron who commissioned them as well as the scribes who carefully prepared the ink, the reed, the palm or birch leaf or the handmade paper. These included the 5th/6th century CE Navanitika /Sidhsamskara in the Brahmi script prevalent in the early Gupta period, which belonged to a monk named Yasomitra. From the text it becomes clear that Ayurveda was a well-established tradition in India and Central Asia, and was fused with Vedic and Buddhist influence. There are the twelfth-century early Mahayana texts from Nepal in Bhujimol script, the Kalpasutra documents in Sanskrit in the Jaina Nagari script as also, besides, a very interesting document ‘Prakashatajagadishparika’ written by Jagdisha Tarkalankara in Sanskrit in the Bangla script with a commentary in Telugu! Included in the exhibits is an indigo-dyed parchment in Confucian characters inscribed in metallic ink: a fragment of the Mahanirvan Sutra from China in the 9th century CE and eighteenth-century documents in Pali from Burma on palm leaf. Then there is ‘Raja Ratnagiri’ – Kalhana’s history of Kashmir- in verse – as well as ‘Razmanama’ or the Book of War Mahabharata, commissioned by Emperor Akbar in 1582 with Sanskrit and Persian scholars working hand-in-hand to produce this great treatise in an illustrated format for use by the princes and royalty. There is the map of Jambudwip in the Jaina Nagari script and a collection of verses in Gurumukhi on Prana attributed to Guru Nanak.
Thus, all the faiths that had their adherents in this sacred geography of Jambudwip – Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and the Sufi tradition in Islam – have something on offer: from medicinal texts to treatises on logic and grammar, poetry and drama, astronomy, architecture, astrology, biology, and chemistry. These range from aphoristic statements (sutras) to philosophical observations (samhitas), expert commentaries (vyakhanas), travelogues (safarnama), and biographies (tazkirah). Both the content and the context help us place our past(s) in perspective. Aptly called SAMHiTA (South Asian Manuscript Histories and Textual Archive), it tells the story of how manuscripts have been collected down the ages, and the journey of the texts across languages to different parts of Asia and beyond.
Many of these handwritten texts (pandulipis) in Prakrit, Pali and Sanskrit end with this very practical aphorism:
‘Tailad raksa jalad raksa, slathbandhanat / Murkhahaste na datavyam, evam vadati pustakam.’
‘Protect me from oil, protect me from water, protect me from loose binding / Do not place me in the hands of heedless people: so says the book.’
The present-day techniques of printing, binding, and digitizing have ensured a secure space for the written word. And heedless people have many other distractions to occupy their minds! But just because most books are printed and not hand-written, it does not mean that they are all the same. In fact, as a Festival Director, one comes across so many types of books – but there is a general pattern. First-edition nonfiction books in English are usually in hardback, but more fiction books are in paperback, perhaps because these are less expensive. This is also likely the reason for most Hindi books being in that format as well. Second editions are generally paperback, even for English nonfiction. Writings for Young Adults are replete with illustrations to draw the attention of the young reader; graphic novels in both hard and soft cover are also gaining ground in this segment. Pictures occupy greater space than text in books for tweens, and are eye-catching. The fonts too are bold to enable both the kids and their grandparents to have an easy read. Each book published in India also has an ISBN number, and three copies have to be sent to the National Library of India at Kolkata.
Although people say not to judge a book by its cover, this is realistically often not the case for a potential reader. The cover of the book also tells its own story. It is like the Preamble – not a part of the text, but an important signifier as to what the text hopes to convey. Many festivals also acknowledge and award book covers. The author, editor and publisher often have contending ideas about the cover; finally, the publisher, along with her marketing team, have the final word. The title and sub-title are, of course, important markers, but the preliminary pages also ‘speak’ to the potential reader. The quality of paper, the typesetting, the printing press and the credits for the photos and/or illustrations, legal disclaimers and assertion of copyright as well as details of the publisher are also clearly spelt out
Dedications are usually to parents, partners, children, grandchildren, and friends. These too convey their own story. Many books have a Prologue and Epilogue to establish context for what has happened, as well as to share a sense of the authors’ prognosis about what is likely to happen. Unlike the main text in a nonfiction book, where every statement has to be referenced, an Epilogue allows the author to meander from the main thesis and pick up related threads which may or not fructify over time.
Nonfiction books usually have many people to acknowledge, for these require visits to libraries, archives, resource institutions, and several interviews conducted with various people over the course of research and writing. The editor and publisher are often included in this honours list, for an author typically might hope for their support with their future writing as well. Sometimes names are deliberately excluded to convey a particular message! Fiction writers usually have a smaller Thank-You list, because it is more the creation of their own minds. First-time authors tend to be more inclusive and expansive. It is always interesting to compare the acknowledgments of the same author from their first to fourth books.
The last page of a book – hardcover, softcover or illustrated – is usually a set of endorsements. There are some keywords which are likely to be used: superb, in-depth, empirical, fascinating, admirable, painstaking, original, creative, ground-breaking, urgent, or necessary, et al. Whom the author and publisher choose for the blurb, and the effervescence with which it is written also reveals a great deal about the book. And, of course, the few lines about the author at the very end (sometimes accompanied by a photograph) are also indicative of another journey integral to the writing of the book itself. There is no art without the artist, and no book without its writer.
Last but not the least, a book also gets a ‘voice’ through its reviews and reviewers. In the hands of a competent reviewer, a book gets new life as they are able to not only place the text in its own context, but also share with the reader their insights about other books in that genre to gesture to common threads that occur in similar narratives. We at Valley of Words are delighted that we have this special edition of the Book Review which gives a voice to our forty shortlisted books in the annual VoW Book Awards. Each of these books has been carefully selected over the period of half a year, and each of them has an important story to tell about India. We hope that the readers of this special edition will pick up the books covered in this year’s VoW Shabdavali shortlist for their personal and institutional collections.
Let the books speak for themselves as we celebrate the Word — and beyond!