Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A review of my book by Tony Gaston

PITTIE, A. Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology: a Bibliography. xxi + 845 pages. Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2010. Hardback, Rs795.00, ISBN 81-7824-294-X. Email (publisher): perblack@gmail.com; (author): aasheesh. pittie@gmail.com.

Published in Ibis 153 (1): 217.

Reviewing a book of 845 pages is a daunting task and even more so when the contents are not a connected text, but a series of entries, varying from two lines to two pages, attempting to encompass every book that makes mention of a bird that occurs in South Asia. My review has, of necessity, been selective: I did not read every page.
Over 1700 books are listed in this bibliography, start- ing with Ray’s Synopsis of 1715 (it contains a list of 22 species of birds from a correspondent in Chennai) and going through to 2008. It includes very general works, such as the Dictionary of Birds (Campbell & Lack 1985) and Alexander’s (1928) Birds of the Ocean, and taxonomic group accounts (e.g. Furness’s The Skuas of 1987), as well as very specific, local works such as Lamba’s (1987) Fauna of Corbett National Park or Small and Beautiful: Sultanpur National Park by Lal et al. (1996). Many works included would be very difficult to locate, even in India, being either old and rare or locally produced, probably in small print runs.
For each book, full publication details are given, including pages, number of illustrations and illustrators and a list of contents, where pertinent, as well as where and by whom the book was reviewed – an especially useful feature, although I suspect not exhaustive. Particularly for older works, there is some detail given on the topics covered. The Introduction explains the philosophy behind the amount of detail devoted to each book, but there clearly has been some arbitrary selection. Authorial comments are very sparse and brief: ‘delightful essays on birdlife around water’, ‘a useful guide on ornithological methods…’, etc. Any new names pro- posed for South Asian birds are listed.
A 62-page section at the end of the book gives brief biographies of most of the authors (those deceased). There are three indexes, one for people, places, species and families, one for new names and one for ‘acronyms, co-authors and co-editors’, although I did not see any acronyms listed. The large numbers of abbreviations used are explained at the end of the Introduction – I really needed this feature.
This book is a work of enormous dedication by a true bibliophile, and the wealth of detail is astonishing. Even with all the resources of the World Wide Web, it would, I think, be impossible to assemble solely from online sources such a comprehensive list of books relating to the birds of South Asia. Consequently, this bibliography can truly be said to be unique. Personally, I share the author’s enthusiasm for everything bookish and applaud his enormous industry. However, I have to question how many of us there are about in 2010. Despite my own interest in books and in the birds of South Asia, I cannot imagine actually making a great deal of use of this collection. Ornithology, except for identification, is now recorded in journals and magazines, rather than in books. Libraries have become places where people browse the web, rather than the shelves. Sadly, a bibliography like this seems like kippers at English teatime – a wonderful institution, but one that may have served another era.

Tony Gaston

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Books in my life: ‘Country roads take me home …’

Hill country harvest by Hal Borland
J. B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia & New York. 1967. 377 pp.
[Genre: Country life; Nature; Autobiography]

This book sat on my shelf for five years before I eased it out a few days ago, resolved to read it this time round. Not that I’d started it earlier, and left it mid-way. But I must have taken it down and browsed through it at least a dozen times, replacing it in line with other un-read ones, simply because I wasn’t ready to begin.
            A few pages later I realised that I had stumbled onto something so luminous in its flow of language, so serendipitous in its subject, that I was literally spellbound. The book itself, is a third print run of the first edition, which speaks for its popularity when it came into the market—to be printed thrice in the same year! And I don’t know whether it went into more print runs that year. It’s heft, and type, are just right, and my clean second-hand copy has the comfort and familiarity akin to a favourite reading chair.
            Borland wrote a weekly outdoor editorial-essay for the New York Times Sunday editorial page, a selection of which takes the reader, in Hill country harvest, through a year of New England’s countryside. Each commentary runs a short two-and-a-half page, roughly segregated into the cycle of seasons, melding imperceptibly into each other with the telling subtlety of the seasons themselves, reflecting the transformation in the author’s physical and mental landscape.
            The unhurried, yet inexorable progress of time, and its journey through the eyes of a countryman is reflected off the city-dweller’s frenetic clock. Borland shows us that the difference between watching life go by, and tarrying to see, is a gentle chasm that makes all the difference in our quest to ‘take life directly, and not [through] someone else’s interpretation.’ And there are no better places to do this than the countryside, for cityscapes are run over by so many interpretations that they’ve become an unreal, frightful dimension of the real earth.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A review of my book by Mark Cocker

Birds in Books: three hundred years of south Asian ornithology—a bibliography
By Aasheesh Pittie. 
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010. 
Hbk, 845 pp, ISBN 81-7824-294-X. £45.00
Link to British Birds review

Bibliographies are strange things. Any one who writes a book or even a paper usually has to compile one. Any one who uses books simply to further their own research has to search them. Yet they are often tedious to assemble and, as any author will tell you, at worse they can be a nightmare to render accurate. So many previous authors have wrongly transcribed a book’s details in their own bibliographies that errors can get handed down from one book to another for generations. Yet this much everyone should acknowledge. They are critically important to all forms of scholarship.

How wonderful then to come across someone who takes a special pride in building up a bibliography that is fastidiously accurate, massively detailed and far-ranging in coverage. Aasheesh Pittie has trawled the entire published literature referring to Indian ornithology over the last 300 years and then reduced the details of these 1700 books to one beautifully presented volume. For anyone interested in the subject, it cuts out hours, probably days, spent trawling libraries for all the relevant material. It also provides a model for any author on how to render a title in their own bibliography.

Pittie is as much a historian as he is a bibliophile and archivist. The book includes an introduction that maps out the relationship between the published literature and the wider development of Indian ornithology. This synoptic portrait of Indian bird knowledge is supplemented by a 62-page appendix that contains pithy, engaging biographies of some of the leading European and Asian figures in the field. So while it is primarily a hand tool for students, it is also a book that is a pleasure to browse.

Yet it is the detailed outlines of the 1,700 works that forms the vast bulk of this heavy tome. The range of published material covered is more than just technical ornithological titles and embraces works of more general travel or art that contain bird-related material. Pittie has also gone further than most bibliographers and, as well as the usual suite of title, author, place, publisher, date of publication, he offers a rounded outline of the book’s contents and an inventory of illustrations or photographs and comments on the overall quality or historical significance of the book. To complete its practical utility there are three indices, with page listings respectively to the birds, places and people. Overall the author has done a really thorough job and his splendid book is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in the birds of south Asia.

2010. British Birds 103 (8): 470.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My response to R. J. R. Daniels's review

Dear Dr Ranjit Daniels,

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you have reviewed my book, Birds in books, for Current Science [99 (3): 385–386]. I thank you for your insights, which I hope will make for improved future editions. I also thank you for recommending it to readers.

However, you raise a few points, that I need to clarify.

The first is regarding the "gaps in listing regional language ornithological publications included in the book" (p. 385). May I draw your attention to page 17 of the book, where I elaborate on its 'Scope'. In the last para I have clearly stated, 'The books included here are mainly in English … A few works in Indian languages … are also included but these may not comprise a complete representation of existing work in regional languages."

As regards the book by Air Vice Marshall Vishwa Mohan Tivari, I think you missed this one. It is listed on p. 715, # 1582.

The second is regarding the listing of "obscure" literature, and those listed as 'Not seen' by me. For a bibliographer, citing obscure literature is as important as literature central to the subject. And it is completely unfair to the authors to state that all books that I've listed under 'Not seen', may well be obscure. I would not dare to categorise the works of John Gould (# 658), John Latham (# 1014), Thomas Pennant (# 1250), F. H. Waterhouse (# 1643), etc., as 'obscure', even though I haven't seen them.

The third is what you consider a "major weakness of the timeline of books and the introduction [which] have failed to highlight the valuable contributions of Indian ornithologists …" Frankly I viewed the entire collation from the point of view of the subject, which is the ornithology of South Asia, and not nationalities of the authors.

Regarding the section entitled 'Brief biographies of authors', let me just say that I did not think this was the right place for greater biographical elaboration about the deceased ornithologists. 

Your penultimate criticism, wherein you state, "the index is totally useless as it serves no purpose … there is no author index," is the hardest to understand. The entire bibliography is arranged alphabetically according to first author's surname! Please see p. 18 where I clearly inform the reader that, 'The general arrangement of the works is alphabetical by author, and chronologically by year, under author.' This is the precise reason that an index to co-authors and co-editors has been provided.

Finally, you state that "the index of 'new names' are basically old synonyms and not recent changes …" Unfortunately, here you completely miss the point. The 'new names' are names given to taxa when they were first described by the authors in these works. I had no intention of listing current taxonomic jugglery.

There are other valid points you raise, and I thank you for pointing me in the right direction. Being an amateur student of ornithology, this is a great help to me.

A review of my book by R. J. Ranjit Daniels

Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology – A Bibliography. Aasheesh Pittie. Permanent Black, ‘Himalayan’, Mall Road, Ranikhet Contt, Ranikhet 263 645. 2010. xxi + 845 pp. Price: Rs 795.

Birds belong to the second most diverse class of vertebrate animals. The nine thousand species of extant birds are spread across continents in a way that there is practically no place on earth without birds. The great range of sizes, shapes, colours, calls and habits of birds have undoubtedly made them the most fascinating of animals.

Human fascination for birds is age old. Traditionally, people adorned themselves with feathers, performed ritualistic bird dances, caged some as pets, domesticated others like the chicken, duck, turkey and pigeon and also carried them far and wide. The long time human–bird association has not only influenced culture but also science and technology. Interestingly, despite the great strides that ornithology has made as a specialized branch of animal sciences, it continues to accommodate amateur wisdom. Major contributions to the study of birds have come from bird watchers not trained in animal sciences. The book under review is an excellent example of how amateur ornithology can complement serious and dedicated scientific research.

Birds in Books by Aasheesh Pittie is indeed an ‘eye-opener’ to the wealth of publications in the field of South Asian ornithology. The author has meticulously compiled titles of 1715 books on birds of South Asia published during the past 300 years. For every book that he has collected or seen, he has written brief abstracts of the contents and the quality of presentation. The timeline of books dealt with span a period between 1713 and 2009 (pp. xviii–xxi).

Eighteenth century authors listed are John Ray, George Edwards, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), Thomas Pennant, Johann Reinhold Forster, P. Sonnerat, J. F. Gmelin, John Latham and David Hugh, some of whom I know only by their Latinized names incorporated in the binomials of birds (for example, Gallus sonneratii, the Grey Jungle Fowl). Names of more familiar ornithologists begin to appear in the 19th century literature; John Gould, A. O. Hume, T. C. Jerdon and E. W. Oates, for instance. South Asian ornithology got its greatest boost in the 20th century with the arrival of stalwarts like Salim Ali that it is only appropriate that this ‘greatest-of-all’ Indian ornithologist’s contribution, by way of books alone, covers 44 pages of Pittie’s compilation (pp. 36–79). The cover is well-designed. The solitary Indian Pitta portrayed on the jacket quite symbolizes a curious student!

While Pittie’s compilation has certainly made finding reference books simpler for students of South Asian ornithology, it is not without omissions, some of which in my opinion are quite blatant. Given the freedom that a reviewer enjoys, I wish to first draw the readers’ attention to the gaps in the regional language ornithological publications included in the book and the evident bias in favour of the more publicized titles. The book lists K. K. Neelakantan’s Keralathile Pakshikal, a book relentlessly publicized as ‘the’ landmark regional language ornithological treatise. The book also includes the Kannada language Field Guide to the Birds of Dakshina Kannada by K. Prabhakar Achar and K. Geetha Nayak published by the Bhuvanendra Nature Club in 2000. The Kannada field guide to birds, although not as highly rated as Neelakantan’s Malayalam book, did attract considerable publicity as it was released by Madhav Gadgil in the presence of ornithologists like S. A. Hussain. I even remember having reviewed the book for Resonance.

The more recent series of regional language translations of the bird guides by Richard Grimmett and colleagues do find a place in the bibliography section of the book. Is there no other meritorious regional language book on Indian birds? Of the handful that I am aware of, V. M. Tiwari’s well-illustrated book titled Joy of Bird Watching deserves attention. This book that was first published in Hindi in 1998 has an English edition published in 2002 by the Book Trust of India. Born in 1935, V. M. Tiwari retired as an Air Vice Marshall of the Indian Air Force!

Yet another commendable ornithological publication that is omitted is Pakshi Prapancha. This book published in 2006 by Asima Prathishthana (Bangalore) authored by Harish R. Bhat and Pramod Subbarao is the finest regional language (Kannada) guide to birds that I have seen. Harish R. Bhat is a botanist and Pramod Subbarao, in all probability, a software professional.

Next, even amongst the English language publications the listing is rather weak as there is a ‘selective’ absence of some of the significant contributions; the monographs published by Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), for instance. There is also a gross under-representation of the ornithological contributions made by the Zoological Survey of India. Further, on more detailed scrutiny, it seems as though the author has overrated some of the obscure literature that hardly merit treatment as publications. For example, Pittie has listed one title Birds of Madurai under my name. There is no such publication. What is intended is probably Bird Life on the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Campus, Madurai. This is a manuscript that I had prepared in 1982 (while a student of agriculture) with the hope of publishing it as my first self-illustrated book on birds. However, as I did not have the means, it remained a handwritten draft along with the line drawings of all the species described in the text. It was in 1983 during my brief stint with Raghavendra Gadagkar at the Centre for Ecological Sciences that the manuscript got typed, photocopied and bound into five or ten copies. I have a copy with me and I remember having sent one to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University library and another to Salim Ali. I have no clue as to where the others are and how such an obscure piece of work had caught Pittie’s attention. Many other titles listed by the author as ‘not seen’ may well belong to this category of books.

The third major weakness is that the timeline of books and the introduction have failed to highlight the valuable contributions of Indian ornithologists, other than Salim Ali. Similarly, the section ‘Brief biographies of authors’ (pp. 765– 827), is merely an alphabetic listing of ‘obituaries’. Even here, Ravi Sankaran, former Director of SACON, is not included, although authors who died later have found a place in the book. In fact, throughout the book, there is not one of this committed Indian ornithologist’s contribution mentioned. Ravi Sankaran’s monographs on the florican, edible-nest swiftlet, Nicobar Megapode, and others should have found a place in the bibliography, the main content of the book.

Finally, the index is totally useless as it serves no purpose the way it has been organized. There is no author index, whereas there is a ‘co-author’ and ‘co-editor’ index. If I had gone by the index, I would not have found my books listed in the bibliography. The index of ‘new names’ is actually misleading as the names are basically old synonyms and not recent changes and there is no index of all the scientific names found in the book. Elsewhere, gleaning the index that says ‘acronyms’, one cannot find any.

Despite the shortcomings, the book by Aasheesh Pittie is worth possessing and I will certainly recommend it to individuals and institutions focused on ornithological research. It is a reasonably priced book. The rather critical comments are meant to help the author and the publisher to see and rectify the flaws as they update and enlarge the text for future editions.

Current Science, 99 (3): 385–386. 10 August 2010.

R. J. RANJIT DANIELS Care Earth Trust, No. 5, 21st Street, Thillaiganganagar Chennai 600 061, India e-mail: ranjit.daniels@gmail.com 

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A review of my book by Tim Inskipp

Birds in books: three hundred years of South Asian ornithology—a bibliography.
By Aasheesh Pittie. 2010.
Ranikhet: Permanent Black.
Price: Rs 795 / £ 45.50.

An amazing work covering an often neglected aspect of ornithology—the bibliography of the multitude of books published that deal with the birds of the South Asian region (here defined rather broadly as comprising the countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet). This is not a book to read but rather one to dip into, either following a lead to discover more about the works of a particular author, or simply to discover some of the fascinating facts sprinkled throughout the book.

An introduction sets the scene, with a brief mention of the main publications produced during each half century since the early 18th century. Then the main part of the book consists of an annotated listing of 1715 books published during the period 1713 to 2008. Most items are annotated with publication details and a summary of their contents. A good few have a very useful indication of their ornithological content and importance, written by the compiler and, where relevant, a list of new taxon names and type locality restrictions. Note that items 121 and 1692 are the same publication listed under different authors, as are 1475 and 1484, and that item 1672, although given a publication date of 1999, has still not been published! There are brief biographies of 219 former authors, mainly those with listed books, although some, e.g., Blaauw, have not apparently written any relevant books. Some other important authors, e.g., B. H. Hodgson, who published many scientific papers on birds of the region, but no books, are not included. A general index is followed by an index of 630 new scientific bird names appearing in the listed books, and finally there is an index of acronyms, co-authors and co-editors.

The definition of a ‘book’ that is adopted is very broad and includes some titles from serial publications that comprise a complete account of a country or region. Also included are a number of regional checklists, some in the form of pamphlets and perhaps not validly published. However, their inclusion can only be considered a benefit to researchers, many of whom have to rely on international abstract services, which are good at capturing papers in mainstream serials/periodicals but very variable in their coverage of minor periodicals and regional books.

As a fellow bibliographer I have greatly appreciated this book for drawing attention to a large number of references of which I was previously unaware, and for providing useful summaries of others about which I knew very little.

Many of the listed items are not readily available, even from specialist libraries, owing to their rarity or obscurity, and this is indicated by the fact that 773 are annotated as by the compiler. Some of these are now available online from the Biodivers ity Heritage Library (http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org) and other similar projects, and it is to be hoped that the majority of relevant publications, which are out-of-copyright or copyright waived, will eventually become available in this way.

The compiler realises that there may be titles that he has not seen, read about or heard of and, certainly, this type of compilation can never be truly complete, both because of new publications and the large number of books that mention birds in passing. One publisher that is surprisingly deficient in the listings is the Zoological Survey of India, with 81 relevant items published between 1981 and 2008 missing—although all are readily available in India. The items include 17 out of the 18 from the State Fauna Series (only that for West Bengal is listed); this Series is clearly important for cataloguing the regional distribution of the avifauna (although the volumes perused are very incomplete in terms of their species coverage—that for West Bengal includes only 53.6% of the estimated 915 bird species recorded in the State).

The information on new names is stated to be extracted from Baker (1930, Fauna of British India. Birds Vols. VII & VIII) and Ripley (1982, Synopsis of the birds of India) but many of the new names in these works are not included. A quick check revealed about 170 extra names of taxa described from India, including quite a number in books not in the listings in Birds in books, e.g., eight names in G. A. Scopoli (1786–1788) Deliciae flora et faunae Insubricae. It is difficult to track down the details of all these new names, especially those that are now long-forgotten synonyms, and it would, therefore, be good to have a published list of all the relevant names for South Asia (including those from periodicals), with details of where they were published and information on the type localities.

These minor criticisms do not detract from the importance of this work, which will be of great value to anyone with an interest in the birds of South Asia and the literature describing them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A review of my book by Bikram Grewal

Birds in Book – Three Hundred years of South Asian Ornithology. A Bibliography
Aasheesh Pittie
Published by Permanent Black (Hard Cover, 846 pages, B&W, Price Rs. 795)
Sanctuary Asia

Many decades back Tim Inskipp, one of the great doyens of Indian ornithology, showed me his bibliography of works on birds of the Indian subcontinent and from thereon I was hooked. For many years I corresponded with him, keeping him updated on new material available in India, buying old book when I could find (more importantly afford) them. Then, one day, the esteemed editor of the book under review, sent me a CD Rom of the bibliography he personally maintained. It was so extensive and detailed (about 27 thousand entries) that there was nothing I could add to it and stopped my work instantly. Since them I had been badgering him about transforming this colossal work into print and so when eventually this tome arrived at my desk, I was overjoyed.

‘Birds in Books’ as the title implies is a bibliography spanning three hundred years of South Asian ornithology and lists over 1700 books, including field guides, monographs, checklists and other printed matter. Many are well researched and annotated. The areas covered include ¬– India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet making this book truly comprehensive and a brilliant example of one man’s obsession with the written word.
A brief introduction mentions the major publications from 1713 to 2009 and explains how the book is set out. The bulk of the book is naturally taken up by the bibliography portion. Brief biographies of about 200 authors are given at the end and three indexes enable the reader to search for particular items.
Since it is de rigueur for reviewers to be critical, I would like to add my bit. Alice, of Wonderland fame, once queried what is the use of a book without pictures? I now ask the same of the Editor for photographs of authors, facsimiles of book covers and perhaps some old bird illustrations would have added greatly to the joys of this book. That notwithstanding, my congratulations to both Aasheesh and Permanent Black for this stupendous effort.
Bikram Grewal

Friday, April 09, 2010

Will we force the Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami into extinction?

Editorial in Indian Birds vol. 5 no. 5 (published on 5 April 2010).

Human actions, whether direct or indirect, are nowadays almost singularly responsible for nudging species towards their doom. Redemption from such a, potentially, lost cause lies in the adroit harnessing of resources, an assessment of the situation, the application of rigorous science, and hopefully, the forestalling of a threatened species careening towards extinction.

In India, vultures have been the hapless victims of a seemingly innocuous human act—that of using a drug as a painkiller for cattle—resulting in a population crash that teeters on the verge of extinction. Just ten years ago, who would have believed that E. H. Aitken’s laudatory “unsalaried public servants”1, would come to this? In the nick of time, the culprit that caused the vultures’ drooping death was identified. If the drug were to be banned, its usage completely stopped, the vultures would have a slim chance of recovery. Banning a drug is difficult, enforcing that ban, a nightmare. A tug-of-war between players only erodes resolve into time-fed laxity—all at the expense of the vultures’ future.

The Edible-nest Swiftlet Collocalia fuciphaga is found throughout southeastern Asia, but in India, it inhabits only the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Its pure ‘saliva’ nest is a victual delicacy in southeastern Asian cuisine, wherein lies its nemesis. Protecting the bird in the wild is impossible, given its preferred breeding terrain. The conservation solution is to ranch it in such a way that its eggs are slipped under surrogate Glossy Swiftlets C. esculenta, and its nest, harvested. A misinformed government order placed the Edible-nest Swiftlet in Schedule I of The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, thereby protecting it totally, and paradoxically, blocking the only scientific solution that would ensure its continued survival on the islands. The only way forward was to remove the bird from Schedule I, allow its nest to be harvested, and prevent the species from becoming extinct (in India) by protection!

The third scenario is centered on the 6.82 km2, volcanic, Narcondam Island—home to the endemic Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami. In 1905 the population of hornbills on Narcondam was c200, in 1972 c400, in 1998 c3602, in 2000 c4323, and in 2003 c3404. Why is this bird at a cul-de-sac, when its population has been more-or-less stable over one hundred years? The simple one-word answer is—goats. Lavkumar Khachar’s article highlights this issue and the urgent need for action. Will we allow goats to eat an island from under the Narcondam Hornbill? Indeed, will we allow them to do what we sent a posse of policemen to prevent Myanmar from doing—take the island away from India? Without vegetation holding it together, the volcanic rock will erode over time. Today it may sound fatalistic to say that an island devoid of vegetation might not survive the vagaries of tropical weather, but water and wind are an unstoppably potent force of erosion—and this, a one-way street to environmental disaster.

Island natural histories are mortally susceptible to invasions of flora and fauna and the introduction of goats on Narcondam is an act of criminal negligence, a slap in the face of our cognitive intelligence. The immediate solution is to remove all the goats, both captive and feral, from Narcondam, by whatever means necessary—delay would be catastrophic; implementation might restore equilibrium over time.

Paradoxically we only learn about a critically threatened species when it is already slipping downhill. Narcondam, however, is a situation that can be rectified easily. Yet, it is more than a decade since the late Ravi Sankaran of SACON raised these concerns and alarms in a report published by the institution, as did the late S. A. Hussain of BNHS, in several publications. The Indian government has taken no corrective action up till now. It is still not too late in the day to salvage the situation. If there is quick action, the magnificent Narcondam Hornbill will certainly survive, in splendid isolation, on a wild volcanic outcrop jutting above the storm-tossed waters of the Bay of Bengal—the unquestioned icon of a potential Peace Park between India and Myanmar and a symbol of successful conservation.

—Aasheesh Pittie

1Aitken, E. H. 1947. The common birds of India. 3rd ed. Bombay: Thacker & Co. Ltd.
2Vijayan, L. & Sankaran, R. 2000. A study on the ecology, status and conservation perspectives of certain rare endemic avifauna of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Final report. Coimbatore: SACON.
3Yahya, H. S. A. & Zarri, A. A. 2003. Status, ecology and behaviour of Narcondam Hornbill, (Aceros narcondami) in Narcondam Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 99 (3): 434–445 (2002).
4Vivek, R. & Vijayan, V. S. 2003. Ecology and conservation of the Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami at Narcondam Island Sanctuary, India. Coimbatore: SACON.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Books in my life: to see ourselves as others see us

Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India. By William Dalrymple.
[Bloomsbury; 284 pp.]

The first book of Dalrymple’s that I read, i.e., before Nine lives, was The last Mughal. I loved it for the portrayal of an India I had learnt of almost furtively, in school. If only we were taught history the way it was narrated here. At several instances, as I read, tears welled up, at the helplessness of Bahadur Shah Zafar, not in himself as a person, bereft though he was, but as the legatee of a virasat completely incomprehensible to his insensitive contemporaries. But who is sensitive in times of war, and rebellion?

When Nine lives was published, I bought it enthusiastically, but it stood for almost five months on the shelves, in line with other unread works, biding its time. Then the author came to Hyderabad, and I resolved, ecstatically, to attend his reading. Lurking behind this wish was the bibliomaniac’s thrill of getting a first edition autographed by the author! How I would savour it for all time!

The evening arrived, and with it the tired-looking Scot. The reading went off quite well. He spoke a bit about the book, and read a couple of sections. There was a Q&A session with some interesting back-and-forth, but not without a display of that irritating habit people have at such moments, of expressing opinions rather than querying.

When I walked up to the table, and asked for an autograph, Bill almost snatched the volume from my hand, flattened it to the title page, asked my name, misspelled it and scrawled something illegible across its top, and middle. No eye contact, no moment of any sort of connect. There was a flight to catch at the end … and so

No sooner did Nine lives resume its place in the lineup on my bookshelf, than a friend borrowed it from the missus! My precious autographed 1st ed! I could only dream of dog-eared pages, and split spines. Thankfully its dust jacket was left behind. Frantically I called the one who held my copy of Nine lives, and she had a good laugh at my genuine discomfiture! But the book came back in immaculate condition.

Now that I’ve read it, I can say that my favourite ‘life’, of the nine, is that of ‘the singer of epics’ (pp. 78–111). I warmed to this story immediately, primarily because it is based in Rajasthan, the land of my forbears (even though I’ve never visited it, except for two trips to Bharatpur, to birdwatch at the famed Keoladeo Ghana sanctuary), and also because it harks back to a time of pastoralism that we urbanites are separated from, but as Indians who survive on a largely ‘backward’ agrarian economy, are able to relate to spontaneously. In this chapter Dalrymple compares that lifestyle to the landscapes and livelihoods in the works of Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Many years ago, conversing with a friend who teaches Russian (he is Indian), I happened to mention that I partook the works of those masters. He asked me why? And I replied that the landscape, the people, and the rahan-sahan, which they wrote of, resembled the leisure and laid-back pathos of Indian pastoralist life.

You must read Nine lives yourself, to sink into the culture of this ancient land, but I’ll take you through some text that I particularly enjoyed. First, there is the incandescent one-liner from the bard, “the flame of my voice only really starts to glow after midnight” (p. 85). Then there is the intimate relationship between the patron and the beneficiary; the thakur and the bard. “Every prominent family of the land-holding Rajput caste, I discovered, inherited a family of oral genealogists, musicians and praise singers, who celebrated the family’s lineage and deeds. It was considered a great disgrace if these minstrels were forced by neglect to formally ‘divorce’ their patrons. Then they would break the strings of their instruments and bury them in front of their patron’s house, cutting the family off from the accumulated centuries of ancestral songs, stories and traditions. It was the oral equivalent of a magnificent library being burned to cinders.” (p. 87).

Before closing I must point you to a review of this work that appeared in Open, which speaks of an uncharacteristic complacency that has crept into this work by Dalrymple. Sadly, I must confess this is true. The editing should have been tighter.