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Let’s read the fine print

India, a Babel of tongues, will soon get a Museum of the Word. And not a moment too soon, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2010 23:05 IST

Last week, Penguin Books CEO John Makinson said that there is no real market for books in India. White man he not speak with forked tongue. Surely he was referring to volumes in English publishing in India, which are indeed poor by Western standards. His candour is a refreshing change from the insane enthusiasm of foreign publishers who expect our market to explode any moment. But perhaps Makinson missed the ferment of activity in Indian language publishing, which churns out almost 50,000 titles every year. Everyone seems to miss this vernacular revolution hidden from angrez eyes.

But then I learned of the National Library’s plan to found a Museum of the Word to celebrate the many-layered history of shabda in India. In retrospect, it is amazing that we don’t have one in a country which is a Babel of tongues and a maze of scripts. And home to one of the two dozen undeciphered scripts in the world, courtesy the Indus Valley civilisation.

The National Library has just vacated its old digs in Kolkata in favour of a modern, climate controlled building. It is planning to turn the old heritage building, which was once the home of Warren Hastings, Bengal’s first Governor General, into the museum. Exhibits will range from clay tablets to printing equipment like superannuated letterpresses.

These days, when everyone has about a hundred fonts installed on their computers, we are beginning to forget the romance of printing, whose discovery was the watershed event of the modern period. It energised the Renaissance in Europe, initiated the age of science, laid the foundation of the modern knowledge economy and changed politics forever by taking learning to the masses. But its romance is remembered only in repositories of the history of the word, like the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, the birth city of the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the first printing press for moveable type. For a publisher like me, to see his 42-line Bible and to actually help to print something with my own hands on a replica of his press was something like an epiphany.

The printing revolution casts a dramatic shadow over the history of the word. But I wonder if the National Library’s museum will care to remember the oral tradition, the crucible of the word, which lives on in traditional Sanskrit teaching, among nomadic and tribal people and in everyday folk sayings. And it is impossible to ignore the translations which went out of India in ancient times, to places as far apart as Baghdad and Shanghai, and influenced the growth of Buddhism, the sciences, philosophy and mathematics. We are living in the third age of the word. The digital age was preceded by the Gutenberg era, but behind that the first age of the word stretches back for millennia.

Last week, I was buying shirts in Kolkata’s Fabindia store, where shoppers are routinely surprised to find Brahmi inscriptions over the door lintels. It’s located in the home of the late Suniti Kumar Chatterji, the pathbreaking linguist who raised a furore in 1968 by declaring that the Ramayana was derived from the Buddhist Jataka tales. The pre-Gutenberg history of the word lives on in the most unexpected places, like a south Kolkata residence. Really, it deserves a museum.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 23, 2010 23:01 IST