[Published in India Today mag: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/books/story/20180226-the-book-hunters-of-katpadi-author-pradeep-sebastian-1170896-2018-02-16]
The Book Hunters of Katpadi by Pradeep Sebastian is a rare debut. Imagine an India where bibliophilia rules not just a handful of serious book readers, academics and publishers, but also typesetters, printers, booksellers and book collectors. Imagine a certain level of knowledge, scholarship and passion each one of them possesses that makes them engage with each other regularly to hold discussions about the physical book as a form of art. Imagine well-attended auctions of rare first editions where learned bidders will go to any extent to outdo each other. That is the kind of Utopia Sebastian offers his Indian readers with Chennai as the setting for his ‘biblio-mystery’.
The story revolves around Biblio, an antiquarian bookshop in Chennai, run by two women – the owner, a forty-something Neelambari Adigal (or Neela), and her younger assistant, Kayalveli Anbuchelvan or Kayal. Kayal is the protagonist. Through her POV the reader learns about Nallathambi Whitehead, ‘a book collector of particular importance, one among a band of wealthy, significant collectors in India’ and his archrival, Arcot Manovalan Templar (owner of the only book-auction house in India). Whitehead tells the women about the existence of some rare documents about Sir Francis Richard Burton, the British explorer and writer, having recently come to light.
On Whitehead’s behalf Kayal visits Selvaganesan, the man who claims to be Burton’s descendant, in possession of the rare documents, including the controversial ‘Karachi Papers’. ‘Karachi Papers’ happen to be the ‘unholy grail’ collectors from all over the world have been trying to lay their hands upon for years. They are supposed to hold the key to the mystery behind Burton’s disgrace and sudden departure from India.
Sebastian’s passion about books and book collecting is evident on every page; so much so that it pervades the reader. He explores each aspect of the physical book in detail, offering little stories and anecdotes to make them appealing. In fact, this kind of almost-academic minutiae and digressions from the plot might have become tedious but for his clever leaps back and forth.
There are way too many aspects in the book to cover in this review. For a genuine bibliophile/book collector, however, this book is nothing short of a slice of paradise. The descriptions of cozy little antiquarian bookshops and private libraries are beyond beautiful. Many readers may feel skeptical about the Indian setting, but Sebastian somehow manages to pull it off. One just wishes the focus on the plot had stayed consistent – it takes a backseat midway – but the surprise element in the end more or less makes up for it.