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Year-End Special: Life on the margins

Inscriptions, annotations, dedicationswhat if we looked at a book's journey through the readers who have held it through time?

Notes found in the pages of old books collected by The Book Inscriptions Project.
Notes found in the pages of old books collected by The Book Inscriptions Project.

Recently, while rummaging through my grandmother’s trunk of old clothes for her handwritten recipe book, I came across a frayed old book of Hindi poetry, tucked between the Chikankari saris she was so fond of. Published by Sadhna Sahitya Sadan and titled Udgaar, it featured poems by a lady called Homwati Devi, who was born in Meerut. First published in the weekend edition of Hindi newspapers in 1932-33, this collection comprised a series of melancholic poems. As I leafed through the book, I found a couple of them had been ticked by my grandmother. Slowly, a pattern emerged. She had marked only the rare cheerful ones—Chitrakar Se, Prateeksha and Smriti—and written “gaa ke dekhna" on the side, maybe in the hope of presenting these as songs on some occasion. I found myself interpreting the poems through the lens of my grandmother’s thoughts, and the lines acquired a different kind of significance, maybe because they had meant something to her.

What if we looked at a book’s journey not through its writer, but through readers who have held it through time? Inscriptions and annotations help build an image of previous owners who had existed only as wispy forms from the past. Notes on the margins, funny comments, affectionate dedications, awkward attempts at poetry—all create a parallel narrative within the book, offering a peek into the personal histories of readers, and how they might have made the content their own. Sort of like Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, with Potter being given a battered old book in a “potions" class in which a former student had written down tips, modifications and new spells in the margins.

It is the urge to unearth such lived histories that sees Hindustan Times journalist Mayank Austen Soofi scavenging for second-hand books in shops at Daryaganj and Paharganj. “When you see hand-written jottings or bookmarks of previous owners, or even seals of unknown book stores on the title page, you don’t feel alone as a reader," he says. For instance, he recently acquired an edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which almost every other passage had been underlined. Some scribbles are so matter-of-factly mundane that they evoke a chuckle. Soofi cites the example of a first-edition hardbound copy of a Saul Bellow book in a library. “The library is frequented by PhD students. So, this edition contains, on one of its pages, a phone number and note left by an enterprising Bellow expert, in case the students want someone to write their PhD thesis for them," he says.

Such is the fascination with inscriptions that people have now made a project out of collecting these. One of these is The Book Inscriptions Project, started online by Atlanta-based journalist Shaun Raviv in 2006, when he found the following lines in the book The Road To “Human Destiny": A Life Of Pierre Lecomte Du Noüy at an underground Manhattan bar: “Joey, I love you so much! You have surpassed the definition for all. I will always cherish our orgasmic moment. Love + resistance Mark." That inscription inspired Raviv to look for more, for it was so powerful that he wanted to meet the person who wrote it, and the person it was written for. “I had no idea what their relationship was, nor their genders, nor their location on the planet. But I knew that at the moment it was written, they had shared something unique. I still wonder if that connection lasted, or disappeared moments later," he says. Today, The Book Inscriptions Project features 300-400 inscriptions—some from Raviv’s own collection and some shared by other readers. These range from suicide notes, love poems and odes to nature, to pictures and notes too obtuse to make sense of. “I’ve noticed that some people like to scribble in books as what seems like therapy. Perhaps they can’t wait for clean paper, or maybe they want the words to be found by a stranger like me," he says.

A similar project in India, EndPapers, has been started by three PhD scholars—Sujaan Mukherjee, Anushka Sen and Shalmi Barman. One of my favourites from the collection is a list of unconnected, evocative words scribbled on the opening endpaper of Prize Stories 1984—The O. Henry Awards. It’s almost as if a deluge of words, all spat out in a single breath—“canny burgler, fomenting, coddling, hammock, winnow, alianthus (tree), whanged, vamoosed, rancid, drunk-clobbered, hombre, tummy, sniveling, purblind, jowled, whoop, hubris, bravado, permeated, gravy mix, acne, pantyhose, defecation"—has hit you. “This page always gave me the impression of a freeflowing prose poem," writes Barman, who inherited this book from her father, on the site.

The trio initially wanted to start Endpapers as a formal archival project but then decided to give it a more personal form. This collection of nearly 200 inscriptions has been crowdsourced, with contributors sending in images of the pages, along with some basic publication details, a brief note on how the book came into their possession, and more.

Notes found in the pages of old books collected by The Book Inscriptions Project.

The idea of finding secrets and mysteries hidden within the pages of a book acts as an adrenalin rush for some collectors. Subbiah Yadalam, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, seeks out such antiquarian books for this very reason. He has a number of books that were owned by great Indologists such as Moriz Winternitz, whose copy of the first English translation of the Arthashastra is in his possession. “The fact that this book was read by, and scribbled into, by him is enough to give me goosebumps," says Yadalam, who founded the Rare Book Society of India—a virtual space for rare-book collectors. He also has books in which scholars have inserted letters and elaborate notes. Particularly significant is the note left by J.M. Dawkins in The Heetopades Of Veeshno Sarma, with explanatory notes by Charles Wilkins on how he came to possess this book, first purchased by his brother, Prof. R.M. Dawkins, in 1890. “This book was published in 1787. It’s interesting that R.M. Dawkins, a 19-year-old young Englishman, was studying Sanskrit at King’s College, London, in 1890, when he purchased the book. Also fascinating is the set of six-eight volumes by Raphael Sadatini, which have five-six pages of his handwritten original manuscript stuck on to the first page of the first volume," he says.

In case you too want to embark on the quest for inscriptions, there are countless second-hand book stalls, often located in cramped alleys or on footpaths, where you might come across a note that could change you. Or you could visit historic book stores, such as Maria Brothers in Shimla, where you can curl up on a chair, surrounded by centuries-old books on philosophy and travel, inscribed by the British officers who were stationed in India at the time. “Then there is Select Book Shop on Brigade Road, Bengaluru, whose owner, K.K.S. Murthy, opens the entire space for you to explore. It is very common to find books with inscriptions there. These are books that his father had collected from World War II soldiers living in the city and other foreigners, who sold them before leaving the country for good," says Basav Biradar, a Bengaluru-based heritage consultant and second-hand book enthusiast. “You will find a lot of pulp fiction and romantic thrillers with the officers’ names and inscriptions written on them. The other place for these is Blossoms (a book store in Bengaluru)."

Internationally, several online marketplaces, such as AbeBooks, offer rare and used books with interesting inscriptions. There is one, The Missile Crisis, on AbeBooks, which was inscribed by the author, Elie Abel, for Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel. Many passages have been marked in the margins, with Kennedy having made extensive notes in the last four blank pages.

Such inscriptions don’t just tell personal stories but offer a broader history of the time as well. For instance, gifting books was a common practice during weddings and festivals till the 1980s. “My parents were gifted a book, containing paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, on their wedding by a favourite college professor. Now Bosch’s paintings are very grotesque and when I saw the book, it made me wonder why he had chosen this as a wedding gift. It tells you a lot about the relationship between teachers and students," says Mukherjee.

So, next time you pick up a second-hand book, allow it to speak to you, through its squiggly scribbles and hastily written notes, of relationships that once existed, the time that was, and of secrets that lay buried behind the inscriptions.

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