Edited By Ashok S. Kothari and Boman F. Chhapgar
Although books have always been my companions, I am not especially excited at the prospect of possessing large coffee-table tomes. In my limited living space I do not have room for coffee tables, let alone books to decorate them. I am also one of those oddballs who likes to read in bed, and it is difficult taking a coffee-table book to bed. It is not easy trying to read a book larger than one’s pillow. Such books make good foot-rests, especially for those of us who are told to sleep with our feet up so as to improve our circulation. For this purpose you need two such books, one for each foot.
Of course, coffee-table books are not designed to be read; they are meant to be looked at because of their beautiful pictures. The text is usually irrelevant. The trouble is, this particular giant volume—Living Jewels from the Indian Jungle—is full of interesting stories and anecdotes taken from the archives of the Bombay Natural History Society, and I was determined to get into bed with it.
First I had to make sure there was no one else in bed with me. A good book won’t tolerate a rival in bed. This ascertained, I requisitioned a couple of cushions from the sitting-room and propped myself up like the stuffed old lady in Psycho. I then proceeded to devour a hair-raising account of the ‘Man-eating Tigers of Nagpore, Bansdar, Toongar and Jaunsar’ by Mr R. Gilbert, a Bombay solicitor, who had apparently lost several would-be clients to the depredations of these feline killers. His kill-by-kill account (which first appeared in 1889) kept me awake for the better part of an hour.
After this I moved on to an even more blood-curdling tale of a ‘Pagal Kutta and a Man-eating Panther’ by George Hogan Knowles, taken from his Terrors of the Jungle (1932). I had barely recovered from the suspense when a scratching on my bathroom door convinced me that our local panther (known as the Landour dog-killer) was on the prowl. I got up, seized my heavy walnut-wood walking-stick, and flung the door open, hoping to scare away the intruder. It turned out to be the neighbour’s cat, who immediately dashed into the kitchen and made off with the cheese I’d been saving for breakfast.
Returning to bed, I made further forays into the archives of the BNHS (now under pressure to change its name to the ‘Mumbai’ NHS), taking tips from old hands on what to do if chased by a wounded bear; how to recover from snakebite in Ahmednagar (but will it work in Mussoorie?); and how to find an acacia thorn in the stomach of a toad. (This last requires patience and surgical skill). Anyway, it was well after midnight when I launched into Captain Mundy’s fascinating account of his travels in my part of the woods, ie ‘Deyra Doon’ (as spelt back in 1832) and its surrounding jungles, then teeming with wildlife. By two in the morning I had gone through every article in the book, the only time in my life that I have read the complete text of a coffee-table book!
Naturally the main attraction (for art-book lovers) are the beautifully reproduced prints of birds and flowers that justify the expense of producing such a book. By the light of day I showed the pictures to twelve-year-old Gautam, who immediately said, ‘Dada, why don’t you frame the pictures? They’ll look great all over the house!’
‘But how can we do that? They are part of a book.’
‘Easy,’ he said. ‘I’ll cut them out for you.’
I gave Gautam a lecture on the sacredness of books (even coffee-table books) and why they should be preserved and not destroyed. Unconvinced, and with a shrug of his shoulders, he returned to his laptop.
But Gautam has a point. Starling would look just right on my study wall, as would the Crimson-backed Flameback (a handsome woodpecker), and the Sapphire Flycatcher, and many others. Gautam sees me looking longingly at a water-colour of the Himalayan Wild Cherry, and advances stealthily with a large pair of scissors. Hurriedly I lock the book away in the trunk where I keep my few treasured possessions. This is one book which cannot be left lying around on a coffee-table.