The curious case of a missing book - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Noel D’Cunha had a dream. In his dream, he met a Book. As the dream unfolds, the Book reveals the reality of textbooks in India and the politics weaved around it.

02 Oct 2015 | By Noel D'Cunha

Like a few people, my last chore at night is, I read a book.
These days, I am savouring: Andrea Camilleri. Especially, the adventures of Inspector Montalbano in Sicily. An absolute must read.

Recently, on a trip to Ahmedabad, I dozed off reading.

I had a dream.

In my dream Inspector Montalbano and I were in a library.

He pulled out a book from the shelf and asked me, what is it?

I said, it is a book.

Inspector Montalbano said, this is merely a physical object which has been typeset with dead symbols.

I said, oh.

Then Inspector Montalbano said, until the book is open and a reader comes along; and then the words are resurrected. In a way, reborn.

Saying so, he vanished with a poof.

There was silence.

For a bit.

Then the pages of the slender book in my hand started to flutter. Of its own.

Psssst, I heard a whisper.

What?, I said. Looking around.


Another, pssst.

Then I realised that the Book in my hand was having a dialogue with me.

Are you talking to me, talking to me!!!, I asked?

Are you the small-time editor of a small time print magazine, the Book said.

Yes, in a manner of speaking.

I've a message from a fellow book, you can call him a country cousin of sorts, the Book said.

What is the message, I asked.

The message is, the book is missing.

Oh, I said. But you exist.

Not me, I am posh.

There was a pause. As the Book turned the page.


Have you searched?

Yes, replied the Book. There are 1,518,160 elementary schools in India. These are from classes 1 to 8. I visited all of them but not a single book.

Really, I said.

I hired a ST bus and visited all the 85.06% schools in rural areas. Over there I met Raju who said school was all about sitting under a tree. He said school was meant for resting in the shade, instead of labouring in the field.

So? No uniform, no book, I asked?

No! Raju has never seen a book in his life.

I see. But India prints more than two billion textbooks in a year, no?

They seem to have vanished into thin air, said the Book to me.

That can't be, I said, yesterday I visited the Navneet factory. They print and publish more than 5,000 titles in English, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu and other Indian and foreign languages.

The Book said, that's books like me, for Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).

Right, I said.

My country cousin is part of the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) curriculum.

Oh, below the poverty line? USD1 type?, I said.

There was silence.

Turn the page, said the Book.

I did so.

Can you read this?, the Book asked me.

No, this looks like Persian.

It's Urdu, said the Book.

Same thing, I said, since Urdu is all Greek and Latin to me.

It's called the Nastaliq script, said the Book to me.

I see, I said, trying to sound as though I am impressed.

Again, the Book is missing.

You mean a book in this ... Nastaliq script is missing?, I asked.

Yes. I looked in all the 4,900 schools in Maharashtra. But no book.

You spoke to the students?

Yes, all 13 lakh students, said the Book.

Very strange because our PUR friends say the adhesive market could be 5600 to 5700 MT this year. And PUR could grow to 150 MTs.

Oh, this is news to me, said the Book, the poor have a market.

No, no, not poor. This is PUR. It's a kind of adhesive to bind books, polyurethane .... But never mind.

The Book said, I asked all the 37,000 teachers have you seen anything that looks like me? They said, no. They sit in the classrooms of Amravati to Mhapan and sing Yo Yo Honey Singh songs on FM radio and wonder when he will sing a song about the one person who enrolled in their school who reached
the HSC level.
Right, I said.

Turn, the page, said, the Book.

There is more of your gyaan, I asked?

Yes, said the Book.

All this is propoganda.

How so?

I puffed my chest (I am working hard and trying to get it to 56 inch) and said, according to the Ministry of Human Resource Development's analysis, government expenditure accruing to non-government schools is as high as 17% of the total expenditure by state governments on elementary education, and
for states like UP, Kerala and Tamil Nadu (where I come from) it is as high as 50%). What do you have to say to that Mister Book?

The Book said, don't you realise, they are printing less and less of my poor country cousins.

I see, I said.

Now you don't see, said the Book.

Then please explain Mr Encyclopedia (in book lingo, encyclopedia is a book which is a geek), I said.

The Book said: I travelled to a tiny village in Jharkand. It has 176 Santals and Mohli families, plus a few Telis, Sahs, Kumhars and Thakurs. There is one teacher too. But he keeps missing the morning train to this village. And so, the school hasn't opened for the last three months. 75 children have been enrolled, they have not seen their teacher. They have not seen a book.

Why, where are the books?

The books are under lock and key inside a depot, said the Book.


The panchayat feels the books may get damaged if these 75 children will read them na? Wear and tear.

Aha, I said.

Plus there are rumours that the depot will be auctioned off, by the local panchayat. There is more money in the depot that stocks the book than the books themselves.

What's the solution, I asked?
I am planning to migrate to New Jersey. There are better prospects for me there, said the Book.


Listen, that's what I wanted to speak to you about. Can you get one of your printer friends to print me, afresh. My PDF is ready, said the Book to me.

Then the Book started poking my spine with his spine. Needless to say, I started to run.

The Book chased me.

I ran.
Round and round the library.

The Book followed me, shouting, print me, print me.

I bolted as fast as Usain.

The Book said, I want to be section-sewn with a round-back hard bound along with a beautiful silk screen silver for the sleeve case which holds me together.

I was swallowed in blackness.

My final thoughts were.

Time debases history.

Time debases language.

And language is that which is made of words.

Today, every word not read is a dead book.

That's when I opened my eyes.

I was inside a giant library.

It's then I realised, I could hear whispers.

Then murmmurings.

Then a crescendo.

Books were opening on the shelves.

Geography was talking to algebra; Maithili was talking to Tulu; words were exchanging notes.

It was a miracle: one book was reading another book.

That's why my Book caught up with me, and said, impressed?

I said, very much.

He said, you can't put a good book down.