It was my mother, her keen eye diligently scanning the press for items of interest, who spotted the ad in the newspaper. “Now”, it said, “you can quote Kalidasa and not just Shakespeare; Amartya Sen and not just Adam Smith…Tagore and Tharoor”. That, of course, was the clincher. (Show me a writer without an ego and I’ll show you a very good actor). When she sent me the clipping, my first reaction was to give thanks that someone had finally done it — produced, to cite the ad again, “for the very first time, a fully cross-indexed Indian source for Indian quotations.” My second reaction was to fear that, in the face of so gigantic (and unprecedented) a task, it might not have been done well. And my third was to immediately ask a friend travelling to Delhi to pick me up a copy of the book, the Enquire Dictionary of Quotations.

It wasn’t, my friend tells me, widely available; she tried half a dozen bookshops, some rather prestigious, before finding one that stocked it. (They all had the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations instead, which features no Indian author.) But it came at last, a handsomely bound volume of 244 pages with a striking yellow-and-black cover. In an introductory note the editor, T. J. S. George, observes that “the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has thirty-eight pages of quotations from the Bible, not one from the Bhagavad Gita.” Referring to the dominance of Western source-material in India, he asks, “is it any wonder that Shakespeare is a household name in Sholapur and Thirunelveli while Kalidasa is not?”

The challenge the compiler has set for himself is undoubtedly a laudable one — to bring within the reach of the Indian reader in English, quotations from Indian classics as well as contemporary writers which deserve the familiarity that well-worn Western words enjoy. Indeed, to read lines from the Rig Veda, the Upanishads and the surviving works of Kalidasa, neatly arranged and sourced, is to rejoice in the thrill of discovery. To re-read the words and the wisdom of a Nehru or a Tagore is to marvel again at the intellectual giants who brought us that freedom of mind and spirit that is just as important as the political freedom for which they strived. There is no question that the “Enquire Dictionary of Quotations” will offer any questing Indian many hours of rewarding browsing.

But as with most first attempts, the editor has, alas, made curious choices of both commission and omission that detract from the value of his effort. The book’s arrangement is a complete shambles. It idiosyncratically sets out to be chronological rather than alphabetical: I have seen books of quotations arranged by name and others arranged by subject, but why on earth privilege the date of birth of the author over any other attribute of his material? This is complicated enough for a reader wanting to quickly look up a particular writer, but then, three-quarters of the way through the book, the chronology collapses, so that V. B. Karnik, born 1916, appears after Uma Maheshwari, born 1974 (and in some cases no date of birth is listed at all). Worse, this is a book of Indian quotations: what on earth is that wonderful Palestinian, Edward Said, doing in it? Or Bertrand Russell, with an unmemorable line about Nehru? If the (unannounced) intention is also to include great quotations about India, the list is woefully sparse; Churchill appears with a tossed-off comment about Indians being a “beastly people with a beastly religion,” but none of his more considered utterances on the country is included. Worse, his well-known crack about Mahatma Gandhi being a “half-naked fakir” appears under the “Gandhi” entry, not under “Churchill”. Only British quotations on Gandhi feature, so Einstein and Romain Rolland are absent. There is only one quote about Tagore (Yeats’ famous comment that “no Indian knows English”), whereas one might have included a dozen others, or left them all out. The editor clearly could not make up his mind about how far he should go to include foreigners saying pithy things about India; by including just a handful of comments, he denies himself the excuse that he only wished to include Indian sources, while laying himself open to the charge that his omissions are so extensive that they undermine his choices.

That is also a charge that applies to many of the selections of Indian quotations. Tagore devotees will miss several of their favourites; his immortal “When I go from hence, let his be my parting word,” the poem found written out in Wilfred Owen’s diary the day before the great British poet was killed in World War I, is one example of an unforgivable omission. Nehru is superbly represented, Ram Manohar Lohia impressively so, Gandhiji poorly (no examples of his puckish wit, for instance, are included, as I complained in my last column about Wolpert’s recent biography) and Atal Behari Vajpayee, after a lifetime in politics, parliament, and poetry, gets just one line. Modern Indian poets in general receive a good airing, none better than the great late A.K. Ramanaujan, but Gieve Patel’s classic “On being Neither Hindu nor Muslim in India” is absent. (And as for Shashi Tharoor, the compiler has found just four quotes, all from The Great Indian Novel, whereas had he only asked, I might have directed him to a dozen more that have been widely cited!) This is not to belittle the awesome task before the compiler and his helpers; but while for those who have passed away, the editor must rely on his own extensive reading, he might have done well to solicit material from living authors to give himself a better range to choose from.

Finally, the indexing is sometimes a mystery. Having organized the book neither by subject nor author, the editor has sensibly included both a subject index and an author index. Alas, the latter is whimsical (Charan Singh appears under C, for instance, Romila Thapar under R and O.V. Vijayan under O!) and the former is erratic. Kalidasa’s lovely lines about the monsoon — “a source of fascination to amorous women, the constant friend to trees, shrubs and creepers, the very life and breath of al living beings, this season of rains” — can be found neither under “season”, nor “rains”: how will a student be able to quote Kalidasa on the subject of rainy weather by recourse to this index?

“Readers may agree,” Mr George forewarns us, “that an imperfect collection is better than no collection.” Absolutely; but after offering congratulations for this imperfect job, may this reader urge Mr George to lose no time preparing an improved second edition of what could be, but is not yet, an indispensable reference source for all thinking Indians?

Source: Indian Express