Asian Educational Services is a treasure trove of rare books some of which date back to the 17th Century

Amidst ubiquitous paperbacks, the hardbound titles at Stall Number 79 stood out. At the just-concluded Chennai Book Fair, these hardbacks drew a niche group of bibliophiles — lawyers, historians, anthropologists and social scientists, to name some — because their contents were also strikingly different. Reprints of antiquarian books by Asian Educational Services, some of them were published as long ago as the 17th Century. The oldest on display: The Life of Dom John De Castro, The Fourth Viceroy of India, written in Portuguese by Jacinto Freire De Andrada and translated into English by Peter Wyche, requires a mastery of Spenserian English to unravel its message.

This book is the rarest of the 1,400 rare titles offered by AES; most others are written in an English that is considerably closer to the one employed in our times. For example, Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources by Somerset Playne, a civil servant commissioned to write about a small number of British colonies, was published in 1914-15 and therefore makes for effortless reading. With illustrations on every page made available through an AES reprint, dated 2004, the book, priced at Rs. 6,595, has sold 300 copies in the last eight years.

The fact that most of the books come in limited editions, have greater durability through use of quality paper and cover, and cater to a niche readership explain their extended selling time and huge price tags. The reprint of Castes & Tribes of Southern India (1907) by Edgar Thurston comes in seven volumes and costs Rs. 8,500. The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai: Dubash to Joseph F. Dupleix, a 12-volume collection tracking the political, historical and social goings-on in Pondicherry from 1736 to 1761 on a day-to-day basis, is priced at Rs. 12,795.

The antiquarian reprints cover a wide range of subjects, including heritage, travel, history, anthropology, sociology and language. “Dictionaries and books on world languages are among our special offering. There are 45 on the list, including those on Afrikaans, Croatian and Eskimo (Inuktitut),” says W.J. Surresh, manager, Chennai branch, AES.

Considering the books delve into topics that can interest only specialists in certain fields of knowledge, AES, which operates out of Delhi and Chennai, tries to bring visibility for the books at places expected to draw these people. “We go to major libraries and book fairs. We have covered the histories of various presidencies through different titles, and books of this nature evoke a positive response from the directors of public libraries in most states,” he says. The trick often lies in figuring out where an antiquarian book will strike a chord. “The Life of Dom John De Castro will sell better in Goa,” explains Surresh.

Mention of this 1664 book leads to an inevitable question: how does AES find such obscure books? “We get most of them from individual collectors. And some, from public libraries. Only a few public libraries allow these books to be taken. The resistance stems from the fact that these books are often falling apart. Whenever a public library allows us to use a book of theirs, we return the gesture by giving them four or five complimentary copies of its reprint as well the original book in an unaltered form,” says Surresh.

What about copyright of these books? “Given their antiquity, the question does not arise most often. We, nevertheless, carry out a background check to find out if the copyright is held by descendants of the author or by the publishers.”

Where does AES stand in the world of antiquarian book reprints? Says Surresh, “In India, our effort is unparalleled. Around the world, there are companies that do such reprints along with publication of regular books. The fact that we focus only on reprints of antiquarian books makes our effort unique in the whole world.”

For details, log in to www.aes.ind.in