Aasheesh Pittie recalls his chance encounter with one of the two most valuable works of 19th century ornithology.
Aasheesh Pittie, a bibliophile hooked on birding the day his father gave him Salim Ali’s Book of Indian birds, was browsing through the Secunderabad Club library one day when the librarian, with a rather disgusted expression, told him about some very large books with bird pictures that had been gathering dust on the shelves for several years. “Believe me,” says Pittie, “my heart was pounding like the steps of a pole-vaulter. I had been poring over some very large bird books in the library of the Bombay Natural History Society, and could not think of any other titles that might have found their way to the erstwhile cantonment of Secunderabad. My hunch was spot on. When he took the imperial folios and set them down, there lay one of the two most valuable works of 19 century ornithology. John Gould’s Birds of Asia: not in the recommended binding of seven volumes, but in the original state of 35 folios. Yes, it was not a full set, nor in fine condition, but what survived is still shockingly fabulous. Those lithographs still glow on every plate.”
This thrilling account is also instructive: the find, the recognition of what those folios were, came about because Pittie was not only a bibliophile and an ornithologist but also, in his heart, a first rate bibliographer — though he wasn’t to know that just yet. Bibliophily and birding had gone hand in hand for this businessman from Hyderabad over the years; starting with building a personal library of books on birds to acquiring ornithological bibliographies to finally collecting antiquarian and rare bird-books. And what his library clearly revealed now was the absence of a proper bibliography for South Asian ornithology. With still no idea of what he was going to do with it, Pittie began painstakingly maintaining a database for himself of works on the ornithology of South Asia.
“The more I pored over various bibliographic works from around the world,” Pittie told me, “the stronger became my conviction that I had to do something similar at least for India, if not for South Asia. Those were the years when I realised the great paucity of ornithological libraries in India. Books on Indian birds, published over the past 300 years, were simply non-existent or too hard to locate. That drove me to buying and collecting them. In a way, the book was happening all the while I was filling up my bibliography.” Pittie’s staggering, monumental work, Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology was published in 2010 by Permanent Black.
I am not (yet) a birder, nor do my bibliographic interests lean to books on birds, but turning the pages of Birds in Books you become swept up in the sumptuous bibliographical details for each work, fastidiously annotated, and experience the bibliographer’s passion — his love for birds and his love for books coming together in one place. Scholars reviewing the book have noted how astonishing it is for how layered the information is for each book here, and the entries number 1,715. “It’s a terribly lonely calling,” Aasheesh replied, when I asked him what the experience of making an exhaustive bibliography had been. “A drudge of the worst kind, and the work involved hardly understood by anyone in libraries I’ve been to. Bibliography is the art of running down an original book (or work) and describing its geography by oneself. People do not understand the obsession for detail, and mania for accuracy of transcription.”
“But there’s the other side to it: discovering books, both rare and new, in libraries of the Bombay Natural History Society, the Asiatic Society (Mumbai), and the Asiatic Society (Calcutta), and poring over them with suppressed joy, for few understood what triggered a bibliomaniac, was phenomenal. The dirt and grime the books were kept in would blacken my computer and writing paper, and I had to carry wet-wipes to clean my hands before approaching another gem.” Pittie’s father was a philatelist of international repute, and had been on the jury of major international philatelic competitions, but, says Aasheesh, “I guess I get my bibliography genes from my mother because I haven’t seen a more meticulous person than her in planning, in execution, and in the art of storage and retrieval!”
Pittie is the editor of the journal, Indian Birds. (His stupendous online database in the public domain with free access is www.southasiaornith.in). As a collector he has focused on rare books on ornithology. “It was a red-letter day when I was able to pick up a rare signed edition copy of the reclusive J.A. Baker’s iconic The Peregrine.” He also owns one of the rarest works on Indian ornithology: T.C. Jerdon’s four-volumed Illustrations of Indian Ornithology (1843-47). Other rarities in his library: a first edition of B.E. Smythies’ The Birds of Burma, an inscribed copy of E.H. Aitken’s The common birds of Bombay (Calcutta; Madras: Thacker, Spink & Co.; Higginbotham & Co). “My copy is inscribed by the author on the Half-tit., page, “A happy voyage home, 19 March 1901”. This must surely be the closest one can get to the publication date of this work.”
The bibliographer consulted various libraries and institutions all over India with ornithological holdings, ferreting out their archives to inform and enrich his database. “The worst was realising that just gems were held in libraries located in coastal cities, where the weather is paper’s worst enemy, and all the holdings suffer tremendously. Lack of space and/or tight budgets allow special care of the Kohinoors of the book world, but there are innumerable forgotten diamonds languishing on the shelves. I fear for their safety.”
I keep wondering, and probably the bibliographer does too, of what might have become of those stunning Birds of Asia Gould folios if he hadn’t rescued them from those dusty shelves? “Oh, the answer to that is simple, they would probably have continued to be what they had been long used for at the club: as a convenient stool to help reach top shelves of cupboards.”