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Satire: Reflections on the coffee table book

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For reasons I cannot disclose due to national security, I’ve spent the past week thinking about coffee table books. What are they? Why do they exist? What, if anything, do they have to do with coffee? Much research, deep cogitation and several litres of coffee later, I am now able to share some insightful understandings.

1. No one buys coffee table books: Till date, there is no record of any human being actually spending money to buy a coffee table book. Some researchers speculate that no one buys coffee table books because they are always gifted. But that still begs the question: how can you gift a gift without first buying the gift? I interviewed scores of coffee tables for this column. None of them could explain how those heavy, fat things ended up squatting on their faces.

2. Coffee table books are not really books: Call me old-fashioned but in my book (pun intended), a basic criterion for an object to be termed a ‘book’ is that it should be read. But coffee table books are not read. As Wikipedia puts it, the purpose of a coffee table book is to be “displayed on a table intended for use in an area in which one entertains guests”. Unlike a normal book, which is meant to be read, a coffee table book’s purpose is to be seen, and once seen, “to inspire conversation”. Sadly, they are utter failures — failure level comparable to U.S. in Afghanistan and India in free speech — in this regard. The only time they inspire conversation (and fear) is when you try to sell them to the raddiwala.

3. Coffee table books are too full of themselves: Sure, you may be blessed with art paper, large photographs, and a big price tag, but does that mean you name a table after yourself? Or rather, name yourself after a table that happens to be an icon of home furniture? If a coffee table book was a man, he would have been dismissed as a pompous ass. Instead, we murder innocent trees for their sake.

4. They are a handy way to launder drug money: One problem that drug dealers have always faced is how to convert black money into white. These days, of course, you have electoral bonds. But if you are allergic to politics, coffee table books are an attractive alternative on two counts: one, they are so expensive to produce that they can absorb infinite quantities of cash; two, as ideal gift items, they are easy to distribute in large quantities without raising suspicion.

5. The best in coffee table books is yet to come: For way too long, coffee table books have stuck to the same old hackneyed subjects — wildlife, food, wine, and handicrafts. I mean, how many times can you talk to your guests about pandas that can cook, enjoy their wine, and love handicrafts? Therefore, as a special favour to coffee table publishers, I am offering for free four completely original ideas for coffee table books that are guaranteed to become bestsellers:

a. Food of the Man-Eaters: Traditionally, coffee table books on wildlife have tended to focus excessively on the predator, such as tiger or leopard. This one would cover fresh ground by focusing on the prey, and what prey could be more worthy of being immortalised in a coffee table book than former members of our own species? The book would contain interviews with the family and descendants of people eaten by the most famous man-eaters of India, interspersed with mouth-watering pictures of various other foods that the man-eater could have eaten but didn’t, such as chicken, soyabeans, and chilli paneer.

b. India’s manual scavengers: Manual scavenging is a fast-disappearing occupation in India, although one that isn’t disappearing fast enough. This coffee table book would bring to your living room the last generation of an ancient profession that is on the verge of extinction, instead of being extinct. Needless to say, the book would contain hi-res pictures of manual scavengers at work. It is guaranteed to trigger a conversation, if not something more, from whoever is happily sipping tea at your coffee table.

c. Famous politician in fancy costumes: This would comprise beautifully shot photographs of famous politician in fancy dress and feathered headdress, preferably waving to a non-existent crowd. The important thing is that the non-existent crowd should not be there in any of the frames. Unlike normal coffee table books, this one would have photographs (of the politician) on the copyright page also.

d. Book of Universal Religious Blasphemy: This book would have no text and no pictures, so that there is nothing in it that could possibly offend the followers of any religion. It would be sold in tightly packed, vacuum-sealed metal containers that can only be opened after payment has been made. The idea is to make a quick buck — and possibly a fortune — by tricking India’s vast population of offense-takers into buying the book.

G. Sampath, author of this satire, is Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 3:53:36 AM |

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