The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is rather lovely when Audrey Hepburn does it in Tiffany's, or Winona Ryder in Sak's. And Hitchcock made Tippi Hedren do it to perfection in Marnie. The thief comes in many guises ' not all of them common. In the kinkier novels of Gide and Mann, stealing ' like lying ' becomes sexy and complex. Gide's Immoralist enjoys watching the object of his lust steal his things, especially when it is uncertain whether the thief is aware of being watched. The trickster-god, Hermes, protects thieves and poets alike, and he too is allowed to be in Arcadia. In the real world, however, theft is usually unglamorous and often sordid. Common thieves are frequently lynched in India. But, there is one form of theft that is still somewhat special, even in the merciless world of security cameras and penal codes ' the stealing of books.

For many, Knowledge and Literature remain realms of gold held in common by literate humankind. Hence, there can be no thieves in the republic of letters. Books are therefore not just things or commodities, like watches and cars; so there is something romantically ambiguous about nicking them. The commonly imagined scenario is of a poor student or book-lover compelled to do it for the love of reading, learning or collecting. Book-stealing inhabits a grey zone between punishment and indulgence, the criminal and the civilized. At the Book Fair this year, the president of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild had worked out a unique way of punishing book-thieves. They were made to sit in his office and write an essay on the Book Fair. If they showed sufficient contrition, they got the book as a gift from the guild, after it was verified that they 'genuinely' needed the book, but could not afford it. The police were left out of it altogether.

Such compassion is charming, and quite in keeping with a certain image of Calcutta. But there is an interesting link here between compassion and respectability. The president of the guild also observed that most thieves came from 'respectable families'. Such people are supposed to be driven by a different kind of need, where the material value of the book is less important than its intangible riches. One wonders, therefore, whether this clemency would be extended to an illiterate person, who has stolen the same book simply for the money. Or whether the compelling 'need' behind stealing Joy of Sex would be indulged in the same way, even when it involves someone from the literate classes. Shoplifting, stealing from personal collections, and from libraries ' each is a different shade of grey when it comes to judging the book-thief. And tearing pages out of a library book is definitely the lowest of the low, somehow. But the civilized world's genteel embarrassment over what to do with those who cannot help stealing books is perhaps among the more amusing instances of double standards.

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