When I found out that The Encyclopedia Brittanica would be going out of print soon, I was reminded of the old times. As I ask in this piece about nurturing the old ways, I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t hang on to the old system, especially if it served an immediate and practical purpose. Unfortunately, with the digital medium allowing for rapid updates, the printed version is becoming obsolete the second it leaves the presses. Would a package of ideas from the sixties matter at all any more or was it best razed to the ground, or retired or abandoned, just like the home it once belonged in?
When my parents sold their bungalow in Chennai in 1993 and moved into a smaller apartment a couple of miles away, they auctioned off their many possessions of fifty years. Before loading a truck and shipping the things off to Murray & Co, they remembered to ask me what I wanted to keep.
I asked for two things that had been around me since I was born. I wanted the camel chariot my parents bought at Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar, supposedly South Asia’s largest bazaar, in 1956. Then I wanted the books I had grown up with, ten rust-colored volumes embossed with the emblem of a burning torch in the front and adorned in gold on the spine with the words,“The Children’s Encyclopedia, Arthur Mee”.
My dad bought the tomes in 1963. They were lined up according to their volume numbers in a glass-encased, locked bookshelf in his living room. He was the only one who had access to the cabinet and the privilege of reading the books or even holding them was accorded to few children and adults.
“In those days, ours was one of two or three homes to invest in an encyclopedia,” my dad says. He was proud of his collection, the way people were vain about hard-won trophies and specific memorabilia that marked a milestone in their lives. The encyclopedia held a special significance for my dad: he had finally reached a point in his life, it seemed, when he could dream of and afford small luxuries.
The set wasn’t cheap. “My memory is vague. I think I paid 1200 Rupees in 20 monthly installments,” he says. He bought it because he wanted to encourage his daughters to read and to develop the habit of verifying facts and meanings. At 87, he still has the habit of opening the dictionary if he comes across a word that he does not recognize. By buying the books, he gave me the gift of reading.
The Children’s Encyclopedia entertained me for hours. I wasn’t allowed to read more than one volume at a time. If I propped open the book a little more than a few inches, I was chided gently and told stories yet again about how much it took for him to buy it. I spent hours pouring over the Bayeux Tapestry, paintings of the painted walls of a tomb at Giza, the photographs of Queen Elizabeth II, and countless pictures of wildlife, people and nature. I found out about the first trains, planes and automobiles through its pages. I imagined how William Tell and Oliver Cromwell must have looked and dressed based on the illustrations by the artists. I devoured stories about Venice in all her glory. I learned how life went round and round, how the earth was created, how a rope was made and how I must use nails and screws. I spoke my first French words after scanning the one-page comic strip at the end of each volume. I stared forever at one picture which, even now, makes me wonder and wince. In it, a girl of six or seven stands at the lip of the ocean and stares into the horizon where the sail of a boat bobs up into view.
I suppose I was that little girl then, awestruck by the the times and places described on the pages of my encyclopedia. I’m not much different now even though I’ve jumped on that boat, set sail over the seas, coursed through stormy waters and floated under a cloudless sky.