If I was to conduct a census of the population of books residing in our cupboard in the late seventies and early eighties, I would find an interesting mix of books. There were a few permanent residents, chiefly books that we had bought or had been gifted. A few temporary residents – usually books borrowed from friends that would reside for a couple of weeks or months before they went back home and then some guests who never even made it to the cupboard but camped on our bed or table. These were books that were borrowed from my school or local library.
The permanent residents were an eclectic mix. Until their population burgeoned in the mid-eighties thanks to the second-hand booksellers on the footpaths of Kings Circle in Bombay, their population was pretty steady. A few books by Enid Blyton, some dog-eared comics, mainly Amar Chitra Kathas and Phantoms. A couple of Oxford University Publications – Tempest and Rip Van Winkle. A Ruskin Bond, a biography of Vinoo Mankad and some assorted novels. We would lend our books freely, some of them would unfortunately never return. There was one book, however, which was our prized possession and was never lent. It was probably the most expensive book in our collection and the most voluminous in size and that was “The Hamlyn Children’s Encyclopedia”. It was a cherished gift to my brother from our maternal grandfather and it must have been gifted in 1973.
It was a beautiful book with a very colorful dust jacket. The front and back cover reflected the contents of the book and included amongst other illustrations those of an astronaut, a farmer shearing sheep, a medieval guard, a vintage car, an antenna, a hydro-electric dam, a zeppelin and a helicopter. The first two pages replicated the cover but each illustration was annotated with a label. I thought this was very cool and it was a novel concept to me.
As a young boy, I just skimmed the encyclopedia. I could not read the text and I contented myself by looking at the pictures. I was drawn to the section titled the “The world of plants and animals”. This was a fascinating section and those pictures are still vivid in my mind. The most impressive one for me was a comparative picture of a blue whale and a human. I just could not comprehend the fact that a living being could be so large. There were pictures of fossils and dinosaurs, of apes and pre-historic humans. Colorful fish and birds. And of a python coiled around some hapless animal and swallowing it head first. I could spend hours observing the pictures and my imagination would run wild with adventures in which I outwitted the beasts that would pursue me.
The other pictures that I found fascinating were those of the evolution of ships and planes. Pictures of biplanes and triplanes jostled for space with hot air balloons and warplanes. I was also intrigued by the picture of a human with a donkey head. I was puzzled and wondered if it was a human or a donkey and whether it spoke in a human tongue or it brayed. Many years later, I found out that it was a picture of Nick Bottom from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream”.
I then graduated to the section on “The world of science and invention”. It was nice to see some of the concepts that I studied in school being illustrated with colorful figures. There was some background too about the inventor or a story behind a discovery that made it more interesting. These sections came in handy during my quiz competitions later in life. I never sat and mugged these sections but I suspect a young mind is like a sponge and these facts stuck in my mind. Over the years, as I grew older, I found myself drawn to other sections such as the “The world of ideas and beliefs” and “The world of art and music”. It was my introduction to Aristotle and Socrates, to Greek drama and Moby Dick. These were very short introductions but enough to pique my interest. It took a few vacations but I eventually made my way through the book.
I probably stopped referring to the encyclopedia in 9th grade or so and it lay in our bookshelf buried below other books. On one of my visits home in 2004 or so, I looked for it at home but came to know that at some point in time, my brother had lent it to somebody and it was never returned. That was disappointing since the book held such fond memories for both of us. I kept looking for the book online and a couple of years later, I happened to find it on Abebooks.com and ordered a copy. I was pretty excited when it was delivered. The book itself was in excellent condition along with the dust jacket just as I remembered it. As I skimmed through the pages, I realized that the pictures were all sketches and not photographs. This was a labor of love. I pointed out the pictures especially of the animals to my daughter and she was sufficiently intrigued, just as I was at her age.
The web has made encyclopedias obsolete. As a young boy, one of my classmates had the entire set of Encyclopedia Brittanica at home and I thought he was extremely lucky. It was a veritable treasure trove of information. Encyclopedias, especially sets, lent a certain air of gravitas to a room. They covered everything from Aardvarks to Zulus. It was nice to settle down with one of them and peruse through the different sections, dwelling on areas that caught one’s fancy. They were expensive though and one had to be reasonably well off to afford them. Even today as my local library disposes of old sets of encyclopedias, I am tempted to buy them to satisfy the young boy in me.
It is really nice that I can now search for any information on the web and it is available in a variety of formats. I can search for a python swallowing a rat and be greeted by an entire page of YouTube videos of pythons in action. I may not care to watch them, but it is available. I can then scroll down to read information on reptile care. There are news reports of pythons swallowing humans. Papers on the digestive physiology of the Burmese Python. Articles on Snope.com debunking some python related myths. Questions on Quora and discussions on Google groups. It is just incredible and we take all this for granted! Of course, when I open my browser the next day, I will have ads from pet stores popping up on every page. Yet with all this, sometimes, it is nice to sit down with the Hamlyn Childen’s Encyclopedia and skim through the pages. It reminds me of long lazy summers when I had the most important gift of all, the gift of time.