My introduction to the word “Geography” came via my third-grade textbook. It was passed on to me by my friend and neighbor Srikanth, who is a year older than me. I received it probably sometime in December after the end of my second grade and I remember poring over the black and white photographs of people and their dwellings in different regions of the world. My curiosity was piqued.
The book had a greyish-blue cloth cover. The pages were smooth and of high quality and were filled with photographs and sketches. I remember enjoying the geography periods through that school year and the book lay in our bookshelf for several years until it eventually disappeared. Legends abound of elephant graveyards in the jungle where elephants go to die and very few are the men who claim to have discovered these sites. I wonder if similar graveyards exist for books, several of mine have vanished over time without my cognizance.
Snippets from a couple of lessons from that textbook have lingered in my mind, one about reindeer in Lapland and the other about cheese and windmills in Holland. For many years, I searched the web hoping to find a copy of the book without much luck. I did not remember the name of the author nor the name of the textbook and without the correct search terms, there is only so much Google can do.
During a recent phone call with my cousin Bakin, our conversation drifted towards books as it invariably does. Bakin was in a nostalgic mood and was reminiscing about his English textbooks from grade one onwards. Titles such as “Radiant Reading” and the Ronald Ridout “Better English” series popped up. I mentioned rather wistfully that one of my favorite books, now lost to time, was my third-grade geography textbook, and the first lesson featured reindeer. “Peshan, the Lapland Boy!” he exclaimed. “What?” I asked. “That was the name of the lesson” he replied, “wasn’t there Raoul the Trapper too?”
I was flabbergasted. He was recollecting the names of the lessons from his third grade in circa 1968 or so! “You are right!” I exclaimed. He did a quick search on Google and reported: “The World-Wide Geographies by Jasper Stembridge, in fact, there is an ebook!” And so, after all these years, I finally found a copy on the web!
A word about Bakin. He is the most widely read person that I know. Scarily, he remembers most of what he reads and he reads voraciously on a broad range of topics. He is a man of many talents. Someday, with his permission, I will write a blog on him. People compliment me on my memory, Bakin’s memory is something else. He has probably forgotten more than I will ever remember.
At first glance, the online copy looked disappointing. Dot-matrix font with no pictures. I was disappointed but I noticed a link at the top of the page and when I clicked the link, I was taken to a scanned copy of the book! And yes, the first lesson was indeed “Peshan, the Lapland Boy”. After I finished the call with Bakin, I immediately browsed Abebooks and was happy to find a few copies of “The World-Wide Geographies”. I hastily added a copy to my shopping cart but decided to compare the book with my scanned copy before I placed my order.
It turns out that “The World Wide Geographies” was a series of eight books authored by Jasper Stembridge and printed by Oxford University Press. The one I was looking for was the second volume in the junior series and was titled “Peoples And Homes Of Other Lands”. This version was not available on Abebooks. I abandoned my cart and settled down to read the online version after a hiatus of forty odd years.
The memories came flooding back. Of the chilly January morning when our school term started and we read about Peshan. Of being impressed by Bill the lumberjack who cleared log jams in Canada. My teacher, Mrs Janakiram assured us that his was a very risky job. The astonishment that greeted the fact that the sun never set in Norway for three months in summer and hence the name “Land of the Midnight Sun”. The sniggering in the class when Pedro, the rubber collector was served a dinner of roast monkey in the Amazon Jungle. The life-giving waters of the Nile that led to Egypt being called “The Gift of the Nile.”
The first edition of this book was printed in 1929. The online version is a scanned copy of the edition that was printed in 1941 and the original is from the “Osmania University Library” in Hyderabad, India. I have not been able to find anything about Jasper Stembridge on the web. Besides writing the eight books in the “The World Wide Geographies” series, he has authored a few Atlases. The preface for the 1941 edition indicates that he was a Geography teacher at Denstone College, a high school in Staffordshire, England. The preface includes the nugget of information that he updated the chapter on Lumberjacks after having stayed at a modern camp in 1939.
As I read the book again, I felt as though I was reading literature. The lessons are like stories and for the most part, involve children, so I can now understand my interest in the book when I read it for the first time. For a young boy, growing up in India in the 1970s when access to books was limited, this book was a window to the world. I was transported from the frigid climes of Lapland to the hot deserts of Egypt. From the placid lakes of Italy to the dangers that lurk in the swiftly flowing Amazon. It was my introduction to fiords, dykes, polders, windmills, and canals. Food habits of different cultures and their dwellings. Exotic animals and birds. Instructions to build models of a hut on the West Coast of Africa or a summer mountain hut of Norway. Exciting stuff for a nine-year-old!
This book is a product of its time. The author writes in the preface “Though no important area is neglected, yet special attention is paid to the British Empire and to its place in the World”. This book was after all geared towards school children in Britain at the height of the empire, many of whom would go on to be administrators of her colonies. I can visualize an editor today balking at the identification of Peshan as a member of the “yellow people” or at the chapter “Sambo of the Cotton Fields”. Bakin does not recollect being taught that chapter and neither do I.
The mind does play tricks. I thought the book had a photograph of a man rolling a large wheel of cheese on a street in Holland. The chapter “Hans of Holland” has no such picture. I probably saw it in another book in my school library and over the years, the picture and the lesson fused together in my mind. That brings me to the book itself. The scanned copy has allowed me to read the book again and the photographs have helped me relive my memories. This is more than I could have ever hoped for. However, I wonder how an actual copy would feel in my hands. The smooth feel of the pages, the faded cover hinting at the glory days of the past and the distinctive smell that books acquire as they age might just add more texture to my memories.
I need to keep an eye out on Abebooks for a copy, but until then, I will be content to browse through the virtual copy. And each time I do so, I will be absolutely grateful to my cousin Bakin for reintroducing me to Peshan and his friends in The World-Wide Geographies.