On the Eleventh

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Of endings and new beginnings

This week was like watching Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham: a little happiness, a little sadness.

First, please permit me to blow my own trumpet. I’m very happy today. The Guardian, one of the most respected English-language newspapers in the world, noticed my blog on Delhi, called The Delhi Walla.

In a cover feature called ‘Tales of the City’, the daily said: “From Delhi to New York, there are local bloggers opening their cities up to the world.”

The Delhi Walla was featured with five blogs based in New York City, Cardiff (Wales), Isle of Wright (England), Portland (USA) and Ottawa (Canada) respectively. Written by Patrick Barkham, a feature writer for The Guardian, the story had this to say about me:

“Five years ago, Mayank Austen Soofi (that’s me!), “a small-town guy” from Uttar Pradesh, was a frustrated writer working as a waiter in a five-star hotel in Delhi. Daily excursions into his new city were his escape; he wrote about the city to understand it himself and The Delhi Walla blog, created in his local library, was the result. A celebration of the food, culture and books of India’s capital, it aims to profile one percent of Delhi’s 11 million population. “Each seems to live in a different Delhi. To have a fleeting sense of their personal Delhis makes me appreciate the nuances of my Delhi,” he says. In his approach he eschews negativity and criticism. “I write without intending to be provocative,” he said in an interview with Rediff.com. “I don’t like writing bad things about people. No point.” He has started a reading club called The Delhi Proustians, written four guidebooks and a new book will be published by Penguin India later this year. “I think it’s the best narrative non-fiction to have come out of India after Mala Sen’s excellent India’s Bandit Queen. You see, I don’t fake modesty,” he says.”

Isn’t this cool?

But this week came with a bit of sadness too. Two evenings ago, I knocked at the door of Payal Singh, keeper of her family’s treasure: six hardbounds of the eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.

“These hefty books belong to my mother’s father,” Payal said, showing me the valuables. “He was an English teacher and could recite the entire Shakespeare from heart.”

The volumes in dark brown suede constituted Payal’s entire library. They are precious, especially so after the company that produces the famed reference books announced in this month that henceforth, according to the UK-based The Independent, Encyclopedia Britannica will concentrate on the online encyclopedias, and that the last-ever print edition – a 32-volume set weighing 129 pounds – won’t be replaced when the last 8,000 sets are finally sold.

Payal’s encyclopedias are also more valuable because the eleventh edition, published in 1910 and 1911, was considered a masterpiece. It was not merely used for reference, but was also read for pleasure.

Writing in The New Yorker’s website, author Roger Angell describes ‘The Eleventh’ as “the most popular and acclaimed edition of them all — the Koh-i-noor, the Cary Grant of the genre.”

Like many others, the website of the Canada-based newspaper National Post also published a story on the closure of the print run of Encyclopedia Britannica. It referred to The Eleventh, saying:

Connoisseurs agree that the 29-volume 11th edition, published in 1911 in association with Cambridge University, was far and away the best. It appeared about the time the ownership of the Britannica was moving from Britain to the United States, where it was soon owned by Sears Roebuck and later became part of the University of Chicago.

The 11th was the first edition with a comprehensive index and the first to include biographies of living people. The editors enlisted distinguished writers to contribute many articles, a practice later abandoned. In the 11th, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote on biology, Bertrand Russell on geometry, Algernon Swinburne on Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Peter Kropotkin, famous as both a philosopher and an anarchist, on the philosophy of anarchism. The illustrations were so good that single pages were often framed and sold separately. When Jorge Luis Borges received his first literary prize, he used the money to buy a copy of the 11th and cherished it for the rest of his life.

“My grandfather had all the 29 volumes of the eleventh edition,” said Payal. “Some went missing. Many others were destroyed by silverfish. We are left with volumes 7, 8, 23, 26, 28 and 29.”

Opening volume 23, I found a page that shows the presence of silverfish.

“Oh,” said Payal.

Later, while flipping through another volume, Payal discovered more silverfish attack. It was very sad. But, let’s end on an optimistic note. The entire Eleventh can be found on the net. Happy reading.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos