A schoolboy visiting a friend’s “book-type” uncle sees a neat row of the volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica and is drawn to their “fine print, thin paper, and sturdy binding”. Even more by “the level of detail…the tone of authority…brevity of expression”. This, needless to say, is well before the age of Wikipedia. And the boy is, even by the book-bound norms of that tactile age, also a “book type”. He loves books and he loves Tamil, his mother tongue. He turns the pages of the volume with “T” entries, runs his little finger down the page to the entry on “Tamil”, finds and devours it, wanting confirmation of his own sense of his beloved language’s antiquity. He is disappointed to see the Encyclopaedia Britannica make it seem less hoary than he imagined it to be, would like it to be.
The Brief History of a Very Big Book: The Making of the Tamil Encyclopaedia
Permanent Black, 2022
Years later, he comes, with the awestruck inevitability of a Tenzing Norgay beholding Mount Everest, to the ten-volume Tamil encyclopaedia Kalaikkalanjiyam, meaning a treasure trove of the arts. Initiated at what may be termed as Indian independence’s “crack of dawn” in 1947, the most back-breaking, eye-straining and dedicated labour was put into the exercise by a hugely punctilious and skilled team. It was published in ten volumes from 1954 to 1963, with a slender budget but a vast vision.
The story of the ten volumes’ survival through financial stringency, administrative complexities, inter se complications among the team members, political uncertainties, and the imponderables involved in getting experts from across the country and abroad to send their contributions, needed to be put down. This, urgently, before paper trails and memory pathways faded away. And before the age of Wikipedia made the set valued by a small number “only for its antiquarian value”.
This is when the “schoolboy’s little finger”, now in the shape of the hand of a distinguished scholar, author and teacher, turned its 7,500 pages to savour their contents and trace the corpus’ fascinating history. Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy has pieced together that narrative from material sifted through discussions, archival probing, searches in the dusty, musty and (as I imagine) cobweb-veiled basements of premises that hold more than they can make scholarly use of. Like an archaeologist, he has excavated layer after layer of information about the processes that went into the making of this giant work, with great care, brushing the finds with sensitivity so as to reveal the tissues encrusted with decades of neglect and worse.
Gifted with an invaluable sense of modern Tamil history and of unparalleled expertise in—to use a Railways term—its “broad”, “metre” and “narrow” gauges, Venkatachalapathy has done more than unveil the history of a lexicographic exercise. He has shown us a glimpse of modern Tamil Nadu’s search for a cultural, intellectual and aesthetic self-identity that stands, as it must, on the “outer” (to use another Railway term) of the main station where resides its geo-political self-identity. Venkatachalapathy’s knowledge of similar lexicographic enterprises elsewhere in the world that gave the respective language-regions a sense of self-worth is manifest—French and Russian encyclopaedias are cited, as are those of Bangla, Odia and Kannada.
A language and the region where it is spoken seek to see their knowledge horizons, measure their reach of the human mind’s universal resources. An encyclopaedia is a lexical Olympiad in which the run, the throw, the catch, the grapple, the move, the speed, the length, the height and—not the least important —the exact mark of a landing becomes a matter of more than satisfaction; it becomes an earnest of self-pride. What Shakespeare’s language can do, what Moliere’s can do, Dostoevsky’s can do, surely that of the great Sangams can too. And not just “can do” but “has done” in its classical maturation by taking the language’s subtle and yet austere probes to the globe’s reservoir of experience, retrieving the finds in its own medium, and encasing them in its idiom, its script.
Avinashilingam’s dream team
This vision electrified the imagination of one beyond others: T.S. Avinashilingam, an unswerving, khadi-wearing nationalist of the Gandhian mould. This educationist, both as a minister and a public intellectual with a no-nonsense frugality and probity in matters pertaining to funds, assembled a team led by a writer, journalist and headmaster, Periaswamy Thooran, to commence and, with a stern task-mastering (and money-tight) but steady god as guide, carry to completion the monumental task. The Government of India helped when it would, the State government when it could, and philanthropists whenever they found it possible, feasible, but almost never without gentle reminding. And sure enough, with many team-members joining the ranks of the mortals on the other side of the Line of Life, the ten volumes emerged in a decathlon of calibrated achievement.
Books about books are not unknown; but they are rare. This book is rare among the rare for it deals not with the pre-occupations of a single author in the creation of a single text. It is about the work of a team working at the altar of universal knowledge where the priestess is a language that is both ancient and, in this exercise, is being called upon to be totally contemporary.
The “team” cast its net with an expert fling on the waters of knowledge to catch corals, shells, nodes of pure gold. Scientists like K.S. Krishnan joined in the effort. The naturalist M. Krishnan contributed entries on wildlife with his own pen-and-ink drawings of birds. And in a canny move, the team got C. Rajagopalachari to do the entry on Gandhism, courteously allowing the veteran more words than those given to others.
“The naturalist M. Krishnan contributed entries on wildlife with his own pen-and-ink drawings of birds. And in a canny move, the team got C. Rajagopalachari to do the entry on Gandhism.”
If the treasure trove gives Tamil readers a treat, its story gives all who read it beyond the shores of Tamil a repast. It tells them that Tamil is ancient, yes of course. It is classical, goes without saying. It is not an oyster-clasp that keeps its pearl to itself. It is a highly sensitive instrument that receives impulses naturally, stores and metabolises them organically. And it is by its nature incapable of anything narrow, small.
An example: the book has given by way of random illustrations specimen pages from the Encyclopaedia. Among them are two that contain entries each, on Beethoven and Premchand. I have not read anywhere a synoptically more deft and thematically more comprehensive description of the German composer of First Symphony and the Hindi genius who has given us Godan. No reader of Venkatachalapathy’s nugget of a “book book” will close it without a deep breath of respect for Tamil lexicography and a deeper one for Tamil universalism.
I cannot take the reader’s leave without referring to the author’s literary finesse. One sample is his description of an earlier lexical enterprise that failed: “The history of Tamil literature is replete with tales of death, devastation, tsunamis, conflagration and termites. But even by the extraordinary standards of Tamil misfortune…ill-luck…puts this project right up there on the Olympian heights of books blighted by the kiss of death.”
Kalaikkalanjiyam was touched by a different experience, long lost in the sealed cave of its own reclusion, and has now been led out by Venkatachalapathy to the light of a new awareness.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat, and Governor.