The Story of Mankind

HIGH up in the North, in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.

The Story of Mankind, Hendrik Van Loon


We shared the same first names. Unfortunately that is where all similarities ended, for he was about my father’s age and much different from my father. And I was a student in the 8th standard. A colleague of my father’s – though not the engineering shop-floor type – he drove a motorcycle that made such a racket that it was easy to spot his arrival even when he was a quarter of a kilometer away from our home. My father had detected – perhaps pretty astutely – that my education in the English language needed external intervention which he (my father) was not able to provide. So, Subrata Sinha, started his Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine to our place – to teach me the three Rs.

Mutual consent quickly reduced it to just two Rs as we found it was much more pleasurable to figure out the riddles of Alice in Wonderland than work out the devious progress of that monkey climbing a slippery pole. Sir – as I would call him – had a great flair for astronomy too. It is almost impossible to find clear skies in polluted industrial townships but he was relentless in his attempts to explain to me how to identify stars and constellations (I learnt that the “Saptarshi Mandal” or the Big Dipper was a misnomer because one of the stars – the smallest one in luminance – was named after Angira, the consort of sage Vashishtha). And why planets emitted a steady light while stars twinkled. One day Sir said he’d change the routine. He would read me, once every week, a book he thought was important for me to form a world view (it never crossed my mind why he could not just leave the book with me for me to read). Thus started my first introduction to world history (actually much more than just world history – history of the world, to be more accurate). The book started with the same quote that I started this piece with – lines that got seared in my mind (Later on I have read Richard Dawkins using a metaphor of one-century-per-page to explain the vastness of evolution and I would go – why can’t you use the mountain-bird thing). My journey through the history of mankind became fascinating and it opened up vistas in my young mind that shaped my subsequent love for history, anthropology, evolution and sociology.

We had reached about the middle of the book – a small, hardcover, greenish volume that Sir would carry tucked in his trouser (carry-bags were unheard of those days in semi-urban Bengal). It was the 30th of January, 1984, Monday, and I had returned from school, deciding not to go out to play like we usually did because I needed to complete an essay that Sir wanted me to write. Tears welling up, my mother informed me that it wouldn’t be necessary. Subrata Sinha – Sir – had had a cardiac arrest while at work that morning and had breathed his last even before they could rush him to the town hospital.

Yesterday I discovered the book – The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Van Loon – on Amazon. The price was a piddly $2.99 to get it on my Kindle. Yet it was priceless. I shall start retracing steps of my first quest of knowledge exactly twenty seven years after the one who got me past the start line passed away. Thank you Sir, for starting me on this wonderful journey. I hope you pardon me that it has taken an excess of a quarter of a century for me to resume. But in the larger scheme of things, the little bird has not eroded much of the tall mountain at Svithjod.