The other day I was looking at a world map. A ‘Mercator Map’, which is the nice rectangular map all of us are familiar with and which is still used in our school atlases to teach Geography.
Of course, we all know (though I for one rarely remember) that the Mercator map presents a cockeyed picture of the world’s continents and countries, because it shows a 3-dimensional spheroid Earth as a flat surface. In depicting the world as a flat rectangle with the Equator cutting across its midriff, the Mercator Map utterly deforms the comparative sizes and shapes of all the continents (and therefore, all countries). The further you move away from the Equator, the more the Mercator Map exaggerates the sizes of countries; that’s why China and India look much smaller than they actually are compared to, say, USA; that’s why Greenland looks bigger than the entire continent of Africa!
There’s a wonderful free-to-access site, www.thetruesize.com, that lets you shift around countries on the Mercator Map and figure out the actual size of a country compared to other countries/continents. Do visit the site: it’s fun, and also a real eye-opener! Here are a few screenshots showing how big India actually is compared to Europe and Greenland, and how big Brazil is compared to India [all images captured from http://www.thetruesize.com]
India and Europe
Greenland and India
Brazil and India
Some say the European colonizers used the Mercator Map to boost the apparent sizes of their own countries and thereby belittle (literally!) their African and Asian colonies. That’s a matter of perception: but I don’t think we can really fault the man who created the Mercator Map in 1569 – geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator of Flanders (Belgium) – because his sole and very honourable aim was to make a map that would help voyagers from Europe navigate the oceans more easily.
Besides, as an Indian I personally believe we Indians are masters at belittling ourselves at the drop of a hat – or more accurately, at the slightest hint of ‘Western’ disapproval – and that we should cure ourselves of this low self-esteem rather than pretend that it is some kind of genetic disease impregnated in our Bharatiya DNA by Thomas B Macaulay.
Anyway, while playing around with the Map and reflecting on how easy it is for me – perhaps for all of us – to be misled by warped imagery and memory, by ignorance and illusion, by prejudice and propaganda, I remembered an article I’d written for the Indian Express over 15 years ago – written in deep angst because the media at that time seemed focused on whipping itself, and indeed the entire population of India, into a frenzy of self-flagellation following the hideous Gujarat violence of 2002.
Here’s the article: reading it again, I get the feeling nothing much has changed….good or bad.
At times of internal strife one sometimes wonders: will India ever be united? Open the atlas and look at Europe. Start at Ireland, and trace a path eastwards across the Irish Sea to England, and onwards across the Dover Straits through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. Turn southwards and wander through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary; wheel west into Austria, and again south to explore Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Greece. Skim across the Adriatic Sea to travel through Italy, cross the Alps into Switzerland, cut eastwards to sweep across France, and then veer southwards over the Pyrenees into Spain, and finally, Portugal.
A long journey across a vast terrain, to be sure. Yet all those lands we traversed would together fit into the territory of India with room to spare. What’s more, India comprises people who differ from each other in far many more ways than the peoples of Europe: in race, religion, language, culture. To the wonderment of the world, the good ship India hangs together! Battered she is by violent storms of communalism and sectarianism, tossed to and fro by the conflicting pulls of her bewilderingly diverse populace, yet India sails on, her billion passengers united by a Vision.
A Vision, of a land in which all are equal and enjoy equal rights.
The Constitution of India, which we gave ourselves on 26 November 1949, describes this Vision in great detail. It crystallizes the most sublime ideas of millennia. It tells of a just and humane land, where we may dwell and think and speak and follow our chosen beliefs and faiths freely and without fear. The Constitution alone binds us together. It expresses our shared vision, and contains the blueprint for the ship that will help us realize that vision, the ship we have named the Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic of India.
The unity we seek is alive in the Constitution; in times of strife, internal and external, we must reaffirm our faith in this great Book. Amends must be made for past wrongs; walls of prejudice that have hardened over centuries must be dismantled not by force but with understanding. There will be upheavals and unrest; hurdles posed by the corrupt, the jealous and the slothful, by those who interpret freedom as mere licence. But as long as the Constitution and its vision are alive in our minds and our hearts, India shall prevail.
It’s 43° C in the shade here in Delhi, with a scalding hot wind ripping the leaves off trees and propelling kilograms of nano-sized dust particles through the tiniest cracks and crevices in the doors and windows to fill the room where I sit, listening to the air cooler roaring in futile rage, eating juicy chunks of chilled watermelon in between keystrokes and cheering myself with visions of my not-so-favourite netas roaming the streets and campaigning for votes in this infernal weather.
Indeed, there is Dharma in this world.
Delhi’s incendiary summer is a good time to remember the crisp chill of Holland’s winter. I visited Holland in December-January; a dreamy, timeless three weeks during which I re-learned the sublime and long-forgotten art of simply being. Base camp was my friend Udai’s apartment in Delft – it’s the prettiest little town I’ve ever been in. Delft is young by Indian standards (it’s only 600 years old) but its history is linked closely—oh so closely— to the history of India, indeed of the whole world. There was so much to see, to experience, to learn…not only in Delft but in Leiden, Rotterdam, The Hague … no, it’s impossible to find words to describe it all, I don’t know where to start, so I won’t even try – at least not now.
Right now I’m just going to place a few photos of Delft, from here and there. Like this…
I did miss two things, briefly but deeply, in Holland.
One was seeing tulips carpeting the earth out in the countryside like in the photos I’ve seen. Winter is off-season for tulips. So, I plan visiting Holland again, in April/May 2020.
The other thing I missed is actually a person: a friend, the first Dutchman I ever met, I’ll call him Helm, for it wouldn’t be fair for me to use his real name without asking him, and sadly I can’t do that now because Helm and I’ve lost touch since we last met in Shillong in the mid-1970s. I was then pursuing an elusive college degree in Shillong, invigorated in my chase by the healing vapours of garden-fresh cannabis and affiliated psychoactive substances. Helm was a visitor to Shillong from Calcutta, over three successive years, each time just for a fortnight or so. He was a Masters student (of Comparative Religions, if memory serves right) at the Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan (Calcutta); a few years older than I, tall, broad, strong, golden-haired, ruddy-faced, always clad in white kurta-pajama and clogs. Helm was learned, earnest, serene, yet with a ready smile and a huge laugh that could shake the dust and woodlice off the rafters. Helm lugged his classical guitar along wherever we wandered—exploring the hills and rills, meadows and forests, taverns and caverns—and when the heady ganja and mellow kyat had soothed the spirits sufficiently and the comfortable silences had settled, he would pull out the guitar and pluck and strum beautiful melodies and belt out folk songs – Dutch, sometimes English – in a powerful baritone. He even taught me one Dutch song: I only remember the tune now, the lyrics are long forgotten.
I learned much from Helm: about the beauty of all religions and the horrors inflicted across the world in the names of gods and prophets, about humanism, tolerance, the need to remain curious as a child throughout life, how travel can open minds. Helm didn’t educate me on the tulips of Holland, but he taught me a far more valuable life-skill, one that is deeply rooted in India’s glorious heritage and culture—the refined art of making the purest charas (hashish) from the cannabis plants that grow in such profusion in the meadows of Meghalaya. It was a primary objective of his annual pilgrimage to Shillong, to manufacture sufficient stocks of charas to keep him going in Calcutta till the winter break when he went home to Holland. Thanks to Helm, I and a few friends drastically cut down our ganja-smoking; we switched to charas.
Wherever you are, Helm of Holland, may peace be with you. It was wonderful visiting your beautiful, eternal country: I remembered you, briefly but deeply, when there. Who knows, the One willing, perhaps we shall meet again someday, in this life or in another, in some timeless rolling meadow filled with music and laughter and companionship and comfortable silences and mounds of stroopwaffel and the divine fragrances of tulips and mellow wine and ripening ganja plants in the sunshine…