Atlas ‘shrugged’


There was a time when there were “paper” maps. Some of us who were born in a distant past would remember using them frequently.

Since there was no Google, places and distances could be found and distances measured on large maps, which could be folded nicely and stuck in the book shelves, in the walls, or kept in the car pockets for use during travel.

They had a different charm and they never aged well until such time we started getting some covered in thin, foldable plastic — a clear technology upgrade!

There were also those beautifully hand-crafted globes with wooden bases that sat neatly and importantly on office tables. They came in different sizes and were prized possessions.

And then there were those awesome, detailed world maps, which could be framed and hung in offices and studies. Well-travelled people showed off the places they had been to by tagging colourful pins on those maps.

Maps are always fascinating. They tell stories of places that otherwise don’t get told. Geography decides national boundaries, national interests and therefore — in many ways — our lives.

Why am I writing about maps? I am because I found something during my summer cleaning exercise — the world atlas by National Geographic, acquired with much love during the very early years of global e-commerce. It took me back more than two decades ago when the world was probably much simpler.

I lived in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s at a time when the country was wracked by an ugly civil war. Bombs went off with precise regularity, people died, but life kind of went on despite all the turbulence around.

In between all that one day I registered myself on Amazon.com — the new, very exciting website that could send me books from across the oceans. I had always loved the National Geographic and had always been fascinated by the atlas they produced. The cartography was mind-blowing for someone with deep interest in geography and graphics.

So, after successfully receiving some books from the United States, I put $50 (if I remember correctly) on my credit card for the world atlas and clicked buy. The return mail that I opened excitedly said it will reach me in a few weeks by sea mail! The wait began.

However, at some point I quite forgot I had ordered the atlas as more bombs and more violence in the war zone north of the country distracted me.

Three months later I suddenly remembered that the atlas hadn’t showed up to brighten my otherwise then rather dark and violent world. I wrote to Amazon, expressing my unhappiness over their poor service. 

A day later an apology landed in the inbox, saying they were now sending the atlas by courier and it should be with me in a couple of days. This time the atlas kept its tryst with Sri Lanka. It took a plane instead of a ship and landed at my door three days later.

As I opened the large card box package, I did wonder whatever had happened to the earlier shipment. Had the ship carrying it lost it’s way, or sunk in bad weather. Where could that copy be?

A month later, the phone rang. A voice at the other end asked in broken English whether I had ordered a “big” package from overseas. It took me a while to connect the dots before I said yes and was ordered to show up at the customs warehouse the next morning.

On a rainy morning I walked into this covered compound where consignments were stacked and spread across the floor. I was shown to a corner where sat a large black package — with visible signs of having been opened and peered into.

“There is a war here, sir, and importing maps need security clearance,” I was told. It is a world atlas that I have ordered to donate to a school library, I responded, and gave the name of one of the famous schools in Colombo after handing him my foreign journalist identification card.  

The officer at the counter looked at me suspiciously, but eventually agreed to clear the consignment, and now I had TWO of those beautiful atlases.

One of them had to shrug and accept it won’t stay with me. So, I kept my promise to the customs officer and sent it across to a school from where I received an ecstatic letter of thanks and appreciation.

The other still lives with me — in good health despite having added 22 years to its life! 

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