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 — 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! 

Two Conversations

The first was with an old friend who now lives in the United States. We go back 35 years, studied journalism together and shared an apartment for some years.

We have, what my wife says, “venting calls” ever so often. Both he and I belong to a different time and are mostly unable to comprehend why we as people are the way we are when we always have had the option of being otherwise.We make predictions — political and economic — and they mostly come true.

Not so long back we had discussed the possibility of the Covid virus hitting India hard and mutually agreed we could potentially witness a catastrophe. We predicted reasons that would lead India into a dark tunnel where the only light would be those of many pyres. I don’t want to list them, but they all came true.

The other morning we spoke again and tried to not despair even as we talked about what this latest surge was doing to India and Indians — friends, families, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours and even strangers. He told me he had lost a few relatives to Covid and his elder brother was in the ICU for the past five days. I told him about the challenges we as a people, a nation, were facing. He was sounding brave, but I knew he was rattled.

There is little he can do sitting far except worry. He said he had hardly been able to focus on work in the past 10 days because of the deaths in his family.We spoke about our journey as journalists, worried over the current state of the media and wondered when and where this would end.

He told me to get my sons out of the country, reminding me of a story about one of his relatives who always said he believed in the “Quit India Movement” and had, therefore, first sent his children overseas and then followed them.We also tried to look for funny things in these dire times and laughed nervous laughs.

At one point he got distracted, as his wife called out from another part of his house as he laughed. “No, no I am not crying” he told his wife.

We got to start getting very worried when our laughs begin to sound like sobs. Also when Supreme Court judges and children of politicians die, friends and relatives don’t get oxygen and common people have to be cremated by the roadside because cremation grounds have run out of space.My second conversation was with someone who had a role in saving my life when I was struck by Covid and had to be hospitalised back in December.She’s a nurse at the hospital I was admitted to.

I don’t know what she looks like as everybody was wrapped in PPE suits, but she had dancing eyes and her voice was always calm. She was around for the first seven days of my stay in hospital and then she had a two-day break before she returned to bid me goodbye when I was discharged. “Don’t come back,” she said joyously, wagging a finger.

Large chunk of positivity

She had a steady hand and was happy to chat about her family and dreams and career as nurse. She became my source of information and there was a lot to learn from her about Covid, patient care, situation in the hospital, the tough cases and the deaths in the ward. She would also happily announce the number of patients who were recovering.

There was always a large chunk of positivity around her, which was welcome in an otherwise depressing place.

It struck me that she and her other colleagues who nursed me back to my feet and helped me get through a rather trying period would be in the midst of another battle as patients flowed in the second surge.I messaged her, asking how she was. I received a big smiley back.

“Haan ji, bilkul theek”, she wrote, asking me how I was doing. I asked her what it was like at the hospital, and she responded matter of factly.Patients are very critical. They are unable to hold oxygen (oxygen levels are volatile). Patients were much stable during the last surge.

This virus was definitely a new variant, she said.I asked her whether she was managing well and she said she was, that she was on night duty and asked me to look after myself.I then said I hoped her family was well. “I hope so,” she said, adding that her mother and younger brother had cough.

As always, I marvelled at her equanimity, her dedication to her work and the selflessness with which she cared for patients — stuck in that spacesuit and sweating under double masks and rubber gloves for many hours.I told her that I considered myself lucky that I survived. “Yessss,” she wrote back.

Her display picture on WhatsApp tells more about her. “Shukr hai rabba tune mainu dukh sehna sikhaya, kisi nu dukh dena nahin. She is just one of the tens of thousands of frontliners in this battle we are all waging. We should be grateful to people like her.

Points Of Contact – A Short History Of Door Handles

Despite their ubiquity and pivotal role in the haptic experience of architecture, door handles remain oddly under-documented. There are no serious histories and only patchy surveys of design, mostly sponsored by manufacturers. Yet in the development of the design of the door handle we have, in microcosm, the history of architecture, a survey of making and a measure of the development of design and how it relates to manufacture, technology and the body.

Read Here – Apollo

Tea And Capitalism

For much of the 20th century, Western experts viewed China as a pre-capitalist society. They typically equated ‘capitalism’ with industrialisation and innovation, spectacular benchmarks such as coal-powered engines, steel factories and advances in chemical and mechanical engineering. These technological breakthroughs distinguished the ‘West’ from the ‘rest’, and it was their absence in China – and much of Asia – that marked it as ‘pre-capitalist’.

Read Here – Aeon

Three’s Company

The Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) has been called the first modern conflict. This is no compliment… A forward-looking view of the war—the dawn of mass-media coverage, barbed wire, and concentration camps—emphasises the bit parts played by 20th-century personages. Winston Churchill, the neophyte correspondent, making his daring escape from Boer captivity; Mohandas Ghandi’s exertions in the Indian ambulance corps; and Robert Baden-Powell’s devil-may-care dispatches from the Siege of Mafeking (“One or two small field guns shelling the town. Nobody cares”; “All well. Four hours bombardment. One dog killed”), which prefigured his Boy Scout movement by 10 years.

Read Here – AirMail

The Morning After

The other day the car cleaner was late, the milkman didn’t show up and neither did the newspaper. The maid walked in late too, looking scared, fear in her eyes that told many stories.

Out on the road, which otherwise bustles in the morning, there was little activity. For a Monday, it was rather silent. Even the stray dogs weren’t scampering around for food. There was nobody to offer them any.

Life seemed to have reached a standstill.

The car cleaner said he hadn’t slept all night and had left home early to find safety in an environment that he presumed was not filled with rumours and hate as much as where he had escaped from.

People were running around with knives and iron bars in their hands, looking for the presumed enemy who was on its way to kill, maim, rape, burn, pillage, he said.

Rumours on social media had spread fast — sending everybody out to the streets or under lock and key in their homes, he added.

The car cleaner, who usually drinks at night, had found refuge behind a garbage dump where he had finished his daily bottle of local liquor and had hoped he would be able to sleep it out. The ghosts of the latest riots in the Indian capital, however, kept coming back and he couldn’t.

The maid, who walked in with fear in her eyes, spoke of empty streets and downed shutters. The cheap electric rickshaws that transport thousands of low-end workers every morning were off the roads. Shops that sell stuff people buy in the mornings – milk, bread, sweets — were all shut. Vegetable vendors, who set up their stalls before the morning crush begins, were missing.

“I walked. It was very scary. The streets were like a cremation ground,” she said, wondering whether her husband and child back home would be safe.

The milkman said he couldn’t pick up the supplies for delivery. He didn’t want to take a chance; best to do no business than get killed!

The newspaper vendor said nobody went to the collection centre to pick up the morning editions. The petrol station across the road had few customers.

The previous night, there was commotion at a musical event in a large park in one of New Delhi’s toniest areas when the rumours of violence in different parts of the city started spreading.

The first ones to make a run were a dozen women guards, who fled leaving behind a large audience still distracted by some good Indian classical music. Soon, they too began dispersing.

One colleague messaged, saying the gates of his colony had been shut and residents were keeping vigil through the night. So scared was he that he shared his wife’s telephone number — just in case something happened to him.

Mercifully, nothing happened that night. But some of the worst rioting in the Indian capital in more than three decades that killed more than 40 people, injured hundreds and destroyed homes and properties, has instilled a deep fear in people.

Nobody feels safe. Neither the poor, nor the rich. There is a good reason to fear the mobs; they kill without fear because they want you to be afraid.

That night the police chipped in, neighbours stood for each other and the night passed despite rumours.

But the fear will live on because of the violence that the city has seen. And the violence has been because of hate, which is now out in the open. The curtain has dropped — it doesn’t hide anything anymore. It’s too heavy with history to be put back up.

Travelling With A Star

If you follow Indian tennis, you would have definitely heard of Ankita Raina.

I don’t, so I hadn’t until I had her sitting next to me on a flight to Mumbai.

She walked into the aircraft with an air of quiet, matter-of-fact confidence – lugging a big, bulging sports bag that carried her gear and a small backpack.

She had a mobile phone, an extra charger and a book – all of which she laid out neatly on the seat as she prepared to settle in for the flight while looking around to get a fix on her surroundings.

At first glance, she could have been just another sporty young lady but then she wasn’t, as I realized when I woke up from my usual aircraft-taking-off nap routine. To my embarrassment I found that I was sitting next to a star – India’s top woman tennis player!

She was poised, but yet child-like, happy to engage in a conversation and laughingly share her stories from her travels to play in top tennis tournaments across the world – from the Wimbledon to Flushing Meadows and Roland Garros and Australia, China and even Morocco – mostly travelling alone as she can’t usually afford to carry her coach and family.

As I heard Ankita’s stories, I began to marvel this young lady who started playing tennis in Ahmedabad at the age of four (before moving to Pune for coaching) and has been hopping in out of international flights and checking into hotels in strange cities across the world all by herself since her teens.

With a twinkle in her eyes she told me how at a young age she pulled the chain to stop a train in Morocco, as she feared she had missed her stop as language barrier made it difficult for her figure out whether she had reached her destination.

Everybody on the train spoke French or Arabic, and not English. Helpless bawling helped when she was hauled to the station master and asked to pay a hefty fine, she said.

Or how once the airline staff wouldn’t let her go in Mumbai as she was a minor and her family had to drive up from Pune in the dead of the night to take her home!

And then how she had to show up at a tournament sleepless due to late flight changes for a match in China and still win it in straight sets. Impressive!

She also quietly and earnestly whispered that she had been bumped up into the business class thanks to an upgrade voucher one of her friends had given her.

Down to earth, realistic and supremely confident, the 26-year-old was also keen to get a picture with a well-known singer on the flight.

“Should I ask him,” she asked me.” I really want to get a picture with him.”

Will she put it on her social media handles, I asked. No, she replied, adding that she wanted the picture only because she loved his songs. She did put it on her Instagram page!

Ankita’s story of is one of determination, focus and dedication. It is also one of a young Indian who aspired to reach the top, worked hard and managed to get to there despite many odds.

She was in Mumbai to play in the premier tennis league before going back home to Pune – rest, eat home food (which she said she misses on her travels; the Gujrati thali is her favourite) and allow her mother – who works with an insurance firm – to embrace and pamper her.

She misses her family and coach during her travels, as others on the circuit travel with their parents and support staff, but she said travelling alone from a young age hasn’t made her lonely. It has made her stronger and more focused to achieve what she has set out to.

I wished her best of luck for the 2020 season as we parted ways and told her I would try and follow her journey to more success – breaking into the world top 100.

On my way out from the airport I kicked myself for missing out on a selfie moment. But then, there is always that next time!

You can follow her on @ankita_champ (Twitter) and #ankitaraina_official on Instagram.