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! 

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

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.

The Happiness Ruse

This imperative to avoid being – even appearing – unhappy has led to a culture that rewards a performative happiness, in which people curate public-facing lives, via Instagram and its kin, composed of a string of ‘peak experiences’ – and nothing else. Sadness and disappointment are rejected, even neutral or mundane life experiences get airbrushed out of the frame. It’s as though appearing unhappy implies some kind of Protestant moral fault: as if you didn’t work hard enough or believe sufficiently in yourself.

Read Here – Aeon

Homo Gluttonous

Ten thousand desert rats, 10,000 fish, 14,000 sheep, 1,000 lambs, 1,000 fat oxen and many more creatures slaughtered, cooked and served: that is how Ashurnishabal of Mesopotamia (883-859 BCE) pampered almost 70,000 guests for 10 days. The Archbishop of York’s enthronement feast in 1466 CE required 104 oxen, 2,000 geese, 1,000 capons, 1,000 sheep, 400 swans, 12 porpoises and seals, and a great number of other birds and mammals. In an appropriately grandiose sidebar to his ornate reign as king of France, Louis XIV became incapacitated by overeating at one of his own weddings.

Read Here – Aeon

Technology And The Future Of Work

Many feel anxious about the impact of new technology on their jobs. This is not new. In fact, it dates back at least to the Luddites movement at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. And it resurfaced during the Great Depression and again in the 1960s, following a period of high productivity growth, and in the 1980s at the outset of the IT revolution. How can governments help?

Read Here – IMF Blog

Email Is Broken. Can Anyone Fix It?

LET’S START THIS story at the end: You can’t kill email. Attempting to do so is a decades-long tradition of the tech industry, a cliché right up there with “Uber, but for” and “the Netflix of X.” AOL Instant Messenger tried to kill email. So did MySpace. Then Facebook took up the mantle, followed by Slack and Symphony and WhatsApp and HipChat. Through it all, email persists—always dying, never dead.

Read Here – Wired

How To Tell If You’re A Jerk

Here’s something you probably didn’t do this morning: Look in the mirror and ask, am I a jerk? It seems like a reasonable question. There are, presumably, genuine jerks in the world. And many of those jerks, presumably, have a pretty high moral opinion of themselves, or at least a moderate opinion of themselves. They don’t think of themselves as jerks, because jerk self-knowledge is hard to come by.

Read Here – Nautilus

The Family That Built An Empire Of Pain


The north wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a vast, airy enclosure featuring a banked wall of glass and the Temple of Dendur, a sandstone monument that was constructed beside the Nile two millennia ago and transported to the Met, brick by brick, as a gift from the Egyptian government. The space, which opened in 1978 and is known as the Sackler Wing, is also itself a monument, to one of America’s great philanthropic dynasties.

Read Here – The New Yorker

How To Be A Know-It-All

In addition to all of your other identities—urban, rural, Christian, atheist, African-American, first-generation, introverted, immunocompromised, cyclist, gun owner, gardener, middle child, whatever panoply of nouns and adjectives and allegiances describes you—you are also this: a gnathostome.

Read Here – The New Yorker