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Maps: You Are My Playground Love

Some shapes are beautiful and some are not. It is pretty subjective, I think, save for the regular geometrical shapes. A square sucks no matter what. Clouds, on the other hand, are the best example of irregular shapes which solicit instant aesthetic judgment. Horseshoes and fishes and alligators and elephants float past. Very disappointingly though, the heavenly vistas have limited pen strokes, and the best human form you will ever witness is a hunting man resembling a Mesolithic era cave painting. After 10,000 odd years, one would have expected better reproduction. Not that I neccesarily wish to see Jennifer Connelly or Kirsten Dunst floating over as a giant mass of vapors.

The shape of countries is equally if not more fascinating. Sri Lanka is pretty, like a tear drop. And now that the Tamil Liberation Movement has been militarily crushed, the northern most Jaffana peninsula remains a part of the ‘drop’ nation under benevolent Sinhalese rule. Purely on an aesthetic assessment, Jaffna would look pretty cool as a country.

Japan is not bad either, gracefully curved with appendages at both ends separated by narrow straits. At the northern end, there are islands that look like thin pieces of bacon placed linearly. This ‘bacon’ was occupied by the Soviet Union, they are presently administered by Russia and claimed by Japan. I suppose the islands are strategically located.

My painstaking research on geo-political-military strategic locations around the globe has brought out this stunning fact. 99.9999990129% of land mass constitutes strategic location. It so happens that the only exceptions are Lesotho, Luxembourg and South Ossetia – which, by the way, has found vast international recognition in Nicaragua, Russia and Venezuela.

Meanwhile, I have always been fascinated by the Scandinavian countries. Apart from the aurora borealis, I suppose that frigidity and prosperity are  exotic for someone from the poor South Asian tropics. But what drew me towards these countries is not their high Human Development Indices, but their shapes. Norway is like a beautiful slug, and slugs are very appealing in form and personality. You look at a slug and it looks back, kindly but firmly, and there is nothing more disarming than a slugs smile. Sweden and Finland are a bit like petals.

The European Union might be good as a political idea but it looks awful and the empty space in the middle which is Switzerland only adds to its unrefined image. Very interestingly, the EU has been stinging in its criticism of Chinese investment policy in Africa. The EU blames China for being extractionist in its very vast and sustained Africa exploits. The very countries that ruthlessly plundered Africa’s culture, resources and people till less than a hundred years ago are worried about Africa’s fate. Hearts change.

Before the scramble, Africa had nice looking political entities with the heart shaped Al-Hajj-Umar-Ahmadu-Sefu and Samori in the North West to the sultanate of Zanzibar hugging the curving coast in a thin strip along the south east. Now, African nations are an assortment of the disfigured geometry of pork cuts. Having said that, Africa still has the prettiest counties on the planet.

Gambia, for instance, in western Africa has the most fascinating shape of all countries. It’s very narrow, and the border mirrors the meandering Gambia river. It is less than 48 Km wide at its widest point and has an 80 Km coast line. This interesting boundary is the result of 15 year long negotiations between UK and France. The Government of Gambia announced that it will kill all gays. So if you are a homosexual, you might want to resist the allure of the Gambia river.

I strongly suspect that all African nations will be more than willing to bargain their pretty shapes for a bit of bread and, more importantly, a bit of peace. Ugly shapes can create the most brutal and vengeful of conflicts, none of the wistfulness of vapors. No wonder you never spot a Sudan or Burundi in the drifting clouds.

Many years back, my kindergarten class was taught to draw a map of India and fill it with the three colors of the national flag. Over the next few days this very patriotic artistic endeavor became my central occupation, and all over the room wall I drew the Indian map outline in different colors. None of course were vaguely similar, but in my mind, all met the desired cartographic standards. A couple of the fine outlines had taken in swathes of China and a few ceded much of north India to Pakistan while yet another gobbled up Nepal. On the next day, my seminal work on the political conflicts of the Indian sub-continent was covered in a fresh coat of wall paint. This marked the end of my short career as a political scientist and cartographer.

image: iStock
image: iStock

India, without doubt, has the most stunning shape with a broad body that narrows down gracefully to a point in the South. The so called international nuclear flashpoint of Kashmir is the distinctive head, but it looks pretty neat on its own too. The conflict over Kashmir has cost more than 50000 lives so far and has stolen away an entire generation. Nation states are obsessed with their shapes and the sovereign love of governments for its people decimates populations. The affection of this perfidious social contract is cruel. Claims over territory more often than not are ‘historical’ claims, based on the rather indeterminate contours of human past. The search for a common historical narrative is in its very nature a deceitful venture. Truth segues into lies and lies into glory.

The roof of the world, the Tibetan plateau, has been subject to the most malevolent expansionism. Centuries-old monasteries lie in ruins and traditional institutions have been annihilated under the severe and violent scrutiny of the Chinese state. India, which hosts the Tibetan government in exile, is far too timid to assert the Tibetan cause. I may be wrong, but these are some of the key elements of an ideal Chinese world: no visible poverty, one political party, no religion, no freedom, death to dissenters, 35 mega dams, 17 glitzy cities, an insipid flag and an 11% growth rate. And of course 350 gold medals in any Olympics. Am I indulging in needless China-bashing? Perhaps.

I find it a bit intriguing, not in the Tell Me Why sense, but certainly with the due degree of naivety, that a world full of a myriad shapes leaves out people. It is not surprising, given that many nation states are based on exclusion and pseudo-identities, but it is still intriguing. The Rohingyas of Myanmar live in filthy camps literally at the edge of the country and have no rights as citizens. They are forced to work hard labour without pay and lakhs have fled to Bangladesh to escape torture, rape and murder. This is a jigsaw that is hard to put together. A mad junta or an egomaniacal dictator only explains the greed and perversity of power. But in this mad jumble of the accidents of latitude: if I am born a Rohingya, who am I?

On doomsday, which, thanks to global warming and the extinction of yellow spotted partridge, is no more a religious concept, hundreds of years of humankind’s effort in creating maps will go waste or go under water. I don’t want to sound flippant, but tragedy is a relative concept. Politically and economically, we are messed up with a bit to go, of course. And as far as the process of evolution is concerned, we should be hitting the ceiling soon. One more version after Windows 7, and we are through.

“We die. We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we’ve entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we’ve hidden in – like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. Where the real countries are. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you’ll come carry me out to the Palace of Winds. That’s what I’ve wanted: to walk in such a place with you. With friends, on an earth without maps. The lamp has gone out and I’m writing in the darkness.” Katharine Clifton, The English Patient.

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