The bone of our past

The map is the territory of the imagination. Two-dimensional, flatly proportioned, it is nevertheless among the most layered of visual objects. When you look at a map, there’s a lot you can see, and even more that you should be able to infer.

Mapping India, by the professional geographer Manosi Lahiri, has collected what feels like hundreds of historical maps of India; Lahiri has tried to put them in context, and give the reader — or casual flipper-of-pages — a sense of how diverse the mapmaking process has been in India over the past few centuries.

For that is the period that it covers: the past few centuries. Lahiri is refreshingly honest, uncritical and unapologetic about the fact that rational, recognisable maps came with the Europeans. “Indian cosmographers,” she says, “seem to have made little, if any, contribution towards defining the land known variously as Bharat, Indae, Indoustan and Hindoostan. Their ‘maps’ were imaginatively drawn on the basis of religious concepts and myths about the creation of the universe, but had little to do with realistic representations of land and sea.” (This is in the course of a comparison to the first-century maps of India’s coast available to the Romans and Egyptians.)
As one begins to be absorbed in the detailed, ink-and-parchment views of channels, ports and harbours that European visitors, traders and conquerors began to draw, a million post-colonial theses began to form in my mind. About the imposition of cold, rational squares of latitude and longitude on the unbounded imaginings of an about-to-be-enslaved people, who viewed their landscape as something not to be imprisoned on a map, but something to be walked around, carrying the memories of their ancestors. The book or angry review article writes itself, practically. Except that you have to have a soul dead to romance and beauty to not look, say, at the delicate pink, blue and green which some colonial cartographer has used to render the straits between India and Sri Lanka in 1830’s Rameserum and view it only as a method by which a crushing, enslaving modernity expands its borders.

Looking at these older maps is like looking at the bones of our history. If you stare long enough at the map of Bombay reproduced along with this article, do you begin to see where Nariman Point or Cuffe Parade would rise from the waves? Do you see where the oldest parts of that much-transformed metropolis stick out obstinately amid the detritus of the architectural hopes of a dozen decades? Sometimes, in panoramic views of Calcutta, the teashops and shiny showrooms can just melt away, and you really begin to see the grand imperial pretensions that once towered along its tree-lined boulevards. The city maps in this volume are like that, allowing us to strip away the crowds and compromises of the twentieth century to the plans, hopes, and self-aggrandisations of the nineteenth or eighteenth.

The British, of course, were more than willing to sketch the bones of the past more directly. James Prinsep, familiar to Calcuttans as having a pretty ghat on the Hooghly named after him, rather ironically spent a great deal of time surveying the City of Ghats, Benares. His map of “The City of Bunarus” is superbly illustrated — and brings out, purely through the intensity of cross-hatching and shading, the differences between the old city and its temples ghats and talaos, and the civil station, which is mapped in a large inset.

But it is Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, who is in some ways the hero of this volume. The book reproduces a portrait of him standing in a British red coat, surrounded by three fairly remarkable portraits of Indian assistants or servants — all of whom Lahiri manages to name. Mackenzie is leaning, like the Regency dandy he might well have been, on a bamboo cane. His eyes are amused, while those of his turbaned assistant holding a rolled-up map are both shrewd and critical.

Mackenzie’s sketch of the location of Vijayanagara (“the Remains of the Ancient city of BEEJANAGGUR, Now called ALPUTTUN or The RUINED CITY, Formerly Capital of the Carnatic during the Government of the Rayeels”) is truly remarkable. So, at least, one judges from the reproduction in this book, which has squeezed the map into one page when it should perhaps have been allowed a couple of leaves of its own.

If there is one criticism that can be fairly levied at this book, it is in fact that it has something of an excess of riches. The National Archives have been plundered for half the maps of interest that forbidding sandstone building conceals. It would, perhaps, have worked out better if the maps were fewer, larger, and each was discussed at greater length, with more details expanded on in figures and in the text.

For those of us interested in the past of this country, such books provide a window into that past pleasantly unmediated by the grim gatekeepers of academia. A map is not just a map. But a map is not always a manifesto for colonial control, either.

MAPPING INDIA
Author: Manosi Lahiri
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 320
Price: Rs 4,500

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