Monday 13 July 2020

L is for Large

Maps are designed to deceive, not to describe. They must allow you to grasp whatever they represent. Because the paper on which they are printed has a certain physical size, you scale your perception to the map, not to its matter. Hence, whether you are looking at a plan of Cambridge or California, Surrey or Siberia, you reduce them all to the same level; the absolute sense of size is lost, and the constant mismatch of scale between expectation and experience is always shocking.

It is the same with India. For the westerner, it is an exotic triangle nestling against the underbelly of a vast and vague Asia. Most people would be unable to place it in a hierarchy of size. To travel in India is to stretch the mind.

Several factors conspire to magnify this effect. Much of India is flat and featureless; without landmarks, you immediately lose scale. Flying over north-west India is like passing over endless graph paper with no co-ordinates. The fields are ruthlessly square; the occasional town is the same identical fungal growth at the intersection of two straight roads. The parched earth is light brown, the ultimate average colour.

The towns themselves possess this same invariance. Wander along any street in any city, and the landscape will not change for half an hour on end. Every part of a street could stand for the whole; and that whole for the city. This is largely a matter of arithmetic; a population of 750 million, together with a labour-intensive economy, means that every function is endlessly duplicated, every variant of activity and design universally replicated. And it all has to be put somewhere.

Distance is also a function of time. Since Concorde, the Atlantic is only a Mozart opera wide. In India, trains and buses use clocks which run at half-speed. Distances are measured in fractions of a month. It is the same in the towns. Everything has been scaled to match the culture; travel pegs itself to the level of rickshaws, bikes and cows. The chaos of Indian rush-hours clogs the roads yet further. Traffic congeals as if in a slow-motion film; the roads lengthen in proportion. Crossing Delhi, you spend half a day watching a pageant of its history and people.

It should be even worse for Indians. Most of them lack that magic ointment, money, which makes ragged distances heal up neatly. Instead, they must verify the continent's dimensions by personally walking them. The fact that they have not revolted, or demanded a smaller India, is probably a matter of expectations. They have never known the joy of little countries like Britain, or how helicopters can take you anywhere,

In fact, they seem to revel in the largeness of India; so much so, that they exaggerate it by growing up a good head shorter than most westerners. For Indians, the soaring dome of the Taj Mahal, the mighty walls of the Moghul forts - everything - becomes all the more impressive with this assumption of physical humility. As uncomprehending tourists confronted by the vastness of India, perhaps westerners too should try to become small, that the land and its spirit might grow for them yet larger.

A Partial India A to Z

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