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Falling into the map

Redrawing borders in an age when everyone is but a click away, writes Sharon Fernandes.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2011 14:24 IST
Sharon Fernandes

You are now only 4.74 degrees apart from any other person in the whole wide world, according to a recent New York Times report. Scientists at Facebook and University of Milan, using 721 million Facebook users, found that the average number of acquaintances separating any two people in the world was not six as previously assumed, but 4.74. In the light of this data, maps do seem quite useless. It does make you wonder about the necessity of new cartological lines, when all you need is click to speak to anyone, anywhere in the world or be ‘friends’ with them.

Social networking apart, man’s obsession with maps is not something to be taken lightly. Power and ambition has been marked for centuries by this mesh of curves and furrows, with capitals marked in stars, borders inked in bright red, and oceans of deep blue.

However, these squiggles of ink on paper have often led nations to go on many a warpath. A single line on a map, one that we all know, may have as sinister a significance as swapping dead bodies after a bloody partition. It is certainly not the sort of recall for the Indian map Sir Cyril Radcliffe had in mind when he sat down to chalk out where India ended and Pakistan began. Over 50 years later, we are still tackling memories caused by everything that followed that fateful doodle.

A couple of days ago, the US State Department removed “inaccurate” maps of India and Pakistan from its website as it did not reflect the correct boundary and geographical locations. But then, we are not the only ones who get picky with the Indian map. China’s ambassador to India was furious when asked about a map that showed parts of India within the Chinese border. New maps and ambitious cartological oversights from our friends in the east can still stir up powerful emotions.

But before we get our borders in a knot, the powers that be are ready to splice up the states further, with Uttar Pradesh now being surgically split into Purvanchal, Bundelkhand, Awadh and Paschim Pradesh/Harit Pradesh. The whimsical drawing and redrawing of maps, and their often bloody outcomes do seem redundant, especially when the world is shrinking.

Their gory political consequences apart, maps are also simply beautiful to look at. For most of us, the atlas was a prized possession, and still brings back fond memories of tracing fingers over distant lands. The latitudes and longitudes gave you all the coordinates you needed for imaginary trips and brought history lessons to life. Even artists like Guillermo Kuitca from Argentina and Kathy Prendergast from Ireland (who may be closer than you think, remember less than five people keep you apart) have used maps as metaphors for human relationships and political power in their paintings. But it will always be Radcliffe’s work that has the last word.