East is west and up is really down

Updated: Jan 14, 2020, 07:31 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

A closer look at who decides where east and west lie, why up and down mean nothing, and how to spell Chourangi

The gravest error of them all, in my opinion, is the misrepresentation of sizes. If you look at a Google map of the world, you will see one country shown as large as the entire African continent - Greenland. Representation pic
The gravest error of them all, in my opinion, is the misrepresentation of sizes. If you look at a Google map of the world, you will see one country shown as large as the entire African continent - Greenland. Representation pic

C Y Gopinath My friend named his restaurant Chourangi. It would be in Leicester Square, one of London's most desirable districts, probably the only fine dining restaurant in this choice location. It would serve the cuisine of Calcutta, fare unheard of in London, loosely adapted from the menu of his best-selling chain of Oh! Calcutta restaurants in India. Since the Brits have a thing about Bengal, it was already creating a bit of a buzz.

"But you've got the spelling wrong," I told Anjan Chatterjee, the owner. "I've lived in Calcutta for years and the street is spelled Chowringhee."

He gave me a Bengali look. "The Brits misspelt it."

The British spelt everything wrong. It's just how their tongues are. Just because they pronounce Cholmondeley as Chumley and Cockburn as Coburn, Thiruvananthapuram became Trivandrum, Mumbai Bombay, Chennai Madras, Kanpur Cawnpore, Quilon Kollam and Bengaluru Bangalore.

"They made my grandfather a Chatterjee," said Anjan. "He was Chattopadhyay."

Anjan's revenge is opening Chourangi, correctly spelled this time, in the heart of London.

But he got me thinking about places, names and how thoroughly we've been hornswoggled.

What, after all, is so Indian about the West Indies other than, at a stretch, V S Naipaul?

Why isn't Africa called West India?

Who decided where east and west lie? After all, Dubai is neither to our east nor is it the middle of anything but we call it the Middle East.

The problem starts because if you walk west long enough, you reach east. The Brits started their walk in London, so to them India was east and nothing was east-er. Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and their ilk became the Far East. Japan was nobody's pet and Australia was just a place for white prisoners and kangaroos, so it was left out of the net. The Dutch East Indies were, well, Dutch, and it was simply not done to be rude to fellow colonisers.

In each country they looted, the looters also vandalised names of local places, leaving behind a disaster area of geographically and phonetically mismatched nomenclature, the colonial equivalent of urinating on your host's sofa.

There's more and it's equally arbitrary. Some geographer or astronomer decided that he would call his half of the planet north. It's true there are two magnetic poles, north and south, but deciding which to call north is arbitrary. Since most rich countries happen to be in the northern hemisphere, north ended up meaning wealthy and south became synonymous with bottom of the barrel. When something goes south, it's not good.

Even more arbitrary is pointing your finger towards the sky and calling it 'up'. If every human being on the planet simultaneously pointed at the sky and said, "Up!" that would be 7.4 billion fingers pointing in completely different directions. Up and down mean nothing when you're standing on a round planet.

So up isn't really up, north might easily be south and the Middle East is actually West Something while the Far East is possibly the near West.

The gravest error of them all, in my opinion, is the misrepresentation of sizes. On a world map, one country stands out as large as the entire African continent — Greenland.

Something not quite right here because Greenland's area is 2.166 million square kms while Africa is 15 times larger. Why do they look about the same size on the wall map?

Another arbitrary approximation. There is simply no known way to spread a sphere into a flat rectangle. One method is to wrap a rectangular sheet around the sphere, like a cylinder. The earth is sliced horizontally, and each point on each slice is projected to the cylinder. Since the northern slices are smaller, each of their points results in a larger point on the cylinder. Northern countries end up looking larger.

So how many Indias do we have? The colonialists — Britain, Denmark, Spain, France, Germany — knew that India and China were countries with much loot for the taking in minerals, spices, opium and other things. India, being large, was their reference point for east but the smaller countries and island nations beyond just became the East Indies or even further, the Far East. The Dutch took over some islands and called them the Dutch East Indies.

The problem with India and the Indies was that they were too darn distant. Christopher Columbus thought he'd find a shortcut by travelling west, not realising that a hulking continent called America sat in the middle. He never made it to the north American mainland even after four expeditions, not getting beyond some islands in the Bahamas and Panama. This didn't stop him from deciding that he'd reached the West Indies. The Native Americans became Red Indians.

In brief, India is everywhere, even in Indiana, which means 'Land of the Indians'. It's a good day for the bhakts.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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