Map maker, make me a map

Updated: Oct 28, 2019, 07:24 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Maps hold the key to countless facts about a place, and Bombay's fascinating origins make it the ideal playground for cartographers

Asiatic Society Library
Asiatic Society Library

Fiona FernandezFirst up. Confession time — yours truly always harboured a secret wish to become a cartographer. The sheer thrill of discovering a place via a map made me look forward to Geography class the most while in school. Soon enough, this hobby became a mini obsession and the bookshelf at home started getting stacked with massive logbook-sized titles sourced from all corners of India and the world. During my research adventures in the past, chiefly at the Asiatic Society Library, poring over maps offered tremendous visual insight into how the city was shaped over centuries. The shape of ancient maps and how their creators perceived the world made for several 'wow' moments.

Recently, at a social gathering of Bombaywallahs, I happened to be a silent observer at an engaging conversation between two such minds — while one was "typically old school" as she admitted, the other, an out-of-towner, had adopted the city as her own with time. The point of discussion was about the merit in including accompanying maps for a book about Bombay in this age of Google maps.

Both had valid points about the pros and cons. For someone like me, who feels passionate about the subject of maps, it offered great insight. It was an inconclusive debate but it led me to dwell a bit on how cartography can play an exploratory role in showcasing the city and its prized gems that tend to miss the eye.

As mentioned earlier, while Geography class was an eye-opener, it skimmed the surface on the subject. In fact, years later, while studying world history in college (while we were still in the pre-Internet age), I wished that textbooks had carried maps of the scale and terrain of the battles mentioned in its pages. Imagine seeing the topography of the site for the Battle of Waterloo or the American War of Independence, for example.

With time, books on maps did draw the eye during each visit to a different part of India or another country. But Bombay's maps at the time, especially for its chroniclers, students, tourists and intrepid travellers, were woefully inadequate. The fascinating history of the city hidden in its corners and contours didn't make it to these maps. These clinical versions instead, displayed the predictable — tourist attractions, main and arterial roads and railway stations. There was zero value addition.

Thankfully, things have changed in the past decade, and the Bombay map has come of age. Young and talented designers are breathing new life and charm into neighbourhood maps, where detailing and colour palettes display artful balance and sensible aesthetics. Plus, the heritage movement in the city and its award-winning restoration work, has galvanised interest in the treasures in our own backyard. Walk into any city bookstore or curated indie stop for collectibles, and you are bound to spot beautifully created maps of the city. The most recent case in point is the Art Deco and Victorian Gothic ensemble map that was released to celebrate its UNESCO World Heritage Site tag.

I would go as far as to say that some of these maps could possibly make for wonderful tools for students, and ought to be a part of the curriculum on the city. The visual medium, as we know, has a better chance at creating an impact.

And as for me, it means having to make space on the bookshelf for these gorgeous and addictive lessons about Bombay.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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