The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 28, 2008

Mapping the City

Several years ago, my father went out and bought an Eicher map for Delhi. What a treat it was! We could now see the smallest lanes in our locality. We noted short-cuts to the local markets. We were chuffed to observe that our house number appeared in its pages. For people sorely dependent on the kindness (and skills of geolocation) of strangers, having this map in hand was as good as Parashuram's powers of locomotion.

In more enlightened countries, streetmaps are taken for granted. Go to the smallest town in France, say, knock on the doors of l'office du tourisme, and you are provided with a neat little foldaway plan of the centre. You might find that some of the streets are not named, of course, and you still depend on a helpful local to orient you, but for all practical purposes you are unencumbered and fancy-free.

In India, maps have always been looked on with suspicion by the authorities. Security hazard, they intone when quizzed why. Today, with spy satellites able to photograph their rotund bellies as they salute the sun, this is a laughable objection. So it is pleasing indeed to see that Eicher, encouraged by the success of the Delhi map, has rolled them out for other cities.

In today's Financial Times, Amy Yee reports on the origins of the Eicher map, and the associated tribulations underwent by its creator. It makes for interesting reading.

One of the problems of mapping fast-growing parts of the nation, says Vikram Lal, the man behind the map, is that the product is out of date almost as soon as it is published. The Eicher Noida map, for example, is already incorrect.

A while ago, newspapers carried an obituary of the woman who compiled London's iconic A-Z map. Inspired by Phyllis Pearsall's obsessive method of personally stomping across every street in the city and identifying every landmark and house number, Vikram Lal - slightly less energetic - recruited a small regiment of walkers to do the same for Delhi. The result is probably the most detailed representation of one of the world's oldest cities available anywhere. Despite, even, Google Earth.

In Delhi, Vikram Lal didn't have to contend with civil war and carpet bombing. A colleague's friend has created a street map of, wait for it, Beirut. This has to be either a sinecure (imagine, the city is constantly being reordered and rearranged by bombs, strife, falling buildings, blocked roads, and no-go areas, so the intrepid mapmaker will always have work) or a travail of staggering proportions. As soon as you plot a street, you find that it has magically been removed. This reminds me of the painters of the Golden Gate Bridge. The story is that it takes them a year to apply a coat over the length of the structure. And when they reach one end, why, they just turn around to start painting all the way back.


C K said...

I didn't know that maps are 'viewed with suspicion' over in Delhi. Though I don't usually rely on hardcopy maps, I usually carry a Google printout of area whenever I'm travelling.

Even with that, I've got a talent for getting lost. :)

Shefaly said...


I chanced upon the Google street view car in SOHO one day. I am sure India is on their horizon. Besides have you been to Blr recently? Talking of reordering, all of 100Ft Rd in Indira Nagar is now a shopping mall. The mains and crosses are almost not needed; landmarks are 'slimming clinic', Allen Solly, Levi's, Cafe Coffee Day. Ugh!

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: indeed, the various 100ft roads are not as before. For one thing, they are not 100 feet wide any longer, I don't think. Not sure if the numbering of the properties has changed, however.

CK: Maps are not viewed with suspicion in Delhi (except near vital and military installations) but are certainly looked upon with disfavour in other parts of the country, particularly in the North-East and the frontier areas. Carrying cameras is even worse.

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