Oct 25, 2010

Middle Ground


In August 2008 I found myself tramping through fields and bush in Madhya Pradesh accompanied by a few curious young men from a nearby village. My destination was a point on the map identified only by its geodetic coordinates: 23° 21' 26.39"N, 79° 28' 54.39"E. That was the geographical centre of India as I had determined it, and I was on the last leg of a journey made to see what lay there, a journey that had turned increasingly quixotic as it progressed.

My interest in the geographical centre of India had started a few months previously when I'd read of a dispute about the location of the geographical centre of the United States. The geographical centre of a region is commonly defined as the centroid, or centre of mass, of its two-dimensional surface. More handily, it is the point at which a cutout of the region's map balances itself upon a pin. Indeed, this is how the centre of the United States was determined in 1918 by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. A marker was then installed (at a slight distance owing to the objections of the farmer whose land it was), and a small chapel built for those patriotic citizens who wished to take their wedding vows there. With time, and with the addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the States, there emerged many more claimants to being the centre of the United States, driven it would seem by the possibility that an unheard of village might overnight become a tourist attraction. Meanwhile in Europe, various teams of scientists had applied themselves to finding the geographical centre of the continent with no two teams in agreement, and with all showing a remarkable predisposition to situate the centre in their own countries. The result is a liberal sprinkling of plaques and monuments across the continent claiming to represent its geographical centre.
I presumed there would be some kind of marker at the geographical centre of India too. I had seen the zero mile stone at Nagpur—a truncated obelisk beside a sculpture of four alarmed horses—but it appeared suspiciously off-centre against the outline of India. A map, a sheet of cardboard, and a throwback to craft class later, Nagpur was eliminated. A more careful process with the map, this time enlisting the aid of a geometry box, yielded coordinates vaguely near Jabalpur, but these measurements were nowhere near precise enough to indicate an actual spot. This seemed to confirm the generally adrift factoid that Jabalpur is the geographical centre of India, but I could find no mention anywhere of a spot where this was commemorated. An email enquiry sent to the office of the Surveyor General of India brought no response. It was at a chance meeting with someone who worked in city planning that I realised that GIS (Geographical Information System) software could throw up the exact centroid of any map fed into it. A couple of trips to the Earth Sciences department of IIT Bombay yielded precise coordinates, and I set off, GPS receiver in hand, to plant my flag at the centre of India.
My train reached Jabalpur in the afternoon. On arriving in an unfamiliar place I find it useful to take a short walk from the train- or bus-station and stop at a tea stall. This is partly for the tea, but  mostly to orient myself in the new place and acquire some local savvy by talking to a few disinterested people. Even those who are otherwise engaged in predatory tourism-related endeavours tend to feel they are off-duty inside a tea stall and will be forthright. In smaller towns, especially those not accustomed to tourists, one can sometimes be swamped by effusive hospitality. I assumed some such thing was at work when a man came up to me just as I had begun to sip my tea and said, "You look very familiar. Are you a model by any chance?" After my flattered demurral he asked what I was doing in Jabalpur. His face lit up when I told him. "You have met the right person," he said. "I am a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Before he died he had started work on building the world's tallest tower at the centre of India. I can give you directions to go there." It also turned out  that the hotel I'd thought of staying in was on the way to his place of work. He offered to drop me off in his car.
My new acquaintance was in his early thirties. He wore jeans and t-shirt and spoke comfortably in English. He said he was a businessman, married, and with a child. Besides work he was interested in "making friends." His questions to me alternately felt stilted and prying: what were my hobbies, was I married, what had I studied, did I like to party. The route he was driving me along was winding and seemed too long for a place the size of Jabalpur. He grew increasingly edgy as the drive progressed, until he asked, "So, are you the straight type or do you like enjoyment?" I admitted to being the straight type and was dropped off at the hotel in a couple of minutes.
What I had just learnt about the Maharishi's tower at the centre of India gave me some pause. Was I to abandon the coordinates I had, put my faith in the Maharishi (as so many had) and go there instead? After all he must have been quite sure of himself to have undertaken the construction of a large and expensive monument there. But then, who knew how exactly he had determined where the centre of India lay? And was it not a little too convenient that the place had been lying unused waiting to be acquired to build a tower? There was also the happy possibility that my coordinates would lead me straight to the Maharishi's tower, but I somehow doubted it.
There had been a realisation welling within me since I had started the whole exercise, something I had kept myself from acknowledging to preserve the romance of the endeavour. It was regarding the very idea of the geographical centre. I had managed to obtain a set of coordinates to several decimal places, an accuracy that would allow me to reach a specific spot. But in reality this air of precision was hardly justified. For starters, I'd begun to see that the geographical centre of a region was more or less a notional thing. The point at which a pin balances a cut-out is the centre of mass of the flat cut-out. To transpose this on to actual physical terrain is to conveniently ignore the fact that the map represents land that is composed of various substances of varying densities all the way down to the earth's molten core.
So: the geographical centre of a region is only that of its map. And all maps are compromises. The earth's surface is curved; a map is flat. This means that a map can preserve accurately only one or two properties among the contour of the region, its area, the distances between places upon it, and relative direction. Then, the contour of a region is itself a fickle thing. It pulses daily with the tides; outlines gradually redraw themselves. Now and then,  an outburst of nature such as the tsunami of 2004 causes a coastline to alter dramatically. In school, when asked to draw a map of India, I would fake an absurd precision by jittering my hand to produce small crenellations in the coastline. It turns out that this bit of pretension was probably as accurate as anything else.
But all this is nothing when compared with the human proclivity for drawing arbitrary national boundaries. For instance, most satisfyingly detailed maps of India on the Internet are distinctly Van Gogh-esque, their northern lobes lopped off. India has territorial disputes ongoing with Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and the whole messy business is fraught with criss-crossing lines of control, lines of actual control, and assorted lines named after British administrators. I had chosen, in a fit of patriotic fervour, a map that appeared to represent the Indian view of India's boundaries. But there was no reason why this should be accepted as definitive in any larger sense. (A piece of news, breaking even as this is being written, illustrates just how capricious territorial affiliations can be: New Moore Island, to which both India and Bangladesh had laid righteous claim, has just resolved matters by sinking into the Bay of Bengal.)
Then there were choices to be made about including areas that are not contiguous with the Indian mainland. I had left out the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands, which would rightfully deserve consideration while determining the geographical centre of India, but whose distance from the mainland gives them more leverage on the location of the centroid than their sizes warrant. Including them would leave us with a geographical centre somewhere in the southern part of the Indian peninsula, which simply feels wrong.
In the combined light of such expediencies, nature's topographical fickleness, cartographical compromise, and man's territorial cupidity, I was looking at going to a somewhat pointless point. The geographical centre of India was nothing real—just a conceptual dart thrown at a not very well-defined map.
Travel exalts itself over its object; destinations are only contrivances. Far from being discouraging, the realisation that my destination was of little consequence only imbued my mission with a smug purity of purpose. I quickly upgraded my self-image from mere intrepid explorer to the intrepid explorer who, like the poet or number theorist, is unsullied by utilitarian motives and therefore nobler. Those coordinates I had no longer held any significance beyond representing a point I wanted to reach, and this was travel at its most idealistic, as close as one could practically get to the traveller's bromide of the journey being the destination. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory is supposed to have said, "Because it's there." Had someone asked me around the time why I was going to the geographical centre of India, I might have said, insufferably, "Because it isn't there."
My ticket to Jabalpur had been booked on the strength of my geometry box calculations. I'd obtained the more precise coordinates just before leaving, and I had no idea what sort of terrain they might lie in, or how I'd get there from Jabalpur. Standing at the door of the train I imagined up a montage of National Geographic clips. I saw myself sneaking into protected forests. Trudging up hills with prismatic camera halos trailing off into the sun. Swimming one-armed across lakes, squinting at the GPS receiver in my upraised arm. I was both relieved and disappointed that my destination turned out only to be a bus-ride and a hike away in the end. Such adventures as I did have came not from the terrain, but from the people I encountered and the weight of history and culture acting through them.
In Jabalpur I entered the target coordinates into my GPS receiver. Its screen displayed an arrow pointing north-west and indicated that my destination was at a straight-line distance of a little over fifty kilometres from where I stood. I only had to follow the arrow till I got there. One option was to hire a vehicle and get as close as possible by road. But this could prove expensive, and the logistics of guiding the vehicle and then abandoning it at an arbitrary point seemed messy. I had also in the past learnt the hard way that apparently short straight-line distances can prove fiendishly hard to traverse over land [1] . Had I attempted to bridge the 50km straight-line distance from Jabalpur by road with just the GPS receiver, I might still have been tracing wide circles about Madhya Pradesh.
What I needed was an accurate and detailed map on which I could plot my destination's coordinates to identify the nearest town or village. The closer I managed to reach in this way, the easier it would be to home in using the GPS receiver. It could have been difficult to find a suitable map and to accurately mark a point upon it, but technology now makes this trivial: I went to an Internet cafe, brought up Google Maps and entered my coordinates. My destination turned out to be some way off a road that connected two places called Tendukheda and Taradehi in the neighbouring district of Damoh. Satellite imagery for the region was unavailable, so I still did not know what lay there or even if the place was accessible. (This is being written in early 2010 when satellite imagery for the area is quite clear about what lies there. As useful as technology is for travel, it would appear it can also take some of the the fun out of it.)
A morning bus dropped me off at Tendukheda, an hour and a half along the route from Jabalpur to Damoh. The town was organised around a single dusty market street with shops crammed together to the point where one overflowed into the next. Each establishment was startlingly all-purpose: cold drinks beside milk and eggs, stationery alongside sweets, cigarettes on a shelf next to medicines, plastic toys in plastic covers hanging above sacks of sugar and grain. Pushcarts of snacks and fruit lined the street. Cows stood rooted amidst the bustle, waiting for peels to come their way. The GPS receiver showed I was 7 km from my destination. I asked for the way to Taradehi and was pointed to a narrow road that branched to the left from the market street.
Taradehi was around 20 km away with buses going there every half hour. If I took a bus I'd have to get off somewhere along the way and continue off the road. But what destination would I give the conductor when he came round with the tickets? And I'd have to sit peering at the GPS receiver and call for an arbitrary stop. For someone who was clearly not a local to get off the bus and walk away with nothing in sight would draw attention, maybe even suspicion, from my fellow passengers. The prospect of having every eye trained on me as the bus pulled away was too much to bear. I decided it would be easier to walk.
I had to ascertain that the road to Taradehi branched off to the left at some point, and ask if there were smaller paths I could take after leaving the road. I spoke to several people in the initial stretch close to Tendukheda. They'd invariably begin by asking for the name of the place I wanted to go to. I'd say I didn't know and see them turn wary. I would then explain that the centre of India was nearby and that I was trying to go there (which, even if it wasn't the most up-to-date version of the truth, was the most I could think of communicating). I'd point out my destination relative to Tendukheda and Taradehi on a rough map I had drawn. A few people took in my explanation quietly. Others seemed piqued—they wanted to know how I'd determined the spot, how I'd know when I reached it. I would explain, show them the GPS receiver. I learnt that there were several villages in the direction I was headed in, and paths to reach them from the tarred road.
The road grew desolate after I left Tendukheda. The neat fields close to the town dissipated into sparse but vivid vegetation, a rough patchwork of green ranging away to meet the grey sky. Monsoon scrub forest, as the vegetation here is classified, happens to be a particularly apt term. Summers are arid and the ground turns a desiccated yellow-brown with only clumps of bramble rising at intervals. The green breaks out with the monsoon rains, turning the region into a lush grassland dotted with shrubs. The fixtures through the year are the trees, expansive and stately by virtue of not being crowded together. A mango tree here is a vast shimmering globe of deep green.
The odd two-wheeler or tractor passed by at intervals. A motorcyclist in a safari suit who was headed the other way turned around and stopped to ask who I was and where I was walking to. I told him. He  seemed crushed. "I would surely have given you a ride," he said. "But I  have to meet someone now."
For the first half hour or so, I was headed more or less towards my destination and the distance indicator diminished steadily. As I kept walking, the needle on the screen of my GPS receiver gradually shifted to the left. Increasingly, I was walking at a tangent to my destination and covering the remaining distance less quickly. I came upon a mud path veering off to the left. At the junction was an old man resting under a tree with a few children playing around him. I stopped to ask where the path led to. They could understand my Hindi [2], but I could follow very little of the heavily inflected Bundelkhandi they were speaking. We repeated ourselves until we were tired. From their gesticulations and the few words I had deciphered, I learnt that the old man and the kids were from a village called Surguwan some distance down the path.
The path to Surguwan wended its way through an endless green. There were bicycle tracks visible on the mud path, but no people in sight. Keeping me company was the odd sight of a tree that seemed to have had a neat hole punched through a corner of its canopy, leaving it a curled-up crescent. The sun had begun to make fleeting appearances that stirred up the recent rain into a stifling humidity. Soon my clothes were drenched in sweat and the single bottle of water I had was almost empty.
One of the first houses I came upon in Surguwan had a group of boys in their late teens and early twenties standing outside, chatting. They fell silent on spotting me. I must have looked out of place and quite ridiculous: red-faced from heat and exertion, wearing jeans and a sweat-soaked shirt, shielding myself from the sun with a black umbrella. I went up to the house and asked for water. They froze. The oldest of the boys looked me over and asked one of the others to bring water. He asked what I was doing there. I launched into my story about the centre of India. They were incredulous when they learnt I had just walked from Tendukheda. The air grew thick with solicitude. I couldn't have been more fussed over had I crawled out of a desert croaking for water. But before they could follow through on their humanitarian instincts, they needed an assurance. The oldest boy introduced himself by his full name: Govind Upadhyay. "We are all Pundits," he told me with some pride. The rest followed with their full names, creating a vaguely ceremonial air. I gave them my first name, but Govind wanted to know my full name. I told him, and they looked puzzled. Another boy asked, "Aap general ho?" It took me a moment to realise that it was my caste they had been after. Not being a beneficiary of affirmative action was evidently a baseline of sorts. I answered yes, and was invited in, offered a charpoy to rest on, given a hand-fan to cool myself. I refused their offers of tea and food. They asked some probing questions. How did I know that where I was going was the centre of India? How would I know when I got there? I brought out my notebook and balanced it on a finger, I demonstrated the use of the GPS receiver. They seemed convinced. Why did I want to go there?
"Just like that," I said. Uneasy silence.
"Are you from the government?"
"No." More silence, doubtful looks. "Why would I walk if I was from the government? Wouldn't I have come in a jeep?" Thoughtful nods, grudging acceptance.
My GPS receiver showed a distance of a little over two kilometres remaining. In Surguwan they had told me to go on to the next village, Bhataria. I had walked for a while when I heard shouts behind me. Govind and two others I'd met at the village caught up with me. "We're coming with you," Govind said. "The centre of India is near our village and we don't even know where. We'd like to see it too."
Gandhi might have made the same discovery: if one walks purposefully enough, people will eventually follow. We walked on together, stopping occasionally to reorient ourselves. My new-found companions speculated about where our destination might lie. They wavered between Bada Dev, the name given to a large tract of agricultural land tilled by nearby villages, and the open forest that lay beyond.
A man working in a field called out to me and said something. I didn't understand what he said, and I was by then too tired to stop and pay attention. One of the boys told him, quite rudely, to mind his own business, and he went back to his work. My companions told me that the man, like most of the population of the area, was a Gond.
The Gonds are an aboriginal people found in pockets across much of Central and South India. They give their name to Gondwanaland, the super-continent of a past geological age that consisted of the present Indian subcontinent, the Arabian peninsula, and almost all the land mass now in the Southern Hemisphere. (More evidence of nature's fundamentally shifty nature.) I had visited several palaces and monuments around Jabalpur that were built by the Gonds when they ruled the region from the 12th to the 18th century. But they later went into decline and are now an impoverished lot who mainly provide labour [3].
Currently, many Gonds find themselves in conflict with the state. A little to the east from where I was, members from the Gond and other tribes are part of Maoist groups up in arms against the state, provoked by long-term neglect and exploitation. The government's eagerness to reclaim the resource-rich territory and the Maoists' ideological steadfastness promises no simple or peaceful solution.
It was a source of great annoyance to my General companions that Gonds, who were categorised as a Scheduled Tribe after Independence, enjoy reservations for education and employment. Gonds, they told me, are erratic and not interested in education or in working. Still, they're the ones who gain easy admission into colleges and get government jobs. A Gond can become a teacher in a local school after passing the 8th standard. But my General friends would have trouble getting the same job even if they'd passed the 12th standard. They would have to work in the fields, or move to a town or city in the hope of getting a  job.
Govind asked what I did for a living. At the time I worked as a researcher for a telecom multinational. I said so and waited with dread for him to ask—as people had in the past—how much I made. The figure was not exceptional by city standards, but in that place, with all the preceding talk about how hard it was to find a job, it would have seemed obscene. I could lie, but that would be patronising. To tell the truth would be cruel. In either case it would create a distance between us. Perhaps Govind was conscious of this too; he didn't ask. But I couldn't help feeling uneasy. To be city-bred and relatively affluent cut me off from a large part of the country. Bridges could be built, but they would be temporary. We could be friendly for a while, but it was unlikely we would be friends.
With only a few hundred metres to go we entered Bada Dev, an expanse of paddy and urad dal in small plots marked off by ridges of earth and bramble fences. We made skirting progress along the boundaries of flooded plots. When finally we had gone around a patch of paddy twice with the GPS pointing inwards and showing only a few metres to go, we knew we had reached our destination. I would have been content to stand at the edge and return, but the others were already rolling up their trouser legs. We sloshed through the paddy until we reached what was for our purposes the geographical centre of India. The significance of the spot had waned in the preceding days and I hadn't been feeling much by way of anticipation, so I was surprised at how pleased I felt. It was not the heady triumph of conquest I might have imagined on the train while setting out, but more a sense of closure at having seen the project through to the end. One of my companions was determined to coax the GPS receiver, which was vacillating about zero, to actually rest there. I told him it didn't matter, that the GPS was accurate to only within a few metres, but he had already embarked on a dance performed in microscopic increments while peering at the display. He succeeded eventually in holding on to a zero reading for a few moments, standing on one leg in the water like a crane, an arm balletically stretched out.
We enquired with someone working in a neighbouring field and learnt that the paddy patch we were in belonged to a man named Nathuram. Govind began to laugh. "The centre of India is in the name of the person who killed Gandhi," he explained. We rested a while on a nearby pile of rocks. I offered Govind some water from my bottle. He refused quite casually. It was a humid day and we had been walking a while, so I asked him if he was sure. He blushed. "It's nothing like that," he said, and splashed a little water into his mouth, keeping the bottle upraised. Before we left I asked what the postal address for the paddy patch would be. I was told, care of its owner: "Nathuram Eherwar, Harijan. Bada Dev. Village: Bhataria. Post: Dhangour. Tehsil: Tendukheda. District: Damoh."
It turned out that I had taken a more arduous route than necessary to reach my destination. I needn't have come through Govind's village at all. I could have taken a bus going towards Taradehi and alighted at Dhangour. From there it's only a half-hour's walk to Bhataria and Nathuram's paddy patch. Of course, I couldn't have known this earlier. Besides, I wouldn't have met Govind and his cousins if I had taken the more direct route. I declined their invitation to go home with them for a meal. It was already evening and I had to return to Jabalpur. We said our goodbyes and I walked alone to Dhangour.
A clutch of waiting people constituted the bus stop. A man and a woman, relatively urbane looking, stood talking to one side. Villagers milled about them, but the two kept to themselves, arms folded, with the air of absorption that teachers and students sometimes feign to avoid acknowledging each other outside class. One of them, I learnt later, was indeed the village school-teacher. The other ran the health-centre. They were from Tendukheda and evidently people of some importance, for soon a passing jeep stopped and respectfully offered them a ride.
To one side of the bus stop was a small room, mostly windows, that functioned as a tea stall. While I waited for tea, a man marched up to me and said something angrily. I recognised him after he had repeated himself a few times. He was the Gond field labourer who had tried speaking to me earlier in the day. He wanted to know why I had ignored him. I explained that I hadn't understood what he was saying. He seemed somewhat placated.
A middle-aged man sitting on a bench outside made room for me. I sipped syrupy tea that tasted of ash while becoming the object of much curiosity. Where was I from, why had I come there. I explained. A few men ambled over, stood right in front of me, stared with some mixture of interest, alarm and disapproval, and went away. Others spread the word.
"Have you heard? It seems the centre of India is right here."
An old man in a turban, who had been sitting perfectly still as if the world was no longer worth expending energy upon, stirred to life. He asked with something resembling hope, "Really? Will the government do anything?"
Someone else snorted. "What will the government do. Has it ever done anything?"
The man beside me asked why I had wanted to come there. "Just like that," I told him.
He smiled knowingly and shook his head. "No one does anything 'just like that'. There must be some reason."
I felt compelled to come up with a worthy reason. "I might write about the experience," I told him.
"Will you get any money for it?"
"It's possible."
"I knew it," he said, pleased at having caught me out. "No one does anything 'just like that'."
I finished my tea and tried to hand the empty glass over to the proprietor. He reared as if I had pointed a gun at him. He gestured to me to stay still, brought a mug of water, poured some into the glass, and motioned to me to empty it outside. He then took the empty glass.
For the number of people waiting at the bus stop, surprisingly few climbed in when the bus arrived. But it stopped every few minutes to pick up a passenger. One of the first was a man swaddled in saffron who took the seat across the aisle from mine. The conductor came by and asked him for Rs. 15.
"We are a man of god."
"Very good. Fifteen rupees."
"Try to understand. We aren't just any passenger. We are a man of god."
"But you're sitting in the bus, aren't you?"
It was only the threat of being shunted off the bus that made the sadhu produce a ten rupee note from the folds of his robes.
Near the front of the bus, a man rose unsteadily. For a while he stood in the aisle, facing the back of the bus, looking unreasonably happy. He proceeded to lurch down the aisle, backrest to backrest, a drunk Tarzan. He fell into the empty seat next to mine, turned towards me, leaned his face close to mine, and stayed there with a fixed smile. I had begun to wonder if my trip was going to end as it had begun when he spoke: "Bhaisaab, can you spare some gutkha?" I said I didn't have any. He clambered across the aisle and began to beam at the sadhu. "Can you spare some gutkha?"
"Can't you see we are a man of god!"
"Why are you shouting? I just need some gutkha. Do you have it or not?"
A believer seated a few rows ahead could not bear the impiety. He came to the sadhu and said, "Maharaj, these people are troubling you. Please come and sit with me." The sadhu changed seats ponderously and launched into a discourse for the benefit of his new neighbour.
I discovered later that that other sadhu's edifice, the Maharishi's 224 storey Centre of India tower, was never built. Its proposed location was Katangi, of which there are a couple in Madhya Pradesh, one around 30 km from Tendukheda.
I also later found an exasperated essay called Geographical Centres by one Oscar  S. Adams, Senior Mathematician, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. It was written in the aftermath of Alaska and Hawaii joining the US in 1959, amidst the spate of public interest in where the new geographical centre of the US might lie. In a tone that suggests he has endured enough, Adams explains why it is meaningless to chase after geographical centres. He concludes by saying, "It is a conception that depends almost entirely for its existence upon the curiosity of mankind. It is inevitable that there are as many geographical centers of a state or country or any other area as there are people determining them. Any reasonable method will give a center as satisfactory as any other one. This is a case in which all may differ but all be right."
If Adams' essay had turned up earlier, or if my research had been thorough, I would almost surely not have embarked on my centripetal journey. But as things stand, I'm glad I went. The geographical centre of India may not have an existence in reality, but I had still gone there with a desperate precision, and my experiences along the way combined to evoke for me a metaphorical centre of the country. The idea of a 'real India' is as dubious as the idea of a geographical centre, again a matter in which "all may differ but all be right," but here perceptions can vary without detracting from each other's validity. I was left with  a collage of impressions that are undeniably of this land at this time: a married man cruising for men in the afternoon; the incomprehensibility of even a shared language; warm, but sadly conditional hospitality; an endless stock of well-meaning curiosity; a people marginalised, first by others, then by their own; mistrust of the government; the idea of caste despairingly well-woven into the patterns of life; the oppressed and oppressor trading roles; the economic divide and the attendant alienation; the townsman's aloofness from the villager; the pious and the irreverent trundling along together. Not to forget the city slick, armed with bluster and technology, trampling his way through the fields to an imaginary destination.

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