Show me someone who can live without water and I will show you a non-geographer!

Every waking moment of our lives, we are living and practising geography. Look at some simple examples of (y)our daily lives.

At home

Presumably, you live in a house with rooms such as a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a living room. Perhaps you also have a veranda or balcony. Perhaps a separate pūjā room or shrine.

You know how to get from one room to another. The routes do not take any conscious thought on your part. You just automatically go about your daily life.

These are all just rooms with designations. Until you start using them for their intended general purposes. These purposes impose rules on you. What you do in the bathroom, you don’t do in the kitchen. Nor what you do in the kitchen, in the pūjā room.

In many households, there are rules regarding footwear. In many, footwear is not allowed inside the house. Certainly not in the kitchen or pooja room.

Every room has its own rules. These rules are in force with clearly set boundaries – walls. Your entry and exit are through a doorway (portal), across a threshold. The moment you cross that threshold from one room into another, the rules change and you have to adapt to those rules; you have to obey them. Who can enter which room and when is also governed by certain rules.

These rules are, generally, agreed upon and enforced within the home.

Knowing the ‘rules of engagement’ for different parts of your own home is geography at work! You are living it every moment that you are at home.

Out of home

When you go from home to school and back every day – especially if you walk or go by bicycle – you don’t follow conscious routes … you don’t say, “Okay. I am now outside the gate of my home. Now I must turn right and go 203.5 metres to the Bakes and Cakes and Shakes Bakery.” Then, when you reach that sugar monster place (have you seen what they sell at bakeries??), you don’t stop and say, to yourself or to anyone with you, “Well, here I am at the BCSB. Now I must turn left, carefully crossing the road to do so, and go for 193.8 metres to …”

No.

You just GO!

You just go because you are using … wait for it … GEOGRAPHY! We all have mental maps of places we traverse (go about in). The more familiar we are with these places, the stronger our mental map is. How detailed this mental map is depends on what we observe and retain in our memory. In turn, this depends on what we consider to be an important detail.

Once upon a time, back when civilization was younger and so was I, I used to bicycle from Jayanagar to Hebbal (the route was about 14 or 15 km each way, I think). On that bicycle, I used to go at speeds that are unimaginable in today’s Bengaluru! I knew every pothole on the road going in either direction. I used to do full Jackie Chan routines on the bicycle avoiding them more by instinct than by observing them in front of me. This level of detail in my mental map was very useful. But if you had asked me what is two doors down from the Venkateshvara Coffee Works on that route, I couldn’t have told you. That location was not important enough for me to register on my mental map.

However, if I had had to stop at that location to buy a banana, then I could tell you that it was a shop where you could get bananas, and whatever else.

Explore:

Put your mental map of any locality that you are familiar with, preferably your own neighborhood, on an A4 sheet of paper. On this map, based entirely on your memory, put all the landmarks you know, in their correct positions. The bakery, the ATM, the Davanagere Benne Masalay Dosay Palace, and so on. Then, go out and see how accurate your map is (this is called ‘ground-truthing’). Identify and place other landmarks you may have missed (either you had not noticed them or had just forgotten them).

Mental map + dance

When people ask for directions in person, we try our best to help them out. We put on a whole show of dance and prose. “Go on this road … strayyyyyyt … then you will see Dyamagundlu Sahib circle … turn left … then within 100 metres one flower shop will come … just … there itself … opposite side is the book shop. It is very near. You won’t miss it!” Try giving these directions with your dance routine and you will likely not be able to convey the information clearly to the person seeking directions.

What you are doing in this situation is accessing your mental map, identifying key landmarks that you have chosen to include in it, and translating that map into words and dance. I always think of it as dance because I find it funny and charming.

I have seen people struggling to give directions over the phone … most of them seem unable to do this without gesticulating (often very elaborately and emphatically). They seem to forget that the person on the call can’t see their gesticulations! This is when the importance of language becomes very important. Geography is about prepositions (and a lot more, of course). Watch the struggle between in front of vs. opposite to, come down that road vs. go down that road, etc.

Of course, landmarks often come to us! “Oho, you teach at All India Public International School, is it? Where it comes?” “If you go just a little bit on that road, one cell phone showroom will come.” And so on. All most amusing. But it gets the job done. Well, most of the time.

So, the next time you feel the strong urge to meet a geographer, look in the mirror and ask, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the geographer and all?” (I can’t write poetry).


Join us for the 6th International Geography Youth Summit, IGYS-2020,
24-26 July 2020, Bengaluru

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 4 December 2019

Featured image: “Mirror, mirror in the hand …”  Darpana-sundarī – beauty with a mirror, sculpture at Channakéśvara temple, Beluru, Karnataka. [Source: https://is.gd/0yMokI ]

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