There are two kinds of people in cities – those who like to ask for directions when lost, and those who hate asking for directions even if they are getting late for their own wedding.
For all the people who ask for directions, there must be people who give directions. These are of 4 kinds:
– Those who give extremely detailed directions – they tell you exactly how many shops you’ll pass or how many trees or dogs you’ll see on your right on the way to your destination. Meanwhile, you’ll be blocking traffic behind you, wondering whether this direction-teller can hear all those horns honking or is stone deaf….you’ll have your hand on the handle to roll up your window quickly or you’ll be revving your accelerator while pressing on the brakes at the same time …wanting the person to stop…and s/he is still only halfway to your destination…. Now, if you catch one of these, please park on the side and get off your bike or get out of your car and talk – if need arises, order tea and ‘phen’ from a road side chai wallah.
– Those who like to discuss directions – They will gather 3-4 other people – rickshaw wallahs, passersby etc., call vendors and local tea shop owners and ask all of them the directions for you. You’ll soon see a flurry of hands – all pointing in different directions!! There could also be a mini-riot due to disagreements on the correct route and you must escape while you can
– Those who are very sincere about helping you but are confused – they’ll say ‘take the next left’, but stick out their right hand – so you have to decide what they actually mean. I, once met a gentleman so sincere about helping me that he said –‘follow me, I’ll show you’, and that I did. He got on his bicycle and it creaked and groaned horribly under his weight. I followed at the same speed in my car, trying hard, not to run over him. After taking 3-4 turns, when I had completely lost my sense of direction, I see him getting off his bicycle and asking a press wallah for directions!
– Those who hate to say that they don’t know the direction to some place. They will instead clear their throats and give you the wrong directions with a straight face, not having even half a clue as to where you really want to reach. They find it demeaning to confess in front of strangers that they don’t know the address of Mr. Singh (not our P.M. – but some arbitrary Singh). And, after wasting a litre of petrol on a wild goose chase, you’ll still blame yourself for not hearing correctly because it is hard to doubt the confidence that oozes from such people – they take on a new personality while giving directions.
You can never know which one of these you may encounter. When there are four people in a car, each one will have her/his own idea about which person on the street would be most appropriate for asking directions. If I point at someone, another person in the car would find some reason to disparage my choice (for e.g. this one seems lost himself…what will he tell us; or she is not from this place – I’m telling you; or he has a very big nose – we can’t ask him for directions…).
Well, the other way out is to not ask for directions and look at a map instead, but of course it is too much work. I did try it for a while, when I was a student of urban design in Delhi. My trusted companion and direction-teller was the Eicher Delhi Map, which was (or still is?) a fat book with detailed maps of all localities in Delhi. We students carried it around everywhere – it became like an extension of our bodies. It was extremely helpful.
I heard a story about how these maps came about. One day, Mr. Vikram Lal who owned the Eicher company, had to come back home without attending a party they had been invited for, as he and his wife could not find the house in Defence Colony. The loss was so profound that he found his calling. He got hold of a retired army office, Mr. Surinder Chaddha (who had been with the Survey of India), and made him in charge (with financial backing) of mapping Delhi to the minutest detail so that no one in the future would have to miss any party.
I remember that we had saved money to buy the Eicher map. Now these maps are available for 7-8 Indian cities and we have to thank Mr. Lal for enhancing our address-finding capacities (it is good that he and his wife happened to be among those people who hate asking for directions). The times have changed now. Many people prefer having the city on the palm of their hands rather than in the pages of a book. GPS is the reason that the art of giving directions is dying out!
That is why this documentation is imperative. How do people give directions in a city? What words and clues do they use? Long ago, a certain Kevin Lynch had written a phenomenal and seminal book called ‘The Image of the City’. I loved reading it and I’m sure he must have loved writing it. He said that 5 elements make up the unique image of any city and it is through this vocabulary that a city is read and understood by people – these are: paths, edges, districts, nodes, landmarks. In giving or memorizing directions, we all use these elements – near the bus stop (node); the right turn after the temple (landmark); go along this shoreline (edge); from the main road, take left (path); just reach the big flower market (district) and then call me.
The common parlance of giving directions evolves as per the context and people. For e.g., in a coastal city, the sea would always be a reference point; or in a city with some very tall buildings, these would be used by people to orient themselves. Following are some terms used frequently by people for giving directions:
Red light (not the district – the actual traffic light) – for some unknown reason, we call it ‘red light’ and ignore the colours, yellow and green. Auto drivers use this with greatest proficiency– ‘cross the next 3 red lights and then take right, then cross two red lights and take a left, after that left again from the first red light’. Their city mind-maps are based on red lights and anybody who comes to live in Delhi, learns the language pretty quickly. However, in a small town in U.P, this may not be the best method to adopt, because the pre-requisite is to have traffic lights.
T-point – this was really confusing for me at first as I thought of it as a tea shop named ‘T-POINT’, but it is like the end of the road where it bifurcates – so you either take a left from the t-point or a right.
L-point – same as above but there is no point in calling it an L-point, as the road is just turning in one direction…and yet people use this.
Taxi Stand – In Delhi, taxi stands are a very important element as they are at very specific locations and tend to remain there due to the clout the owner has with the local politicians. So, people use these as a stable element while telling directions.
Flyovers – In Delhi, sometimes, whether you go from under a flyover or over one, decides what you’ll be doing for the next one hour i.e. negotiating u-turns (which may be good in life sometimes, but never on Delhi roads). Everybody new to Delhi has experienced this at least once. One has to be really careful in giving directions – ‘turn left before/ in the middle from under/ go up and turn left after the flyover’.
Statues – we have a number of statues adorning our cities. Apart from providing a good perching and shitting spot for the ubiquitous pigeons, they also are very helpful while giving directions – ‘as you go on that road, you’ll reach a point where there is a statue of someone on horseback (generally called ghodewali murti or ghodewla chowk as the rider is simply forgotten) – take right from there’. Nobody can tell you whose statue it is (except in my experience when it is Gandhi ji – who of course has never been sculpted riding a horse (or has he?). An Ambedkar statue is also a good pointer (and not only because its finger is always pointing in some direction) in our cities. But in Lucknow, there are innumerable Ambedkar and elephant statues, which has made people vary of using these as landmarks for giving directions. One may just keep wondering – ‘did he mean this Ambedkar or that one?’
Train stations – now this is peculiar to Mumbai where the mental maps and vocabulary of the city is completely overlaid by local train stations – but I have to agree that it is quite convenient and logical. Also the linear shape of the city helps – you have to keep going either north or south, depending on your destination, till you reach the influence zone of a station, and then it’s easy. As a friend said, in Mumbai people don’t ask for directions, they ask, ‘where do I have to get off?’
Foot-over-bridge – this is my favourite one as I use it very often! So, when someone is coming from Lajpat Nagar via Ashram to my house, at Ashram, they are bound to get confused and they call up…so I tell them – drive over the ashram flyover…and you’ll see a foot over bridge…can you see it now? Yes…now take the left just before the bridge..then from the V Point made by a triangular park take the right arm of the V… you’ll reach a T point from where you take right and then immediately on your left, you’ll see the gate of our colony.
Big trees with character, dilapidated buildings, post offices, police stations, paan ki dukaan, daru ka theka, Hanuman temples mainly and other religious establishments like Churches, mosques and Gurudwaras (especially in Delhi), nallahs and interesting billboards.These are some more to add to the list.
But the one, which inspired this post, is a brand new address locator in Delhi and is an extremely accurate marker. A number of studies say how the Delhi Metro has changed the face of Delhi (whether in a good way or bad, is something that I’ll discuss in another post), the way people commute, the environment, the economy, the connectivity and so on and forth. One of our teachers of urban design, Ujan Ghosh, had mentioned in class (when the metro construction had just started) that the real success of the metro would be when the people would adopt it in such a way that it would be enmeshed with the people’s understanding of the city – and not seem like a system imposed on it – for e.g. when people would start saying – ‘I’ll meet you at this metro station’, or ‘lets take the metro to the cinema/ airport/ stadium/ anywhere’, or ‘my office is 5 minutes from the metro’, etc.
My professor would be happy that one of his students has discovered another interesting way in which the people of Delhi have adopted the metro. The numbered metro pillars (this number is painted or hammered on each pillar) have become the most popular new system, adopted by people to give their addresses and give directions around the city. So, you are told by a shopkeeper in Karol Bagh (or anywhere where the overhead metro goes), ‘drive alongside the metro line and keep going, my shop is opposite pillar number 115’.
Shops have got new boards with revised addresses (see picture). People have adopted and adapted the metro in a way that they have improvised this new system of giving directions and addresses. But, I am sorry to say here, that this is a very small thing when compared to the potential that a metro system has in terms of changing the way people look at their city. And, also the way a city looks.
Hundreds of kilometres of line with more than 20,000 pillars – so much more new surface area available in the city – but all grey and lifeless! I am not saying – ‘paint the town red’ but I am definitely saying ‘don’t let it remain so grey and drab’. I can imagine a time in 10 years when these metro pillars would be all covered with advertisements of all sizes and the ‘number’ would also be covered (because the number was put there for some other purpose – not for devising a new address system). That would be sad. Pillars, which are located near traffic lights or in stretches where traffic is not very fast-moving, can be easily used as canvas for public art (which includes painting, draping, sculpture, mural, landscape etc.). The green pillars under the metro line going through Noida (near sector 18) are very soothing to the eyes. The clingy green creeper has been given some support by a nylon jali that is draped over the pillar and the concrete has started turning green!
The potential of the metro in terms of urban design is far more than what I am saying here and to talk about metro stations as public spaces, I would need another 3-4 posts. So, I leave this here. For now.
For now, I am especially happy with this simple (and therefore, also beautiful) system, using pillar numbers to our own end, as addresses and direction cues. It is a relief to me. You can’t imagine how many times I have counted red lights and have counted wrong…
Contributed by Kanak Tiwari