Walking through certain parts of Mumbai you come face to face with once unforeseen histories. For example, in the early 20th century CE, when most of the buildings in south Bombay were planned, the British empire seemed rock solid. Even the first world war yielded benefits. The end of the Ottoman Empire meant more profit in West Asia. When Japan attacked Russia and invaded China, it occupied a rival which had designs on central Asia. The empire advanced in Africa too. Bombay and Calcutta were fast becoming rivals for the second city of the Empire (G. B. Shaw wrote a play in which the capital had moved to Calcutta). Those wonderful Edwardian structures lay neglected for decades after the Empire fell due to overreach. The sandstone carvings in the featured photo seem to have come alive in these years. Now I see a slow restoration of buildings in south Mumbai as India’s economy makes a fitful start after the pandemic.
The story of Vijayanagara is another such. When Colin McKenzie discovered the first ruins in the modern day village of Hampi in 1800, he didn’t know that he had chanced upon a city which rivalled Beijing in the heydays of the Mings. The kingdom had its beginning as usual: a general realizing that the empire he served had weakened enough that he could carve a portion of it out for himself. When Harihara took parts of Karnataka from the Hoysala empire in the 14th century, the startup could have flamed out in a couple of generations like many others. Instead, his descendants discovered diamond mines, built up military prowess and industries like iron smelting, took the surplus, both iron and steel, and carefully bred horses, into trade and expanded. You can see the growing prosperity in the ruins of palace architecture as it progressed from post-and-lintel to elaborately carved arches within three centuries. Then, in the mid-17th century, when a neighbouring kingdom obtained a new steel-making technology, it could build cannons which overpowered the final remnants of Vijayanagara. All of this was a series of accidents, on which some people gambled and won.
Some years ago as I passed through Meghalaya, I saw the pristine jungles being torn apart by illegal quarrying. The limestone goes into the construction industry as the rest of India builds its infrastructure. A then-unforeseen consequence was this haphazard mining. In the last decade there has been an attempt to regulate this, and preserve this natural heritage. But one unexpected effect has been the discovery of a cave in which stalactites have preserved the evidence of a climate shift about 4200 years ago which may have destroyed Civilization 1.0. This change would not only have been unexpected, but also unrecognizable, to the people of Akkad, Mohenjodaro, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and the Aegean, as they struggled with failing agriculture and supply chains.
Sometimes changes can be foreseen, but its direction still remains hard to predict. As the infant drooling over The Family in the photo above grows up, he stops drooling, becomes picky about food, and bounces between walls when kept in quarantine. All entirely predictable. But what will he become later in life? We can plan as much as we want, but watching a child grow can be both alarming and happy. But absolutely unpredictable.
And this? A clear lesson that we do not deal well with change. It is entirely predictable that some things will outlive their use. Why can’t we possibly design them to decay quickly? The rusting jeep will probably disappear relatively soon, its metals taken up and dispersed through the environment by bacteria which happily chelate heavy metals. The little plastic discards heaping up around this rusting hulk may well outlast Civilization 2.0.