Nothing is impossible, declares the message on a barrel of drinking water mounted on a handcart. Impossible sentiments, echoed by advertisements for expensive shoes and worthless sugary drinks. The barrel, on the other hand, testifies to the seeming impossibility of getting clean drinking water from taps. The cart was parked on a lane behind Mumbai’s stock exchange.
A little further around the globe, in another city by the sea, an abandoned shop off one of Istanbul’s most visited streets speaks of three eras: the high noon of the Ottoman Empire is referred by the street sign whose edge enters the photo, the early years of the republic can be seen in the bollard, and the 21st century in the graffiti.
Kochi’s history as a major port in the thousand year history of Indian Ocean trade can still be seen in shops across the town. The Yehudi Kochinim had settled here at least 900 years ago. Their mark is subtle but visible everywhere in this ancient port city. It is part of the cosmopolitan air of the town.
The Art Deco frontage of banks in Wuhan’s Hankou district talks of another bit of history, the end of the Chinese empire as it collided with European powers and was forced to cede “Treaty ports” to foreign powers. Subsequent events gave rise to the Chinese nationalist movement which crystallized around Sūn Zhōngshān, aka Sun Yat Sen
From the shreds of one empire to the ruins of another. When we visited Hampi, the village which has grown around the remnants of the 16th century capital of the Vijayanagar empire, this design greeted us outside the gate of our homestay. The empire traded with Arabs and south east Asia, was counted among the most prosperous of its time, and then was utterly destroyed. This design, the kolam, is made fresh every day, to be walked on, blown by the wind, and its remnants washed away for a new design the next day. I thought it was a good metaphor for the rise and disappearance of empires.
Stuck in Nairobi’s traffic I watched the brightly painted trucks and buses that fill its streets. There is an energy in the city that I found very refreshing. These paintings are part of that energy. Our driver told us that there are artists who earn money doing them. All artists and artisans are referred to as mzee, a respectful term whose literal translation would be old man. But the artists are often young men, so appropriate for a continent whose time is to come.
The final message I selected for this post comes from the most ancient imperial capital that I know. Just after Alexander of Macedonia crossed the Indus, a young adventurer called Chandragupta took over the kingdom governed from Pataliputra, today’s Patna, and founded the empire that took Buddhism across Asia. Outside the airport of Patna I saw this mural in the style practiced by the women of Madhubani district. The style has evolved very rapidly in the last few years, and the content of this painting may have been impossible a few years ago. I found that it was done by a traditional painter. So, perhaps some things are not impossible after all.