The Gin Drinker’s Line

Many moons ago when one didn’t let one’s schooling interfere with one’s education and Maths teachers had a reputation and Germany had recently reunited, our Maths teacher fell sick. It was a reason for us to heave a collective sigh of relief and play table tennis on makeshift classroom desks with maths notebooks (we used to call them “copies”) as bats during the free maths periods. But before we could finish even a match, in walked a replacement teacher - our physics teacher. Much later, we were to discover to our annoyance that Maths and Physics are Siamese twins and this discovery led a few amongst us, including self, to run to the relative safety of Biology as a subject. 

However, as for now we had to quickly abandon our game of makeshift table tennis and return to our seats as the Physics teacher started teaching Maths. Being completely ill prepared and not wanting to show it, he started shaking our basic foundation of maths, by asking us what is a “point”. After much deliberation, he eulogised the virtue of a point - an imaginary figure which has no dimensions in any plane. And then, he propounded further. A line, he said, is a set of points which extends indefinitely in both directions having a length but no width. Further, since a point is imaginary so must also be a line. This metaphysical didactic from the physics teacher is the only piece of maths I remember from my standard 7 syllabus. 

While for the physicist a line may be imaginary, in political geography, a line is definitely not imaginary. And who knows this better than the Brits. They built the biggest empire in the history by drawing arbitrary lines on erroneous maps without any care for history, geography or sociology. They really had a fascination for drawing these awkward lines and then naming them after their cartographer. Several of these remarkable imaginary lines drawn by the Brits survive to this day and are causing avoidable bloodshed. Sykes - Picot line (a joint venture with the French - to arbitrarily divide Arabia) has been debated and dissected ad nauseam, but refuses to go away. In our own vicinity, we have not just the Macmahon (India & China) and Radcliffe (India & Pakistan) lines but also the profusely imaginary Durand line (between Afghanistan & Pakistan). The British fascination for lines was such that they often drew several lines slightly different from each other demarcating the same border - so the China border has not just the Macmohan line but also the Ardagh - Johnson line and the Macartney - MacDonald line, all transecting the same piece of map a few miles of each other leaving the current protagonists bickering.

The Brits just didn’t draw random lines to create borders on maps but also create lines as defensive positions in war. In this they drew a leaf from their French cousins who drew the magnificently ineffective Maginot’s Line (between France & Germany - which was quickly outmanoeuvred by the Wehrmacht). Europe has remnants of several of these hastily drawn and meagrely defended lines from the Second World War - Mannerheim line (Finland & Russia), Siegfried Line (Germany & France)and the older Hindenburg line (World War 1 vestige - France & Germany). These curious cartographic anomalies have been successfully buried in the history and usually no longer pose any danger. 

My favourite of these British drawn lines is elsewhere - in Hong Kong: The Gin Drinker’s Line! It was a series of defensive posts just outside Hong Kong towards mainland China to protect Hong Kong from the ravaging Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. One is tempted to believe that a fancy name was chosen to make up for its stupendous tactical weakness by some Gin lover! Inspired by the Maginot’s Line, it proved to be even more ephemeral and dissolved under the Japanese onslaught in just a day. My teetotaller physics teacher would have found some redemption in this! 



Anupam Choudhury said…
Excellent! Loved it!
"Bravo! Your article had me nodding in agreement and chuckling at the same time. Who knew learning could be this entertaining? Looking forward to your next masterpiece!"
pallavi_13 said…
Wow... Going back to roots... memories of school reflected .. excellent piece . For a moment I went back to my school and teachers.

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