When I was 8 or 9 years old, I had committed to my memory the capitals of all the countries in the world at that time. I believe there were about 170 odd countries then. I was quite over the moon to realize I hadn’t forgotten most of the names as I did a quick mental recall the other day. But several new countries have sprung up since then and some countries have preferred to have different capitals for administrative or legislative purposes, whatever that means.
From the time I was first obsessed with capitals of countries, the world has undergone a sweeping change. It’s quite revealing, when you think of the world from that perspective. As a 9 year old, I had never believed that more countries could surface in future or that countries could consolidate or disintegrate. Of course, at that impressionable age, the world is all a big mystery encased in a globe and by looking at it, it’s quite impossible to visualize how new countries could germinate, unless they spewed out of that vast blue space which I later learned was water. But there were some serious changes which would happen as the years rolled by. The Berlin Wall would come down uniting East and West Germany; Hungary, Romania and Poland would adopt historical name changes thus eliminating any hint of Communism; the Soviet Union would crumble into several small blocks; East Timor would become liberated from Indonesia – these were some of the vicissitudes that posterity had in store. However, by the mid-90s I had lost my obsession with capital cities, partly because it was difficult to keep up with the enormousness of the changes that were happening and partly because I was entering a phase where general knowledge had to be shelved for the time being. But the capital cities were faithful to me – persisting in some remote area of my brain careful not to gather any dust; in the understanding that I would someday have use for it again.
It was quite entertaining to once again enter that cherished territory the other day. The former USSR block countries have really curious capitals. Of particular interest is Tashkent, the place where our former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away under mysterious circumstances, which is now the capital of Uzbekistan. There is a small country in Africa called Benin which has two capitals – one official (Porto Novo) and one administrative (Cotonou). With these African countries, it’s probably the commanding local tribes that have the final word and perhaps they decide the places that should be accorded the seat(s) of the particular country. This might explain why several African countries have the extravagance of more than one capital. Over the last 30 years, the number of countries with multiple capitals has increased significantly. It was also quite informative to find that Sarajevo, a city that comes to my mind for all the wrong reasons thanks to the graphic images and videos of the Bosnian War in the early and mid 90s, is now the bustling capital of a quiet Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The problems concerning Israel and Palestine have grown manifold but interestingly share the same, albeit ‘proclaimed’ capital – Jerusalem. Skopje, the venerated city where Mother Teresa was born, is now the celebrated capital city of Macedonia. Malaysia has adopted Putrajaya as an administrative capital while Kuala Lumpur remains the de facto capital. I was always under the impression that Yangon is the capital of Myanmar, but was quite surprised that it is not; the capital is Nay Pyi Taw! The country of Nauru does not have a capital – it’s a very, very small country in the Pacific Ocean but the place of Yaren holds the government offices. I wonder why the country still does not choose to have a capital! Contrary to what the books say, Colombo is not the official capital of Sri Lanka! It is a place called Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte. It turns out that Colombo is only the commercial capital.
The country called Zaire does not exist now. Its capital, Kinshasa is now the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Berlin was adopted as the capital of a unified Germany while North and South Yemen merged in 1990 to become the modern Yemen with headquarters at Sana’a. Czechoslovakia demerged to form the Czech Republic and Slovakia having Prague and Bratislava respectively as capitals. The collapse of USSR was a harbinger for the division of several other nations, though not for the same reasons.
It’s quite fascinating that a childhood passion could come back to you so strongly after so many years. I’m not sure what the trigger was; it was quite spontaneous. And I’m quite glad that I listened to my mind to rekindle that passion. It was all worth it.