Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Will the umbrella never evolve?

While attempts to innovate have gone from flying umbrellas to ones with frills, it appears that it is a perfect technology that cannot be improved upon

I was in Kerala when the monsoon made landfall, and I was reminded of a few things about rain that I had
forgotten because I live in Gurugram these days.

One morning near Kochi, during a dry spell, as I stood in a roofless white fortress, the daylight faded in seconds and it began to rain. The guide, who was saying something about the place, did not stop talking. And he didn’t quit even as he unfurled a floral umbrella and held it above us. A married couple beside us stood under another umbrella, which performed its most important social function—to create the optical illusion that a couple under the canopy are in tender love. As for keeping us dry, the two umbrellas were useless.

The rain grew heavier and it pounded the earth, but the guide continued to narrate history. At that moment he was a lot like Kerala, which is, unlike Delhi, designed to go on and on in the rains. We were now soaking wet below the knees and the dampness was beginning to work its way up. The guide, who was still talking, said, “I will now tell you a joke," which was when the lady beneath the other umbrella finally said, “No." There was no shelter in the fortress, which I know sounds like a line from a sentimental collegiate poem, but there really was no place to hide. We decided to walk back to our boat, about a kilometre away. As we walked, it began to rain harder still and the breeze blew the pretty umbrellas out of shape, as they normally do. We decided to get more protection, so we walked under the umbrellas to buy more umbrellas. But the new larger sturdy umbrellas did not help much and the umbrellas themselves were now contributing to our bath as water dripped from them and the drips were blown by the breeze.

It was highly enjoyable but the umbrellas were, like the day they were invented probably 5,000 years ago, mostly useless. We continued to get wet—with one hand’s movements lost to holding a dripping stick. There has to be a good reason why there has not been a serious design change to the umbrella. According to historians, even the foldable umbrella was around in ancient times, and in any case the foldable umbrella on a windy day in Kerala is of the same order of idiocy as the flat dinner plate or a teacup with small finger holes.

Is the umbrella, then, a perfect technology that cannot be improved?

About nine monsoons ago, I wrote a column on the same topic, but chiefly about how in a world where the lifespan of most technology is brief, the umbrella reminds us that an obsolete thing can still endure.

Already then, hundreds of innovators were applying for umbrella patents to the US Patent and Trademark office. There was even an application for a flying umbrella. I also read about a Chinese man who had invented an umbrella that was only as big as a regular umbrella’s handle, which would send out powerful jets of air to keep the rain away (maybe the man had not seen the rains of Kerala. Also, what about the sun?). But these innovations have failed to hit the market. In any case, these innovations failed to hit the market. I now see that the US patent office register has applications for “a privacy umbrella" whose canopy will use “a one-way material"; a “mister umbrella" that will cool the user’s head with mist; an umbrella with gills that will ensure the canopy will not fold in strong winds; and “an advertisement umbrella" that will transmit ads on the canopy.

As we can see, even if these umbrellas enter social life, they will not constitute an evolution of the umbrella. The fact is that the most respectable, popular, mainstream umbrellas are still conceptually close to the one our ancestors knew, thousands of years ago.

So what qualities must the perfect futuristic umbrella possess? It should keep Malayalis and others dry, that’s all.

We can argue that the umbrella has in fact evolved and changed so much that this writer is unable to see its modern avatar.

Isn’t it true after all that the phone diary, business-card holders and even the camera have evolved—and they are all inside the phone? So what if the umbrella has evolved and it is actually a car? There might be substance in this argument in, say, Delhi, where the moment people can afford a vehicle they do not walk any more to reach a place, but in regions like Kerala, and Mumbai, where walking is a smart form of transportation, the argument that the modern vehicle is the new umbrella fails.

When we say “evolution", we borrow an idea from biological life, but our instinctive understanding of evolution is very different from life’s method. When we talk about evolution, we mean something that is better, but that is not how life evolves. Life evolves chiefly through accidents that align with other accidents of environment and a transformation thrives. A life form can evolve into something physical or intellectually inferior if the conditions help.

The reason why the umbrella has failed to “evolve" in machine terms is very simply that we have not been able to make it “better" for the mass market. I used to think books are such a perfect technology that they could not be improved on. But then the e-book is a serious evolution which has transformed not only the way we read but also the way we buy books. For now, the physical book and its mutant coexist, and I think they will for decades. The physical book is such a formidable technology that it will endure. The umbrella, too, even if its mutant rises, will coexist with the avatar.

In a way, that is what has happened to the umbrella in Gurugram. It coexists with an evolved corporate human who does not walk to be transported any more. That is odd, though, because in Gurugram the rains are so humble that even an umbrella can keep one dry.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets @manujosephsan.

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