Thursday, July 30, 2009

Here comes the moon

The solar eclipse on July 22nd so captured everyone’s imagination this past week that the news channels actually took a couple of minutes out from yelling about the diplomatic bloopers committed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regarding Baluchistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, to yell about where one might best watch the eclipse (Taregana, Bihar), when (early in the morning) how (through pinhole glasses) and why (it would be the longest eclipse of the 21st century).

I always wanted to be an astronaut, because I’ve always wanted to meet some aliens outside of my family; but just because I was better at punctuation than at math, they wouldn’t let me into ISRO or NASA. This blow and the subsequent course-correction to my career that became necessary did not completely kill my interest, and I remain eager to know about stuff that happens in space. Whether it’s Jupiter suddenly developing a hole the size of the Earth, or the toilets on the International Space Station getting clogged, I’m watching and listening.

So I was extremely excited about the total solar eclipse on Wednesday. It would be thrilling to watch this rare and utterly beautiful phenomenon, especially since the next one this long one is scheduled for 123 years from now, by which time I might well be busy and forget. The band of totality, which is what they call the area on earth that will experience the full eclipse, didn’t include Delhi, but we’d get a partial eclipse. It was all going to start at the crack of dawn. It was important to get some sleep.

So on the evening of the 21st, I made sure to have an early vegetarian dinner while watching The Matrix, which I never seem to tire of; I read in bed only for an hour, which is all I can take at a time of Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos anyway, because after every paragraph or so my eyeballs start skidding around over the names of various Afghan warlords and the titles of various politicians and officers; then I turned out the light.

And it was worth all the preparation. In the morning I woke up, shambled out of bed, had an excellent plate of fruit for breakfast, read the newspapers, and then headed for the optimal position from which to view the eclipse: in front of the television. That’s where they always have the best view and the best pictures, best of all at the best time (i.e. throughout the day). Some of the pictures were taken by people on a Rs 80,000-a-seat flight specially chartered to follow the eclipse. I love those people!

Part of the reason I didn’t make more of an effort is that I doubted that a partial eclipse in cloudy skies over Delhi would match up to my last experience, which was a total solar eclipse on a completely clear day over the silhouette of the mighty Borobudur stupa in Central Java. Okay, that was in 1983, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Who could forget—we drove from Jakarta to Borobudur, got those silly glasses, watched the moon pass slowly over the face of the sun, watched Bailey’s Beads and the corona explode behind that dark circle, saw and heard the birds and other animals get terribly confused and head to bed as night fell in the morning, felt primal restylings of our body hair, and got the t-shirt (which I hung on to for a good twenty years until it was in shreds).

Now that I’m talking about it, I’m sad to have missed the real thing. I must find a calendar that goes up to 2132c.e.

No comments: