A couple of days is all it took for us to move on from talking about trajectory, deceleration, orbits and Moon terrain, to tying ourselves up in knots asking, by way of gravity, what’s maths got to do with economics.
However, who are we kidding? That Friday/Saturday at ISRO, where women acted as mission directors, men cried in public, and prime ministers were both broad-chested and large-hearted, was a blip. In the days preceding and that followed, our higher education institutes fell further down global rankings; the CBSE put in place a system to have two kinds of maths at school so as to check depressing failure rates; a TV anchor passed off a vinyl night-suit, a scooter helmet and socks for gloves as clothes one would need “in case of a colony on Moon”; more than one of them equated India’s Moon mission with stripping “chaand”/“Islam’s noor” off Pakistan’s flag; one anchor threatened that India’s next launch would be to Lahore; and a minister drew a much-too-pat equation to explain declining car sales.
And yet, ISRO, blocking all the noise, did almost get the job done. Vikram and Pragyan may be lost, frozen in what must be an awkward tilted position for eternity, but that part of the Moon will indeed forever remain Indian.
To us of a certain vintage, what can be more fitting? Whether nights slept on terrace, hide-and-seek games during power cuts, shimmer on the water on rare ocean-side vacations, the promise of a flirtation, or the declaration of a love — the Moon frames so many of our growing-up memories.
To most of us, Moon was also our window into space — the most magical thing in the sky that hinted at the mystery of that expanse, without any of the terrors of it. It also seemed almost at hand, not just because Neil Armstrong had been there, but also because of the many stories and lullabies of childhood, and songs of Bollywood, in which it figured.
Then one day father got a glossy picture book on astronomy, a rare acquisition in those times, made possible by erstwhile Soviet Union’s largesse of subsidised literature. Space became even more magical, about and beyond both Newton’s discovery of gravity (yes, we couldn’t have gone to Moon without doing this maths) and Einstein’s expansion on it (or hoped to land without working out this equation). So many stars, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, debris, artificial satellites, held together as well as kept apart by gravity —which had found its perfect balance at just the required moment to sustain life on Earth. Chaos or intelligent design, science or God, who could deny that was a miracle?
I decided then that I would be an astronomer, a dream that lasted well into learning about Kepler’s Law (more maths). For a while the favourite game of my sister and me was sitting atop a pile of quilts, and imagining it was our spaceship which required us to do everything from cooking to sleeping to bathing in that small square. Visiting friends joined us, and it required every bit of ingenuity to fit us all in (for, a = f/m, or increasing acceleration so as to lift off our “rocket” meant either increasing force or decreasing mass — maths again).
Still, it was an interest difficult to sustain through the tedium and amount of science at school. The spark lit by India’s first man in space in 1984, an event generating as much national pride as now, even on TV with grainy black and white images (point to be noted), had got snuffed much, much earlier. Over the years, Hollywood turned space into mostly aliens, alien attacks, and Interstellar’s mind-bending, time-altering, joy-killing physics.
Then came Chandrayaan-2, India’s first venture to Moon’s surface. As the excitement built up, I tried to join in. However, it was not just the passing years or the blinding lights on Earth now that dimmed Moon’s shimmer. Nor was it the disillusionment wrought by the media spectacle. It was also what that Moon’s shimmer hid. In a touching book I had read, Maggot Moon, a regime fakes a Moon expedition to hide its excesses. In another, The Book Thief, a second regime’s victim sneaks up from his hiding place on lucky nights to catch a brief slice of the sky. As the country gazed in (quite valid) admiration at its screens that Friday night, I couldn’t shake off those two stories from my mind, and wonder: does the Moon shine as brightly for us all? That is the cost of growing up, I guess.
But growing up also helps one spot the hope in the hype, and on two aspects, the ISRO mission did shine a light: in showcasing the power of will and that of forgiveness. On that mission floor, we saw that superwomen come in all forms —most often in saris and salwar-kameez. And ‘supermen’? They may have learnt that, in these muscular times, tears, hugs and forgiveness could be superpowers too.
As for Pragyan and Vikram, so long. Slip into that lunar night with the thought that we will remember, maybe even serenade you with that song Moon River, about wanderlust, about ‘Two drifters off to see the world… There’s such a lot of world to see….’
( This article first appeared in the print edition on September 22, 2019 under the title ‘She said: Many moons, much maths ago’. National Editor Shalini Langer will curate the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column, starting today. email@example.com)