Saturday, November 8, 2014

Starry Starry nights

     “Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,

 Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.” 

                                                      ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Loneliness  brings back memory of good old days, amplify it manifolds and then make you crave for them. It is almost likere-living those times- good or bad.  I had one such moment the other night. For lack of anything better to do, I was gazing out of the window of my bedroom late in the night . The Arabian sea outside was pitch black and except for few pale streetlamps there was hardly any light. My eyes followed the tall towers nearby and then fell on the sky. Like other metros of India, Mumbai sky is usually full of smog and even in daytime you do not see that brilliant colour of blue in the sky  which one finds up in the hills or in some parts of Europe . Not many stars were visible but just one look at the star and a flood of memories broke loose in my mind .

Like many other traits (viz. Love for gardening, food, poetry, mathematics), I got interested in stars thanks to my father . My father, who was a student of mathematics himself, introduced me to both astronomy and astrology and taught me how to calculate planetary positions. In those  internet-less days, it was the monthly sky chart of the Hindu newspaper which generally guided my amateur spotting of constellations and stars. By no means I was a great shot in doing this but I can still recall the thrill. Some like Ursa Major and Orian were easy to spot but some others took me hours ...but when finally I was able to spot them , even the aching neck  and scolding of my mom for being in garden late in the night, looked trivial  against the excitement of the success.  During summer vacations , this used to be my favourite night activity. I even used to maintain a dairy of my finds and it was the topic of discussion on breakfast table next morning whether  I recognised the stars correctly or not . My access to books on astronomy and my knowledge about telescopes etc was abysmally low in those days. Yet even a minor news about a planetary event seemed so important to me. Because of my base in Sanskrit , I always used to note the Indian names of the constellations/ stars and was very keen to read how ancients looked at the stars. Varahmihir  and Aryabhatt etc   were great heroes in my eyes for they saw with naked eyes what later on took  centuries of work and powerful telescopes to re-discover.    And they did it not by some magic but by mathematics. Even more interesting was the fact that over the centuries, we even weaved fascinating tales about the nature of stars , their origin, characteristics and location in the sky. The ancients discussed about stars with such ease and familiarity asif they are friends and family.  The puranic stories were as fascinating as the modern day research on the stars  .

When I was in 12th standard, my father and a mathematics teacher  of mine,  had a common interest in Indian astrology . It was by sitting through those long discussions  on how mathematics and accurateness of the calculations is the crux of Indian astrology that I developed fascination for astrology as well. Initially, like most in my generation, I rejected astrology as mumbo jumbo of superstitious people. Dad took the challenge of converting me. He asked me to just learn the making of horoscope, divisional charts etc and argued that I should not have any objection as that part is pure mathematics. He further added that I should find it even more interesting as unlike most others I can read the basic books (available parts of  Bhrigu samhita  etc ) in original Sanskrit . And once I started , there was no looking back. As I look at it , Indian astrology has two parts – the calculation of chart and  the reading of the chart. While the latter is based on a not-so-great method of probability , the former is a combination of arithmetic, coordination theory and astronomy . I was never good in the second part as I totally lacked faith and found the things to obsolete  but I mastered the first part . I dare say my understanding of ephemerides and my calculation of birth charts were pretty good.  But since I never believed in the damn thing I never got into the details of reading the charts. My teenager mind was rebelling to the fact that why there is so little about the predictions for  women except the facts about children, husband and  the like. A number of concepts like that of “foreign land” or “foreigner” taken from ancient text were lost in translation when applied to modern context. Perhaps that is why I lost interest in astrology pretty soon.
 Now I look back, I think I understand the subject wee bit better. I think it is not all that “un-scientific” or superstitious as most people think of it . But of course it is the faith of millions of followers and mingling of all knowledge- belief streams that it has turned into a curious mix of superstition, false notions and feel good fads. Now when I find very oddly dressed astrologers on (surprisingly!) news channels, narrating the lucky color, lucky charm and fortunes for the day, I find it a pathetic image of what is far deeper and serious subject of study.  I feel sorry that the subject is maligned by its practitioners but then not everyone is fake or just-earning-my-bread kind of astrologer. I have seen it first hand how the royal physician of King of Banaras, used to practice medicine (ayurveda) through Jyotish ( astrology) with amazingly accurate results .  I know many young friends, interested in the subject seriously. Some even take courses in astrology and others learn by sincere reading and practice . Let me also confess, howevermuch I don’t believe in these daily predictions, on most days while reading newspapers, I do glance upon the predictions for my sign.
"Do not, under the stars, Complain about lack of bright spots in your life"
                                ---- Henrik Wergeland, Norway (19th century)
The other part of my star-fascination , i.e. in astronomy took longer to fade. I was hell bent on studying it as a subject in graduation but for various reasons ,  could not. Luckily for graduation I landed up at Allahabad got access to the Allahabad Planetarium library . There more than the star gazing, I learnt quite a bit about how at different times people looked and read stars . The book of fixed stars (Kitab suwar al Kawakib) written around 1st century by a Persian author in Arabic   and of course Ptolemy’s Almagest  were fascinating to read about. I never get down to read the original text and I doubt it was even available in that small library, but it was great to read about these texts . Even now when I hear about some planetary event I feel excited  about it.
But to a large extent, today stars do not evoke such adrenaline rush  in me as before. I still find them mysterious and believe that  there is so much more to know about them, but mostly they just  remind me of those crazy nights of star gazing .

 And of course , they carry a deep philosophical and spiritual meaning for me. I feel the presence of my lost loved ones in their shine .  I also  keep  reminding  myself on not so happy days that stars shine brightest on the darkest nights . 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

While lights were paling one by one...........

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
― Lemony Snicket

On this blog about 5 years back I shared my thoughts on the loss of loved ones in a post (here) and how it changes you for life . Death is a much talked about subject. There are theories, philosophies and sayings about it. Stories have been written on its cruel, impersonal and sudden nature. People  have illustrated it in art ,literature and music. But none of this world wisdom prepares you to embrace death ...specially if you are not the one who is dying.  Death is much more difficult for those who are left behind, alive – with memories, regrets, remains and legacy of the deceased.

 I, like most others,  want to avoid death of near dear ones indefinitely . While the rational mind reminds me of the impossibility of the thought, this is something where I want to remain stubbornly irrational. It is true that religion, rituals and philosophy provides temporary solace to the grieving, it is also equally true that nothing can take away the numbness ,the void  and the scar death of a loved one  can cause- more so if it is death of a parent  . After all , it takes away your childhood from you forever. It means end of being called by  some endearing nicknames, endless recounting of old childhood tales and an invisible cloak of protection above your head. 
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don't die……
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you're busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, "I'm sorry..." 

But this post is not about just death – it is also about the city . In a city where you know no one , where you don’t even remember the roads and names of places, death enters silently in your home and takes away a precious loved one. The grief and the suddenness hit you hard in any case  but what hits harder is the fact that you are surrounded by strangers . The life in big cities is so fast and stressful that no one bothers to pause  and participate in anybody else’s grief.  The city life goes on not noticing that you are standing right there - grief stricken. The things continue to  work with machinelike efficiency and while one would be appreciating such impersonal efficiency on other days ,it stirs you when you are looking for consolation, hand holding and a shoulder to cry on. Ever wonder why young people spend considerable time and effort to find place in the high pace life of metros and then at times like these long to be back in the familiar comfort of family and house.  

So last month, for many many days I  looked out of window  staring at the Arabian sea changing colors  , feeling lost and lonely...and thinking of the void my husband is going to have in his life after losing his father...hundreds of miles away from friends and family .  As they say grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. And then one day you  learn to swim.